One look at Wesley Johnson and everything about him screams "NBA player". He's a lean 6'7" with a wingspan around 7'. His hands are gigantic, perfect for palming the rock and jamming it in the face of any defender who should even dare. He's got a perfect looking jump shot that might not have the quickest trigger, but is so fluid in motion that you could put it down with oil on canvas. Wesley Johnson looks like he was put on this Earth to play basketball. However, everything about his career up until last November suggested otherwise.
As the fourth pick in the 2010 NBA Draft, Johnson was selected over the likes of DeMarcus Cousins, Greg Monroe, Paul George and Eric Bledsoe. Granted, this pick came at the behest of the much maligned ex-Minnesota Timberwolves GM David Kahn, but the point stands. If passed up by the Wolves, there's no doubt that Wes would have been a top-10 pick with his natural tool set.
However, the red flags were there. As a junior from Syracuse (a school that has had a hard time developing NBA products ever since Carmelo Anthony in 2003), Johnson was actually a 23-year-old transfer from Iowa State University. He was one of the oldest prospects in the draft and in many people's eyes, a somewhat finished player. While many of his peers were still in their teens, Wes was well into his 20s, which was alarming considering his lack of aggressiveness his senior year. Still, the Wolves felt like it was well worth the selection.
They couldn't have been more wrong. Johnson was a complete bust in Minnesota, never quite finding his niche despite playing in all but three games his first two seasons. Despite his unbelievable athleticism and statuesque physique, Wesley wasn't finding his offensive identity, nor was he becoming the elite defender some thought he could. Instead he was just there, sometimes being essentially invisible on the court.
Does that sound familiar?
The shine has long since worn off this once promising prospect, as few expect the 26-year-old swingman to progress towards anything more than a valuable role player at this point. When signed by the Los Angeles Lakers last off-season, Johnson took the veteran's minimum, a discount reserved for washed up players and guys looking for a second chance. He was looking to rebuild value in just his fourth season in the league after unsuccessful runs in Minnesota and Phoenix, and was more than willing to fulfill a bit part with the Lakers. It had to be a sad reality for Johnson, considering he went from a highly touted upper lottery prospect to a minimum salaried player in just three years. However, with increased minutes and more shots to go around, maybe he could finally find his way to breakthrough in the NBA.
It's not that Wes didn't play well this year: he played reasonably well considering the circumstances around him. The guy rarely took a possession off, working hard at both ends of the floor and at least showing an effort defensively. Playing in Mike D'Antoni's system, he was often set as an undersized stretch-4, which left him at an alleged advantage offensively, but simply abused on the other end of the floor. This enabled him to grab some fairly solid blocks totals for a small forward, but don't confuse those numbers with Johnson being a paint protector of any sort.
However, even without the mismatch against much larger players in the post, Johnson was remarkably slow laterally, often getting lost on screens and not being able to keep up with much more nimble small forwards on the perimeter. While his reach, size and strength often helped make up for his lack of foot speed, it was glaringly apparent that Wes probably would never become the defensive stopper some hoped he would be. He's merely "okay" on that end of the floor. Nothing more, nothing less.
Offensively, Johnson really didn't have much value aside from being a "finisher" for other playmakers. He finished the season shooting .369 from the arc, a decent percentage that is just a little better than league average. Other than that, Johnson didn't particularly excel at any other offensive set, aside from dunking on fast breaks. He still has no post game to speak of despite his size and wasn't featured much on pick and roll sets. Wes was certainly a willing mid-range shooter this past season, though at .338 from 16 feet and out, he was, again, simply league average.
Some will look to Johnson's season-ending stat line and point to his value. After all, 9 ppg and 4.4 rpg with a decent shooting slash line looks pretty solid. However, at an astonishing 28 minutes per game and less than premium defense, what type of value is that for the time given? I'm not the biggest believer in PER (Player Efficiency Rating), but it certainly has its merits on the offensive end. Johnson racked up an 11 PER last season, worse than league average. Considering he's not a great three-point shooter or a gifted passer, the eye test certainly correlates with the PER. That's not to say that Wes is costing the team points or playing to the detriment of his teammates; he's just not a spectacular difference maker on offense.
With all the injuries on the Lakers this past season, Wesley Johnson was given every opportunity to shine in almost every way. But unlike Jodie Meeks, Nick Young and even Ryan Kelly, the former Orangeman was very much unable to breakout his very obvious potential. As my colleague Ben Rosales and I often joke, given any time to actually think about what to do with the ball, Wesley Johnson will probably get in his own way. Mike D'Antoni would have been happy with any player taking the offensive reins from the injured Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol, but unfortunately that doesn't seem to be in Wesley's wheelhouse. He's most likely no more than a replacement level role player, a guy that can finish shots adequately and throw down some thunderous dunks but won't be grabbing a spot on any All-Defense teams.
The biggest problem with Wesley Johnson these days is that there really isn't an excuse to criticize the guy anymore. He plays extremely hard and is paid the minimum, which means that the Lakers are getting exactly the type of production (or more!) that they're paying for. He is, by all accounts, a solid teammate and certainly not a guy who is overextending himself to the detriment of the team. As I said, he's merely just "there" as a guy who can certainly play basketball professionally, but couldn't be asked to excel beyond that. To his credit, there is a lot of value in knowing exactly who your players are: Wes isn't going to hurt the team, but he's certainly not going to be a game-changer on the floor. If Johnson proved anything this year, it's that he could be a steady hand who will stay on the floor. While that doesn't seem like a compliment, simply being reliable at any skill level in the NBA is something that general managers will value.
Going into this off-season, the Lakers have to be very honest with themselves about who Wesley Johnson is and who he will be. Given the choice to take a chance on a younger player with a similar set of tools OR re-signing Johnson, the Lakers would be better off taking a chance on anyone with a higher ceiling.
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