A Pattern of Behavior: Wesley Johnson


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"Johnson fits the mold of your prototypical NBA small forward from a physical standpoint, and then some. His excellent size, length and athleticism give him a terrific base from which to build off of, and he's really rounded out his skill-set now as well." - NCAA Weekly Performers, January 15th, 2010

Wesley Johnson looks like an NBA basketball player. He has smooth mechanics on his jump shot, a quick release and deep range. His 7'1" wingspan and 8'10" reach, combined with his quickness, suggest that he should have the tools to defend well, rebound and make athletic plays on the basketball court. David Kahn said as much after he drafted him with the #4 overall pick in the 2010 NBA Draft.

"Wesley is both an incredibly talented player and an outstanding young man. He'll bring some much-needed length, athleticism and shooting ability to our roster and will be an important piece to the puzzle as we continue to build a nucleus of young talent," said Kahn.

Yet, ten games into Johnson's second NBA season - and six months from his 25th birthday - Johnson has the 9th worst PER in the league and his numbers have declined in nearly every statistical category from his rookie season, which was itself disappointing.

Given that the Wolves used such an important asset to get Johnson, this development is troubling to say the least. With how thin the Wolves are on the wing, and how desperately this team needs a solid wing player to pair with Kevin Love and Ricky Rubio, the opportunity is wide open for Johnson to make an impact.

As we approach Johnson's 100th game as an NBA player, there is not much left to suggest that he will ever make that impact. What went wrong and is there anything salvageable left for Wes?

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Wesley Johnson was born in the city of Corsicana, Texas, a city of some 25,000 people about fifty miles outside of Dallas. When Johnson arrived at Corsicana High School, he already had a reputation as a skilled shooter, having won many three-point shooting contests in his area. His brother convinced Johnson early on not to try out for football and to focus solely on basketball. Once Johnson grew to be 6-foot-7 in high school, he was able to develop an inside game and become a two-time First Team All-District player averaging 15 points and 9 rebounds per game..

"He was a late bloomer and didn't have all the accolades a lot of other guys had," said Craig Carroll, Johnson's brother. "As the years progressed, he developed confidence in himself. I just realized the talent he had and the true gift he had. We just tried to put him in a position to be successful, and it wouldn't have been anything if Wesley didn't embrace it. He did that."

Late bloomer. Lack of confidence early on. Obvious talent. You can already see the parallels starting between Johnson's career in high school and Johnson's career in the NBA.

He bounced around for a while after high school. He initially committed to play at Louisiana Monroe, but opted to go to prep-school after the coach who had recruited Johnson retired. He then elected to go to Lon Morris College, but quickly changed his mind, and attended the Patterson School in North Carolina. Johnson stayed at Patterson for only about two months, then transferred to Michigan's Eldon Academy, which shut down shortly after his arrival. Finally, he committed to Iowa State.

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Wesley Johnson's career at Iowa State started off strong. In his freshman year, he averaged 12.3 points and 7.9 rebounds per game and led the team with 33 blocks. DraftExpress called him the most statistically productive freshman in the Big 12. Yet, even as he was putting up solid numbers at Iowa State, scouts still recognized signs that Johnson would have trouble with his shot and his ball handling.

From an October 13th, 2007 article by prep scout Rodger Bohn (emphasis mine):

"Johnson displayed the ability to shoot the ball from the three point arc as well as from midrange, although without any real consistency. He would go on stretches of hitting two or three 3-pointers for a couple of games in a row, but would then go without connecting on a single 3-point attempt in others. The lengthy forward even dropped five 3-pointers on Missouri last February, although in a blowout loss. In terms of the form on Wesley’s shot, there is very little to complain about. He releases the ball from a high vantage point and gets the ball off in a hurry, while maintaining consistent form either shooting off the dribble or on the catch and shoot. Simply put, Johnson appears to be a better shooter than the numbers reflect."

"Ball-handling is the one area of Johnson’s game that clearly has the most room for improvement. He is strictly a two dribble straight-line dribbler, unable to create much more than what he is able to get from catching the defense off-balance with his initial first step. Often Wesley will look for a high ball screen when he has the ball in his hands, primarily to make up for his inability to create off of the dribble. His first step allows him to create enough space to get his shot off on a consistent basis, somewhat minimizing the effects of his below average dribbling ability."

In Johnson's sophomore season, things began to get even worse for Johnson, who started to feel pain in his left foot. Although X-rays at the time revealed no damage, Johnson struggled in some games, sat out in others, and drew the ire of the Cyclone coaching staff - led by Greg McDermott - who felt that Johnson was soft and should have been playing (and playing better). In the games where Johnson did play, he averaged 12 points and 4 rebounds per game,

X-rays taken after the end of his sophomore season showed that Johnson actually did have a stress fracture in his left foot. 20 days after Johnson underwent foot surgery, he packed up his belongings, left his apartment at Iowa State and decided to transfer to another school. That school ended up being Syracuse University. Scout Rob Murphy was impressed with what he initially saw in Johnson.

