The signs were all there. Every indication of Wesley Johnson, a swingman out of Syracuse University, being a draft bust were clearly enumerated. Ever undaunted, the Minnesota Timberwolves selected the 6'7" prospect with the fourth overall pick in the 2010 NBA Draft, over fellow standouts DeMarcus Cousins, Greg Monroe, Gordon Hayward and Paul George.
Johnson was 23 years old by the time he declared himself ready for the pros, a byproduct of him simply being old for his grade, as well as transferring from Iowa State to Syracuse as a sophmore and sitting out what would have been his junior year. Even as a physically and (theoretically) emotionally more mature player, Wes had his share of inconsistency under legendary coach Jim Boeheim at the 'Cuse, a problem that continues to dog him throughout his professional career. Still, he was one of the more polished prospects available in the Draft that season and the Wolves took him over the mercurial Cousins and a less heralded player like George.
Wes went on to have an underwhelming rookie year, despite averaging 9 points per game. How he got to those points were a different story: he ended up shooting less than 40% from the field and less than 70% from the line. The warts continued from there: his defense wasn't nearly as far along as some believed, nor was his rebounding (while very solid in college, Wes only managed to nab 3 boards per game, good for a measly 6.4% of his team's total available rebounds). All around, his numbers were very pedestrian, but no more unimpressive than many other rookies that went on to have extremely productive careers. He could still jump out of the gym, as his other worldly athleticism still gave some hope that he'd be able to transform into a dynamic NBA player. However, there were still big questions that shouldn't be prevalent for such a high selection. What was his standout skill? Could he shoot well enough from downtown to legitimize his court time? What about his decision making with the basketball? Though he may have the physical tools, does he have the instincts to defend his position?
Four and a half years later, we're still asking all those questions.
Through the past two seasons, one of the only constants in the Lakers' rotation has been Wesley Johnson. After washing out in Minnesota and then Phoenix with the Suns, the swingman came to the Lakers on a make good minimum salary one year contract. The thought was Johnson would receive greater opportunity with a Lakers team light on talent, a capable veteran point guard in Steve Nash and a gaping hole at small forward.
The reviews on Wesley's first year as a Laker were mixed. He hit career highs all over the board in almost every major statistical category, while playing in 79 games for LA and starting 62 of them. Looking at the numbers, the Lake Show certainly got more for their money than the minimum they paid for. Johnson showed up nearly every game and hustled hard in every one of them and was, by all accounts, a stand up citizen in what ended up being one of the worst seasons in franchise history. From the start, what the Lakers asked of him was entirely reasonable: hit open shots, finish on the break, don't get lost on defense, fight for rebounds, don't turn the ball over and don't worry about creating for yourself.
However, the very same issues that have followed Johnson his entire career came with him to Los Angeles: wild inconsistency. He would throw in a double-double one night and then seem virtually invisible the next. Defensively, his physical tools didn't translate to him being the dominant stopper that many thought he should already be. It was a maddening exercise following Johnson game after game, seeing the appearance and disappearance of positive developments week to week.
Still, logic would dictate that Johnson should get better in his second season in purple and gold. Though the Lakers had many new recruits over the summer, another year of continuity with the same franchise and several of the same teammates should have done him good, no? It shouldn't have hurt that he also spent the entire offseason training with Kobe Bryant, hitting the gym hard with the future Hall of Famer and working on his game. The thought was that on yet another one year, make good minimum salary contract, Johnson's skills might actually start to reflect a physical frame that seems to have been tailor-made for basketball.
But on first glance, nothing's changed.
Looking at his per 36 minute statistics, Johnson is essentially the very same basketball player he was a year ago:
There are some incremental changes here and there, but Johnson's statistical profile looks remarkably similar to what it was last season. Again, this type of production is just fine for the money he's paid, but considering the minutes he's getting (nearly 30 per game) and the absence of talent on one of the very worst teams in the NBA, it's quite strange how little he's actually contributing.
One of the biggest factors in Wes' lack of improvement--or production--has been the glaring hole in his game: his decision-making with the basketball. Given a second to think rather than react, Johnson seems to lessen his chance at a successful result.
