Apr 13, 2013; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Minnesota Timberwolves small forward Andrei Kirilenko (47) attempts to steal the ball from Phoenix Suns small forward Wesley Johnson (2) during the fourth quarter at the Target Center. Timberwolves won 105-93. Mandatory Credit: Greg Smith-USA TODAY Sports

Can Wesley Johnson be a Stretch-Four for the Lakers?

Before delving into this topic, I’d like to briefly talk about the stretch-four or stretch power forward position in the NBA. Ideally, it’s a player who has guard-like skills to create space in the paint and defend his position adequately. Some may think of this as a new trend, but it isn’t. Happy Hairston played the position beside Wilt Chamberlain on the 1972 Laker championship team. His ability to slash to the basket while hit consistently from the perimeter opened the paint area for Wilt Chamberlain. It also gave Jerry West and Gail Goodrich room to work with when slashing to the basket. The 2010 Laker team used this concept with Lamar Odom and Pau Gasol closing out games on the way to a championship. Gasol was able to show his flexibility at the high post and low post area, carving areas for Odom and Bryant to slash to the basket.

The Phoenix Suns also incorporated this idea, placing Shawn Marion at the stretch-four position. Shawn Marion moved to the power forward slot under Coach Mike D’Antoni. Alongside Steve Nash, they became a 59 win team. Marion excelled in transition, and averaged over 19.4 points per game on 47.6% shooting and 11.3 rebounds per game. More surprisingly, he averaged 2.0 steals per game and 1.5 blocks per game over a four-year period. He applied pressure defense, sprinted for easy transition opportunities, took 4 3-pointers a game, and had plenty of flip-shots in the paint.

What does this mean for Wesley Johnson?  He has the talent to do the same. There is a lot that Wesley Johnson brings to the table, even if his career statistics do not reflect lottery-level talent. Wesley Johnson’s best year at the NCAA level was when he transferred to Syracuse from Iowa State in his junior year. He averaged career highs in points (16.5),  field goal percentage (50.2%), 3-point field goal percentage (41.5%), rebounding (8.5), assists (2.2), steals (1.7), and blocked shots (1.8). Those statistics are eerily similar to Shawn Marion’s best years as a Phoenix Suns player.

Syracuse’s system is based on a zone-pressing defense; full-court pressure and transition opportunity. Does this sound like D’Antoni’s system?  It should. Assistant coach Kurt Rambis will undoubtedly bring his analytic abilities and implement a similar defensive system. Mike D’Antoni will love the increased tempo and forced turnovers.

Wesley Johnson struggled under Minnesota’s system and saw his playing time decrease. He was trying to fit into a more complicated offensive system predicated on half-court execution. His game thrives on transition opportunities and pressure, as indicated by his play at Syracuse.  He has a 7’1″ wingspan, and is of similar size and quickness to Shawn Marion. The Lakers will be taking less focus away from half-court defense. Wesley Johnson and Shawn Marion aren’t exactly known for their post-defense.  Instead, their defense in the low block will be based on activity, energy, and team-help situations. A greater emphasis will be placed on forcing turnovers, where Shawn Marion excelled. Wesley Johnson will have the same opportunity defensively. The Lakers have lacked transition scoring during their most recent championship years.

Essentially, yes, Wesley Johnson can be the next Shawn-Marion type.  He has the athletic ability, enough perimeter shooting ability, and flat-out speed to excel in open-court situations. Becoming a Laker is a huge opportunity for Wesley Johnson, because he can finally lay out his strengths on the floor which optimizes his talents and Mike D’Antoni’s system as well.

It may not seem as obvious, but it looks like a perfect fit. Considering the discombobulated play the Lakers struggled through all last season, finding a player that actually fits within the system and the team is refreshing. Hopefully, the Lakers go back to their signature of the 80’s, flying out in transition and recreating Showtime.  We miss it.

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