"Coach [Boheim] puts guys like [Johnson] in a position to be successful," said Murphy. "Our forwards always do well here. Carmelo. Hakim Warrick. Donte Greene. If you do what you're supposed to do, you'll be a pro.." When asked why Murphy liked Johnson so much, he cited how well Johnson came off screens, the lift he got on his jump shot and the way he went after rebounds.

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At Syracuse, Johnson started to emerge as a national prospect. He put himself on the radar early in games against Cal and North Carolina in the Preseason NIT and played well against the Big East, including a 20-point, 19-rebound performance on the road at Seton Hall.

At halftime of that game against Seton Hall, he was shooting only 3-of-10 from the floor. Coach Jim Boeheim came to him during the break and tried to light a fire under Johnson.

"He said I couldn't keep playing within the game," Johnson noted in his post-game interview. "I was really out there just watching. He told me be the leader and go out there and be dominant." It worked, with Johnson scoring 13 points and grabbing 12 rebounds in the 2nd half.

Johnson finished up his season at Syracuse with numbers of 16.5 points and 8.5 rebounds on 50% shooting (42% from behind the arc). His performances started catching the eyes of NBA scouts and soon, he was standing out as a potential lottery pick. After he attended Tim Grover's Late Night ATTACK Athletics Workout in Chicago in the May before the 2010 draft, the rave reviews continued to pour in.

Jonathan Givony noted that, "Any team working out Johnson over the next month or so is bound to come away extremely impressed. He’s far more skilled and polished than most players entering the NBA. He’s ready to contribute immediately, which has to be incredibly attractive to the teams in the lottery who want to get better right away."

As far as his age perhaps being a limiting factor in contrast to some of the younger players in the draft, Johnson countered, "I look at that as a positive more so than a negative. I didn't start playing basketball til' the 8th grade or 9th grade. I'm a late bloomer. I'm still new to it basically. I'm still learning a lot."

We all know what happened next. The Timberwolves did come away impressed with Johnson, as Givony said they would, and decided to draft him with the #4 overall selection.

"Liked him, as I thought he would. He has a beautiful stroke. He has almost a classic basketball body. Good height. I thought he picked things up very quickly during the workout. He clearly can run, which is so important to all of us in terms of how we want to play. Shooting on our team remains an issue and I know he can help us with that almost immediately." - David Kahn, after Johnson's Target Center workout on June 16th, 2010


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"I really felt the decision was strictly between...whoever was left between [Derrick] Favors and [Wesley] Johnson. To me, it was very simple, we spent most of this past season talking about the lack of length and athleticism and speed on our front line and I didn't feel that [DeMarcus Cousins] would improve those areas.

At the end of the day, we felt that Wes was the right thing for us to do. I'm very happy with the pick of Wes. I think he's going to help us immediately. I look at him as a little bit of an older player that comes out in today's draft, but I still believe there is a lot of upside with Wes Johnson. His ball handling has improved, but there's probably still improvement that can come. I think with Kurt and the other coaches helping him immediately this summer, he'll be an even better ball player by this summer than he is today." - David Kahn on June 25th, 2010, the day after the NBA Draft

Johnson started off his NBA career against the Sacramento Kings and came off of the bench for 18 minutes in which he scored 13 points on 5-of-10 shooting, went to the free throw line 4 times and grabbed 4 rebounds. His first NBA start came only 7 days later in Orlando, where he went 3-of-11 for only 8 points and only went to the line twice. Despite that game, his initial reviews through the months of November and December were not bad.

Jonah Steinmeyer from the blog Howlin T-Wolf observed on December 22nd that, "[Wes has] turned into a priceless and valuable player...a golden asset that has performed well for the team this year and might be quite useful down the road."

ESPN's David Thorpe observed, "As written in this space before, despite his sleek athleticism and smooth jumper, Wolves fans and coaches have to be most impressed with Johnson's poise as a passer. The offense he's in demands good timing to be effective, which means perimeter players have to be patient as passers, letting the post action develop. Johnson is rarely in a rush and his IQ is strong, so he sees the plays develop while also being able to deliver the crisp pass for the easy shot. That skill is part of a set of talents sorely needed in Minnesota."

Yet, while there were positives to look at for fans and analysts, there were also some glaring problems. There were stretches - sometimes as long as six games in a row - during which Johnson would not take a single free throw and would remain simply a spot-up shooter. He had some good games in this role - two of the most notable were against Cleveland (20 points on 8-of-9 with 6 boards and 2 blocks) and New Orleans (24 points on 8-of-12) - but ultimately, he did not shoot well enough or contribute in other ways enough to make him a player who contributed to many Wolves victories.

In Thorpe's same article as the quote from above, he remarked, "Johnson may look like a slasher, but he plays like a gunner. Outside of the rare transition shot, he almost never takes shots from inside 15 feet. It's a problem to be that dependent on an outside shot at such a young age (though he's old for a rookie, he's still a young player), and his shot dispersal looks like it comes from someone who is immobile, which Johnson is not. The fact is, he's made more 3s than he's attempted free throws"

The numbers back this up in a big way.

