Jan 24, 2014; Orlando, FL, USA; Los Angeles Lakers small forward Wesley Johnson (11) against the Orlando Magic during the second half at Amway Center. Orlando Magic defeated the Los Angeles Lakers 114-105. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Wesley Johnson On Borrowed Time

Before he played a lick in the NBA, Wesley Johnson had everyone penciling him in as the next generation’s Shawn Marion.  He scored with ease inside and outside. It was routine for him to cut into the lane for offensive rebounds and then to pass to the open man. He was an exceptional teammate who selflessly moved the ball and then moved himself around the perimeter, confusing defenders or just plain tiring them out.  He had potential as a wing defender with his length interrupting ball screens and dribbles into the lane. His physical attributes, his wingspan, his size, his quickness, his leaping ability fit the requisite guidelines for playing in a league that seemed tailor made for his brand of athleticism.

Apr 14, 2014; Salt Lake City, UT, USA; Los Angeles Lakers forward Wesley Johnson (11) reacts during the second half against the Utah Jazz at EnergySolutions Arena. The Lakers won 119-104. Mandatory Credit: Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

It was all of the above that the Minnesota Timberwolves appreciated in 2010 when they drafted Wesley Johnson with the fourth pick. And then, in only a way that the Timberwolves can do with a straight face, they took their seemingly perfect athletic small forward and told him, in effect, be the most egocentric guy on the court, be the shooting guard. Play a position you have never played.

His rookie year Wesley Johnson took jumpers and was mediocre at it, shooting 39%. He was an awful creator, that was never his game but the position of shooting guard required it. That built a reputation, a negative he could not disprove even as he tried to please. Already his career was slipping away from him but he was too young and inexperienced to know how it got off track so quickly.  His gifts, running in space, finishing plays above the rim, moving without the ball, were being suppressed and he was a shell of that guy at Syracuse.  His confidence was shot as he failed to be someone else. His collapse became his identity as he was passed around from one team to the next with the assumption he could be a cross between Paul George and Kevin Martin.

It may be true that Wesley Johnson’s best years were in college. He began at Iowa State, sat out a year, then transferred to Syracuse. He was 23 years old when he was drafted into the NBA. Some players never develop beyond that stage. They consistently struggle when faced with a pressurized level of expectations, where physical talent intersects with mental resilience. In the early years of a career, it helps to have a quality organization and a little luck just in case things go sideways.

Wesley Johnson has had none of that. One of the worst run NBA franchises drafted him and then they traded him. He has had five head coaches in four seasons: Kurt Rambis, Rick Adelman, Alvin Gentry, Lindsay Hunter, Mike D’antoni.

His sixth coach, Byron Scott, believes that if Wes Johnson has a good camp he could win the job as the starting small forward. Scott gave the impression that would be the best thing for the Lakers.  Johnson moves the ball and provides defensive energy. He plays well off the ball even as he has a tendency to park behind the three point line and wait until someone notices him. He is not very strong physically and he doesn’t play much in the paint unless he is in transition. He runs the floor and leaps out the gym but he has a very quiet motor.

His career is the cautionary tale for teams searching high and low for athletes. Wingspan and sick verticals and running the floor doesn’t necessarily mean the athletic game can be adapted to the skilled game.  There are a lot of hit and misses out there. Darius Miles comes to mind. Perhaps Wesley Johnson is cut from the same cloth, someone who doesn’t do one thing very well, the jack of all trades, the master of none.

Wesley Johnson has a bad habit of drifting through games as if all of sudden he remembers he is bored. He will play with incredible energy and then he will float to the three point line and just wait for something to happen for three of four offensive possessions. He burdens whoever is watching him with a blank stare and his eyes seemingly empty.  Rarely does he get the ball in his hands because rarely does he call for the ball. He doesn’t challenge his defender one on one and even though basketball without isolation is a beautiful way to play, sometimes you have to take advantage of what the defense thinks you are. Aggression is an equalizer.

Feb 11, 2014; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Utah Jazz guard Alec Burks (10) is fouled by Los Angeles Lakers forward Wesley Johnson (11) in the second quarter at Staples Center. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The NBA is a cruel country. If you don’t tell them what you are then they will most certainly tell you. The NBA thinks Wesley Johnson is a three point shooter, and not a very good one at that. The NBA has bought into his passivity. The NBA doesn’t expect him to get to the line. The NBA considers his game incomplete and they don’t really trust him. He is average, they are right about that. He is someone with a lack of urgency which builds upon itself until he is in full mode disappearing act. The ball has a way of slipping out of his hands at the most inopportune moments.

Never known as a scorer, in high school he only averaged 15 points, at Syracuse 16 points, Wesley Johnson’s  versatility is what is at stake when Byron Scott begins training camp.  Working out with Kobe Bryant makes one wonder if it will pay dividends, these weaknesses of his that are so glaring, that need reworking from A to Z.

Last year, under Mike D’antoni, he played the most minutes in his career. He shot 42%, a terrible percentage for an athlete who should be finishing at the rim or getting to the line. But it was his best shooting percentage of his career which indicates how he has struggled in 4 years. His free throw attempts were still miserable (non-existent), he was one of the worst in the league at drawing contact and getting to the line. He only attempted 23% of his shots at the rim. His midrange game was never valued.  It’s hard to say if he has one or not.

It doesn’t seem that he has come far from his rookie year but he has. Then he played 92% of the offensive possessions at shooting guard. Last year he played 64% of the possessions at small forward and 33% of possessions at power forward. It was something D’antoni got right.

But what will Wesley Johnson get right in this year which is year number 5; so far everything has gone wrong for him, a lot of which is his responsibility. He is a terrible creator and driver of the ball. He can be non resistant out on the court but very, very compliant. He needs to get stronger physically and his competitive edge needs to be sharpened. It’s not one thing but a bunch of little details Wesley Johnson has not been able to address, fix and tie up in a neat bow. For sure, this is the opposite of what a lottery pick’s career is supposed to look like, these back to back one year minimum contracts and a threat of having to play overseas.

In August,  waiting to exhale while he works out with Kobe Bryant, Wesley Johnson attempts to do what he has never done in his NBA career and frankly very few are holding their breath to see if he finally lives up to expectations.

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