The Lakers made a widely expected move official on Thursday, bringing back Stanley Johnson for his first of two allowable non-hardship 10-day contracts. The move meant that Johnson was able to participate in the team’s 12th practice of the season, and head coach Frank Vogel was happy about his return after missing a game against the Sacramento Kings while the team waited to legally be able to sign normal 10-day deals.
“We’re excited to have him back obviously. He played well under the hardship contract for us, and just provided an element of defense, toughness and athleticism that we’ve been lacking,” Vogel said.
But while Johnson started in three of the five games he appeared in for the Lakers while filling in as a hardship player, Vogel said that no one should count on that happening again when the Lakers host the Atlanta Hawks on Friday.
“We’re excited to have him back, but obviously not going to commit to any lineups or anything like that,” Vogel said.
As my co-host Anthony Irwin and I joked in our podcast reacting to Johnson’s return, Frank is likely just being Frank in his lack of frankness here. This man guards his starting lineups with more verve than a world leader securing their nuclear codes, so he was never likely to tip his hand about who would be starting for the team in a game more than 24 hours away.
Still, there are reasons to expect that Johnson may slide back into the starting unit at some point, even if it’s not against the Hawks. For one thing, the Lakers only have 10-20 days to evaluate if the positives Johnson showed while on his first hardship deal can continue as he gets more time alongside his new Lakers teammates, and the best way to get him those minutes to evaluate is by using him in the lineup that plays the most (the starters).
Additionally, as my colleague Mike Trudell pointed out on Tuesday, we have quite a bit of evidence that Vogel likes himself some Stanimal, as the starting lineup featuring the 25-year-old on a 10-day hardship deal has already played the FIFTH-MOST MINUTES of any Lakers unit.
Vogel said it’s a bit of a surprise that L.A.’s 5th-most used line up (Westbrook, Bradley, Monk, Johnson, LeBron) has played only 36 min. together (13.5 net rating), but not really. Injuries/absences been story of season. Huge diff. compared to GSW PHX and UTA’s top lineups: pic.twitter.com/BOfYU1LeOG— Mike Trudell (@LakersReporter) January 5, 2022
As Vogel pointed out, that is in part due to injuries and illness, but is still evidence that Vogel seemed to like what he was seeing from that group with Johnson in it quite a bit.
So will he go back to it against Atlanta? Who knows. The Hawks — as our own Nicole Ganglani pointed out in her in-depth game preview — are a large team in the frontcourt. This could be a game where the Lakers decide to start Dwight Howard to save LeBron James from having to guard Clint Capela, or they could turn to Trevor Ariza in Johnson’s place to get a bit more rebounding on the floor.
But even if Vogel is playing coy about how Johnson will be used, the evidence points to him being just as “excited” as he says about Johnson’s return to the team. So starter or not, expect Johnson to play a significant role as the Lakers try to use the next few weeks to decide whether or not to sign him for the rest of the season.