Wesley Johnson is a lottery bust, but we all know the story by now. He was selected fourth-overall out of Syracuse in the 2010 NBA draft by a general manager so legendarily bad he's lucky he doesn't have a rule named after him ala Ted Stepien. The list of players David Kahn passed over to draft Wes (DeMarcus Cousins, Greg Monroe, Gordon Hayward, Paul George, and Eric Bledsoe) is stunning. Should that really be held against Johnson though? Players don't choose where they are drafted or how much teams value them. Yes, Wes "looks" like he should be a better player based on his prodigious athleticism alone, but for whatever reason, he's just .... not.
He's been improving, though, and he deserves some credit for it? Kobe Bryant surely thinks so, recently telling Kevin Ding that what he loved about basketball was "...the preparation of it. I enjoy the challenge of trying to figure out a new puzzle. I take a lot of pride in that, in having the challenge to work through year after year after year..." Johnson will never be an All-Star, or even anywhere close really, but in the little over a year's time he has been a Laker, he has made some growth. It's been much like his personality; quiet and kind of boring. So how exactly has Johnson gotten better?
From this season to last, Johnson has become more efficient, which is slightly ironic considering that he trained under Kobe Bryant who currently is shooting the worst field goal percentage of his storied 19 year career, and is playing in an offensive system seemingly designed to generate mid-range bricks. The Lakers starting small forward has improved his true-shooting percentage for the third consecutive year (up to 53.9 percent) and part of this has to be tied to his career-low usage rate of 11.8 percent.
This reduction in use has allowed Johnson to convert at a higher rate when he does shoot, and he's also turned the ball over at a career-low rate of 5.7 percent (although part of this is the Lakers lack of ball movement as a whole, exemplified by Wes also averaging the lowest assist percentage of his career). Johnson has also improved his free-throw percentage for the fourth-consecutive season of his five-year career, up to 87.5 percent. The recipe for Johnson playing better matches his philosophy on speaking: Less is more.
There are mitigating factors. The Lakers are not even a quarter of a way through the season, so the sample size is relatively small. Johnson is converting 75 percent of his shots at the rim this season, according to NBA.com, which will likely drop a bit. Conversely, there are also reasons to think Johnson's efficiency could be maintained by simply redistributing some of the types of shots that he takes. Currently 55.9 percent of Johnson's shots have been of the catch-and-shoot variety, of which he is only making 37.5 percent. Feeding Johnson the ball on cuts toward the rim instead would be a good adjustment in the offense.
Tank enthusiasts don't have to worry, Johnson is obviously not the type of player that will lead to the Lakers to more wins. In fact, him playing such a large role surely leads to less of them. In a season during which it is better for Los Angeles to lose, and most of their young pieces are either injured (Julius Randle, Ryan Kelly) or just not playing (Jordan Clarkson), most will take whatever type of positive story line they can get. That one of the more positive narratives is the marginal improvement of a fifth-year draft disappointment tells the story thus far of the '14-15 Lakers. None of that is Wesley Johnson's responsiblity, though. To paraphrase Kobe, all he can do is take pride in his work, and continue trying to solve the puzzles that come his way.