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Stanley Johnson is forcing the Lakers to make some tough decisions

Stanley Johnson has went from replacement player to potentially irreplaceable. And as he battles to make the Lakers roster, he’s impressing the right people, from LeBron James to Frank Vogel.

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Los Angeles Lakers v Memphis Grizzlies Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

If Stanley Johnson looks like he’s defending as though his life is on the line, that’s because it is.

OK, maybe that’s slightly overdramatic. It’s “just” Johnson’s NBA life that is on the line over the duration of his current 10-day, hardship exemption contract with the Lakers. His life is (presumably) not actually in peril.

But the point still stands: The former No. 8 overall pick from Fullerton is defending his ass off, doing everything in his power to make it impossible for the team he grew up rooting for to cut him. He admitted as much to Jovan Buha of The Athletic in a must-read, in-depth feature on his journey to — and time with — the purple and gold.

“I know if I do my job to the best of my ability, I think I can make it hard for (Lakers vice president of basketball operations and general manager Rob Pelinka),” Johnson told Buha. “So that’s what I’m focused on: doing my job to the best of my ability and winning some of these games here.”

The Lakers are 2-2 since Johnson joined the team, and after bursting on to the scene with some impressive defense during the team’s Christmas Day loss to the Brooklyn Nets, Johnson hasn’t looked back, forcing his way into an integral role in the team’s rotation. He’s averaging 27.3 minutes per game for the Lakers since signing, and has started in two of his four appearances.

Friday night was just the latest showcase of how his particular brand of skills help this team. Johnson’s numbers on the evening — 10 points, 3-4 shooting, 3 rebounds and 2 assists — won’t blow away anyone who didn’t watch the team’s 139-106 victory over the Portland Trail Blazers away, but the team outscored the Blazers by 25 points during his 23 minutes of playing time, trailing only Russell Westbrook (+29) and Malik Monk (+28) in plus-minus.

That catch-all stat can be fraught with noise, but anyone who witnessed the amount of juice and physicality that Johnson’s relentless energy gives this team knows that it’s a mostly accurate depiction of his impact, and how he augments this team’s best lineups. And, crucially for Johnson’s quest to make the team’s 15-man roster and get back into the NBA after a brief stint with the South Bay Lakers in the G League, the right people are noticing his impact.

“He’s picked up our system really fast,” raved LeBron James on Friday. “Part of it is because he was with South Bay, so that gave him a cheat sheet, which we needed, and he brought in some toughness at the wing position, and also some defensive toughness as well, and thats’ where we’ve hung our hats at over the last three years, is the defensive side of the floor.”

Frank Vogel agreed with James’ latter points especially, and said that starting Johnson was critical in giving the team the necessary foot speed to double-team Damian Lillard as the Lakers hounded him into a 5-15 shooting night. But it’s not just Johnson’s speed in smaller lineups that Vogel feels like allows the Lakers to embrace their inevitable smaller identity.

It’s also how the 6’6, 242 pound forward has given those tinier units the bulk to hold up physically, too.

“The thing I like about Stanley is the physicality that he has. He’s not just a quicker guy, but he’s strong as hell, too,” Vogel said.

Vogel and James didn’t exactly promise that Johnson would outlast his current 10-day contract, but that kind of praise — and this level of opportunity — usually isn’t extended to a guy a team is planning to move on from. But either way, the Lakers will have to make a decision soon. Saturday will be Johnson’s eighth day on his current 10-day contract, and with no players currently in the health and safety protocols and a 15-man roster, the Lakers have some decisions to make if they want to keep him.

The team took the first step in that direction early on Friday, dealing Rajon Rondo to the Cleveland Cavaliers for Denzel Valentine’s non-guaranteed contract, a decision that will free up a roster spot once Valentine is cut, potentially allowing them to sign Johnson for the rest of the season.

But that move can’t become official until Rondo tests negative for COVID-19 and clears out of the health and safety protocols — and if his absence lingers, it’s possible the Lakers could give Johnson another 10-day by using that isolation, and complete the trade after Rondo tests out and they finalize the deal. Or, the team alternatively could cut Avery Bradley’s non-guaranteed salary before Jan. 7 to avoid having a cap hit on that deal, another way to free up a roster spot for Johnson (or another player).

The point is, the team has options to keep Johnson around, should they so desire. But before Friday’s game, Vogel indicated that no final decisions have been made yet.

“We’re going to use the whole time to evaluate Stanley,” Vogel said. “He’s done a great job for us so far. His toughness and hustle is something that I think our team really needs, so he’s provided a valuable role in that regard and we’ll continue to evaluate him during the duration of his contract.”

That contract will extend for one more game, on Sunday against the Minnesota Timberwolves. In that matchup, Johnson will have (at least) one last chance to prove that he deserves to stick around. But whether he does or not, he’s already proven that he belongs to probably the most important voice in the entire organization.

“Obviously he’s trying to earn a roster spot, you can tell he’s hungry, and it’s been great basketball (from him) since the Christmas Day game,” James said on Friday night. “Hopefully it continues.”

How long it continues for will be up to the Lakers, but it certainly sounds like they’d have James’ blessing to lock up their suddenly integral reclamation project moving forward, and finally fill their gaping hole on the wing with a player who appears as though he was designed in a lab to fill it, completing a dramatic rebirth for a player who appeared to be on the way out of the NBA.

For more Lakers talk, subscribe to the Silver Screen and Roll podcast feed on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or Google Podcasts. You can follow Harrison on Twitter at @hmfaigen.