This is not the case of someone turning their back on their talent. Or their talent going on hiatus and, now, with a change of scenery, it is finally returning. Excellence is not about to be unleashed from some faraway place. Wes Johnson is the same player he always has been, sad as that may seem. But of course it is this way. Wes does not do the things you think he would do, he does not use his body to free his mind, nor does he have the gift of magic, he does not make the game his when someone else is trying to make it theirs. If you watch Wes Johnson play then it is routine to expect that what is in his face will resist change. His face is like all faces, not made by man, but his face is also this- less like clay and more like stone which only means it is the same all of the time. Wes Johnson, is by definition, everything that is cliché about an athletic lottery pick who has never fulfilled expectations and thus is struggling to keep his head above water. What is so complicated about all of it and by default, complicated about Wes, is that we love promises. We love promises in packages that seem raw and gifted, we love the lure of young men who can do athletic things because we think it is an indicator of the future when it is an indicator of nothing in particular.
Wes Johnson, the fourth pick in the 2010 draft, plays as if he knows the truth. He has been introduced to his own mediocrity, and his body language is more melancholy than it is confident. He wears a flat smile- he rarely moves a facial muscle- his eyes remain fixed as he goes through the motions of leaping down the court as the possession changes from defense to offense. Sometimes he is first down the court. Sometimes he is last. It is this, his unflappable but random nature that makes you wonder if he is an introverted but willful athlete who is misunderstood because of his subtleties or if is he just someone who is gone much of the time.
In Friday’s game against the Utah Jazz it was the invisible Wes. Against a dreary team with the worst record in the NBA, Wesley Johnson had this as his stat line: 0 points, 0 rebounds, 0 steals, 0 assists, 0 blocks. The man he was guarding, Gordon Hayward had 24 points, 5 rebounds, 9 assists. So Wes Johnson was ghost like on offense and miserable on defense for a team that cannot sustain abysmal play from their starting small forward. But then again when the Lakers signed Wes Johnson they knew he was an athletic, six foot seven lottery pick that had choked away his NBA career and was searching for somewhere he could go to stop the bleeding.
Not surprisingly this has happened to Wes Johnson three other times in his career, a lack of productivity. On November 10th 2012, against the Utah Jazz, he had 0 points, 0 steals, 0 assists, 0 rebounds, 0 blocks but he only played three minutes. On December 14 2012, against the Utah Jazz, he had 0 points, 0 steals 0 assists, 0 blocks, 0 rebounds but he only played one minute. Against the Spurs on February 24, 2012, he had 0 points, 0 steals, 0 assists, 0 blocks, 0 rebounds, but he only played three minutes.
On Friday Wes Johnson played 16 minutes.
There is cause for concern about Wes Johnson in the starting lineup. Or if not concern then an understanding of why in four years he has been on three teams. From an organic view of an athletic wing player who can leap and dunk there is the conclusion that Wes is nowhere you need him to be when things are tense. He is this generation’s version of the next generation. You are waiting for him to do what he was advertised to do but he is still stuck somewhere else. His defense, for most of the season, has been above average. He gets into the passing lanes, he is a decent defender against players his size, his length helps him as a shot blocker and someone who can contest at the rim. He has played in 30 games. He has scored less than nine points 20 times. He has grabbed four rebounds or less 21 times. He has had 4 assists twice. He has had 0 steals twelve times.
From Metta World Peace to Wes Johnson, from a tough defensive player to a devolved player who cannot score or rebound and sometimes drifts through games and abuses his talent by his own inertia, this is the sort of thing that ordinary people, those with no athletic talent seethe over. But for the Lakers it is their new normal. There is nothing worse than looking at a gifted athlete and waiting for his potential to finally pay dividends and then realizing it is never going to pay dividends, the skill may be there but the heart is missing that one thing that keeps it beating furiously.
Look at it this way. If Wes Johnson was not waiting around the three point line to get the ball, if he was, say, in the paint instead of on the perimeter, he would have about five dunks or layups a night. He has long arms and a quick takeoff and is a great leaper. In the paint he would get to the line five or six times because very few players have his athleticism. But as it is now, teams know his tendency to drift in no man’s land and that he is a passive player waiting for someone to notice him. He is not an adept ball handler, one who can create his own shot. He is out there on his own island.
Because he is not an aggressive personality, a gritty tough player, someone who wants to beat his man off the dribble, a warrior on the court, it is easy for Wes Johnson to disappear in games. The sad thing about athletic players is that often they wait and then it happens with their own permission: their careers disappear. They are in the NBA and then they are in Europe and then their careers are gone. This may happen to Wes whose basketball story may indeed turn into a question: whatever happened to that kid from Syracuse, that Wes kid?
Perhaps he will never achieve what many thought he would, 15 points and 8 rebounds a game, perhaps he will always be the type of player dependent upon other players to fill in the gaps, to make him seem complimentary.
An NBA career has a certain order to it. The first year is the higher learning year. It is geography, where ambition and skill meet reality and expectations. The second year is when this sort of life is no longer foreign such as the schedule and being on the road and eating and sleeping habits. The third year is when it all comes together because you know what you know. You are experienced.
This is Wes Johnson’s fourth year. He has regressed some from his rookie year when he scored 9 points a game. He is playing the same amount of minutes and is scoring 8 points a game. His shooting percentage is higher but his assists are lower. It is not a surprise that he is the same player he was four years ago, it would have been a surprise if he wasn’t. NBA general managers rarely make mistakes and give up on someone too soon which leaves the following impression of Wes Johnson. He is the guy who surprises, a player who will have two points one night and make four three pointers another night and then for the next two weeks score five points over a span of nine games. It is the inconsistency that is the consistency, that is his never ending story. And so for Wes Johnson it just might be that he is here today. And tomorrow he will surface somewhere else. Faraway perhaps. Only then will you remember what happened in 2013, will you think about that crazy athletic Lakers player who had all that talent but who never delivered on his promise.