NBA rosters are filled with 6′-9″ athletic big forwards that possess no discernible, consistent skill other than running and jumping. They can make millions coming off the bench providing energy, rebounding and interior scoring. Lou Amundson is the poster child for that type.
The D League and European Pro Leagues are filled with 6′-7″ athletes that couldn’t develop NBA level perimeter skills or become elite defenders. This explains how Wesley Johnson, 4th overall pick of the 2010 draft, is on his 4th team in as many seasons.
Making it in the NBA, whether you’re a lottery pick or undrafted free agent is based on being placed in a role that fits your specific skillset.
At Syracuse, Johnson’s superior athleticism and the ability to consistently knock down the college three pointer created the perception of a mature, ready to contribute prospect that would thrive in a more open pro game. In Minnesota, Johnson was used as a weak side spot up shooter and his confidence cratered. The eventual addition of Ricky Rubio was unable to unleash Johnson in the open floor.
His career bottomed out in the chaos that was the 25 win, 2012-2013 Phoenix Suns. Enter Mike D’Antoni and a fresh chance to salvage a struggling career.
D’Antoni has flaws as a coach but his greatest strength is being able to put players in a position to succeed. He has especially been a savior to fringe types that struggled elsewhere but have thrived under him. Boris Diaw owes his career to him.
The Lakers have placed Johnson as a backup “stretch 4″, allowing him to grow into a new role and find his comfort zone while masking his flaws. He has responded with some of the best production of his career. Johnson is averaging a career high 9.7 pts, 4.3 rebs, 1 steal and a surprising 1.8 blks in 24 minutes a night, while shooting 38.5% from three. Although his overall shooting percentage is worrisome, all indicators point to increased minutes and production from him.
Johnson seems closer to 6’9″ than his listed height of 6’7″. His wingspan and jumping ability make him a deadly weakside shotblocker. As an individual defender he has shown aptitude as a stopper in limited minutes. He still struggles with bigger post players but experience should mitigate many of those issues.
D’Antoni has experience downshifting a player that wasn’t conventional at his natural position. Shawn Marion was a hyper athletic forward with a nose for rebounding. Marion’s ballhandling, passing and perimeter shooting were spotty for a small forward, but as he shifted to power forward he became a matchup nightmare. He was the player that made the Suns’ famed “Seven Seconds or Less” offense work. He was an elite rebounder, ran the floor and finished on the break, cut and slashed in the half court, was serviceable making threes, and could defend at three positions.
Athletically Wesley Johnson possesses many of Marion’s attributes. While he probably won’t ever match Marion’s output, in time he could become an x factor that allows the Lakers to match up well with many types of teams. He is still figuring out who he is as a basketball player, but for the first time he has found a franchise willing to be patient while being cognizant of his potential.
In a season of uncertainty, watching the rebirth of a talented castaway commands your attention as a metaphor for a franchise that is also searching for a new, more prosperous identity.