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(from 82games.com)

For a frame of reference, even a guy like Wayne Ellington took 84% of his attempts as jumpers. Danny Granger and Shawn Marion - two names who often came up in the post draft days as potential upsides for Johnson - were at 77% and 53%, respectively. Only true spot-up shooters like Sasha Vujacic (93%) took a larger percentage of their attempts as jump shots. Unfortunately, Vujacic's eFG% was .483 to Johnson's .455.

As a result of Johnson's poor shooting and his inability to get to the free throw line, he became ineffective on the offensive end of the floor and the Wolves were an average of 5.1 points worse with Johnson in the game last season. Even on the defensive end, where one might say that Johnson showed the most potential last season, the Wolves gave up 1.4 fewer points per 100 possessions when Johnson was sitting on the bench.

Given Kurt Rambis' offensive and defensive schemes, one might be able to excuse Johnson's production in 2010-2011 as a product of a bad coach. Unfortunately, when looking at what has happened so far this season, it appears that Rambis was not the real problem.

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Through the first ten games of the 2011-2012 NBA season, Wesley Johnson has taken more shots (58) than he has points (48); has taken only two more free throws than I have; and has only 4 more made field goals (20) than turnovers (16). His PER of 4.2 is 9th worst in the league and the other eight are made up of two young players (Austin Daye and Avery Bradley) and six career journeymen.

His shot selection?

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93% of 58 FGA is 53.94. That means that only 4-5 of Johnson's 58 shots this season have not been jump shots. Given that he is only shooting 35% from the floor, only 27% from three point range, and is 1-2 from the foul line, Johnson is giving himself no chance to be successful on the offensive end. On defense, the Wolves give up 18.3 points fewer per 100 possessions with Johnson on the bench.

Rick Adelman appears to have finally recognized this inefficiency, since Johnson's minutes have gone steadily down in the first two weeks of this season. Johnson was only on the court for 9:24 against the Chicago Bulls, despite having started the game. His window of opportunity appears to be shrinking, even on a team that currently counts only rookie Derrick Williams, Wayne Ellington and J.J. Barea as healthy wing players.

Since 1980, there have been 165 players who finished their 2nd NBA season with a PER of less than 10.0 and a TS% of less than .425 (Johnson is at 4.2 and .408, respectively).

Know how many All-Stars have come off of that list? 0.The best names on it are guys such as DeShawn Stevenson, Brandon Bass and Shannon Brown.

At this point, you'd have to be happy if Johnson could grow to be as effective as Stevenson, who was the starting shooting guard for the NBA champion Dallas Mavericks. Like Johnson, jump shots account for more than 90% of Stevenson's attempts. Johnson also averaged more FTAs per game (and per-36) than Stevenson. The difference comes from the fact that Stevenson has become far more accurate, especially from three-point range, and that Stevenson's Mavericks gave up fewer points with him on the court than when he was off.

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This is where it all comes full circle.

Wesley Johnson started his basketball-playing life as a guy who was great at three point shooting, but had to grow into other aspects of the game. In the pros, Johnson has turned himself into a player who most often parks himself behind the three-point line and waits for an opportunity to shoot.

Wes was a guy whose nomadic pursuit of a college, and his problems with what he felt was harsh treatment from the coaching staff at Iowa State, earned him the reputation as a guy who was "soft" and was not great at dealing with adversity. In the pros, Johnson shies away from contact and is one of the least physical players in the NBA. On the rare occasions when he puts the ball on the floor and attempts to make a move towards the basket, he starts from farther out and does it with so little aggression that it is almost always ineffective. He excels at converting easy baskets in transition attempts, and can get confidence if he starts shooting well early, but seems to fold when things do not go his way early on.

His demeanor and his background all suggest that he would be exactly the type of player that Johnson has turned into in the pros. Aside from a few months at Syracuse, his entire basketball career has followed this same pattern. That is why, when it comes to hopes about Johnson's future, they seem so slim. His ceiling seems to be a one-dimensional role player/spot-up shooter, and that may be a best case scenario.

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The good news is that his problems largely seem to come from his head. His shooting form is solid, but his shots don't go in. His length and quickness suggest a guy with the tools to be a great defender - not to mention his solid performances against Kobe Bryant last season - but his overall defensive production is below average. His athleticism is fitting for a guy who could make his living at the rim and the free throw line, but Johnson is reluctant to go into the paint.

Unfortunately, changing someone's demeanor and attitude seem to be Herculean tasks compared to changing someone's shooting mechanics, especially when that demeanor has been consistent since middle school. Perhaps playing Johnson against the other team's second unit more often will allow him to regain some confidence. Perhaps coach Rick Adelman can motivate Johnson and put him in better positions to succeed.

For the #4 overall pick, however, relying on 'perhaps' is discouraging to say the least. The better course of action, in my opinion, is to hope that there is another front office in the NBA who still believes in Johnson's potential, loved his workouts and is willing to give up something of value for him. As this season goes on, it is far more likely that this list shrinks in size than it is that Johnson suddenly transforms into a player he has never been before.

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