On pull-up shots, for example, Wes is given the ball on the move and then has to stop and make a decision. From the three-point line on those attempts, Johnson is one of the worst shooters in the league at 17.6% (per NBA.com). Overall, he's at a 33.5% clip, making him, once again, one of the worst pull-up players in the league.
However, during catch and shoot attempts, Wes is much improved, hitting 40.3% overall and a sizzling 41% from three-point land. While certainly better on catch and shoot attempts than on pull ups, the discrepancy between the two percentages is an abnormally large. Looking at his numbers from a year ago, it seems that Johnson has actually gotten worse at pull up shooting. He notched just 30.5% overall on those attempts, but a remarkable 40% from long. His stats on catch and shoot attempts was largely the same however, at 39% overall and 38% from the three-point line.
Again, on this unit, Johnson isn't asked to do much more than catch and shoot, but in the times when he's not open and can't make the pass, his ability to pull up has compromised his effectiveness greatly. This has only been made worse by the fact that year-to-year, Wes actually looks like a solid, but somewhat unwilling mid-range shooter. It's strange to see that in an offense that has featured so many of those shots for most of the year, Johnson wouldn't be a participant considering his aptitude for it in previous years.
One place that Johnson has actually taken a noticeable stride is his corner three-point shooting. Wes is hitting a very nice 39% from the corners this season, up from 36% last year. He still has a way to go before becoming lethal from that spot (Klay Thompson, for example, is a 46% career shooter from the corners), but if Wes can find his way over to those spots more often per game, there's no doubt that his value will increase.
Defensively, Johnson is still a part of one of the league's worst lock down units, which has only worsened this season. It's hard to say how much of that is on Wes, but he is taking a huge share of minutes on a unit that are continually missing rotation assignments, watching opponents waltz to the rim for easy buckets and allowing a scorching 28% on three-pointers, good for 29th in the league. I personally have had a hard time finding defensive statistics that I find reliable, but from what I've seen, Wes has been adequate at best as a defender, but clueless at other times.
Overall, I've seen very little net improvement on the court this season from Wesley Johnson. The numbers bear out what I'm witnessing: given the opportunity to think rather than react, he's actively hurting his own game. He quite simply is a horrid decision maker with the ball in his hands, especially when it comes to his own offense. As a catch and shoot player, he's actually become quite useful, though incredibly inconsistent night to night. At one point this season, he went six games without making a three, but then shot 44% over the next month from long. Maddening.
A lot of the weaknesses in Wes' game are masked by the fact that he's not making any of the easily visible glaring errors. He rarely passes the ball, leading to a miniscule 0.6 turnovers per game, down from a still small 1.1 last season. Though he rarely goes to the line to begin with, Johnson has been making his free throws during his time in LA as well, going from 71% to 81% from the charity stripe. He's not often given the ball in the clutch, with those possessions being reserved for Kobe and Nick Young. Wes finishes on the break and completes alley oop dunks, Youtube-worthy plays that will give him a lot of rope with many fans.
Wes often escapes criticism because not only does he not make any highlight worthy errors, but he's also on a small scale contract and is just a really nice guy. However, looking at his numbers from last season to this season, Johnson hasn't improved in any significant way, despite an even greater opportunity to shine with extended absences from Nick Young and Xavier Henry. Wes is the true essence of a replacement player--he's been getting minutes and is thus producing, but besides his slightly above average three-point shooting, he really does nothing at an exceptional rate. All his performance suggests is that his numbers are merely a result of a highly athletic guy being given time on the floor. Nothing more, nothing less.
For a Lakers team that isn't trying to win anything of consequence, his presence on the team isn't truly hurting anyone. He's not getting better and at age 27 (28 this summer), I have no hope that he'll turn into more than a guy who puts up stats on a bad team or a back-end, emergency-only bench option for a playoff squad. He's harmless in every way, like a bowl of oatmeal or a jar of nutritious baby food.
Has Wesley Johnson gotten any better? No, he hasn't. For the time being, that's not a problem. But there will come a day when the Lakers will actually be trying to win, and when that day comes, I have no doubt that Wes Johnson won't be a major part of it.
--Follow this author @TheGreatMambino