A Longer Look at Wes Johnson

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Can Wes Johnson produce in Minnesota?

Like most people who really love basketball and aren’t blessed with a 6’6 frame or a 45′ vertical leap, there came a point in my playing career where I knew I wasn’t going to be able to keep playing organized ball, at least not for any academic institution.

After spending two days depressed in my room with the windows closed, I began my local rec center career, where I have been fairly successful as a wing player with a nice three point shot. Unfortunately, my height (6’3) lends me to post defense on occasion, playing without organized teams, schemes, and positions. In high school, I had the height to play post, but due to a rather pathetic lack of muscle mass, my coach was always kind enough to spare me the embarrassment of having a much stronger guy shove his ass into me and back me down until we were directly under the basket for an easy deuce.

When I’m forced to play out of position, I usually end up frustrated and uninspired. While my style of play lends itself to certain advantages on one end of the floor, my disadvantages on the other often make me less interested in trying hard.

All this to say, Wes Johnson? I feel you, man. I feel you.

(Dear Howlin’ T-Wolf readers, I promise to never again compare myself on the basketball court to an NBA player. You have my word.)

When Wes was drafted last year, he was considered one of the most NBA ready prospects coming out of college, an athletic small forward who could stretch to the two or even the four on occasion in those smaller lineups. Draft Express listed Johnson’s NBA ceiling as Shawn Marion; a player as capable of backing you down as draining a three pointer.

Kurt Rambis begged to differ.

Rambis saw some of Johnson’s skills (three point shooting, quick hands and feet), and decided to try sticking him at the ever-vacant Timberwolves shooting guard slot. Predictably, playing a position he never played in 3 years of college ball, Wes struggled. While his offensive production per 36 minutes wasn’t atrocious for a rookie (12.3 points on 40% shooting), his defense and especially his rebounding took a heavy hit. Even playing in a 48 minute NBA game as opposed to the 40 minute college contest, Wes averaged 5 rebounds less per game in the NBA than in his senior year at Syracuse.

But Wes certainly struggled on the offensive end as well. Here, we have a chart with some numbers that you can skip on your way to the explanation. (College statistics from Johnson’s final year at Syracuse.)

Per Game College NBA Rookie
Minutes 35 26.2
3 Point FGA 3.5 3.7
FTA 4.1 1.2

So basically, Wes Johnson, the college star, averaged more minutes, fewer three pointers, and many more free throws than Wes Johnson, the NBA rookie, thus establishing that Wes Johnson the NBA rookie was far less efficient than his college counterpart. What does this mean?

As per usual with statistics, anybody with two eyes, half a brain, and NBA League Pass who watched the Timberwolves on a daily basis could tell you what I’m about to pretend is a revelation: Wes spent the entire season playing hesitant, nervous basketball. He constantly looked like a 5th wheel on offense, standing outside the three point line waiting for a pass. While his shooting range and athleticism lent themselves well to the shooting guard position, Johnson’s ball handling abilities did not, so when that pass occasionally showed up, he never really attempted to take the ball to the basket, as evidenced by his low free throw attempts per game. Even when he did, he panicked and always seemed to dish it off before drawing contact. Nearly half of Johnson’s shots per game came from behind the 3 point arc, as he actually averaged nearly three times as many 3-pointers per game as free throws. Three times!

Throughout the year, Johnson showed flashes, whether it was a high flying dunk, or a series of made three pointers. A lot of his better stretches came when Rambis had him play a position of comfort, the small forward. Unfortunately, the Wolves are incredibly mid-heavy, with Beasley and Love, and Derrick Williams on the way, so it’s important for Johnson’s future in Minnesota that he learn how to play the two. But can he?

An interesting comparison to Johnson, physically, is Stephen Jackson of the Bobcats. Both players boast similar heights, and at roughly 6’7, both players are several inches taller than the average NBA shooting guard. While Jackson is stronger than Wes, and about 20 lbs heavier, he’s already spent half the summer, only half, bulking up, adding what’s rumored to be 5-10 lbs. of muscle onto his slender frame. Both players are streaky three-point shooters who, when hot, can be destructive from beyond the arc. And, as an added perk, Wes Johnson has not, thus far into his career, participated in an event that shamed the entire league.

Now, Wes has a ways to go. Jackson is a better ball handler, despite sporting more turnovers per 36 minutes than Wes, which can be explained by Wes’ proclivity for jacking up threes. Jackson’s shot selection is (predictably) much better as well. Where as Wes in 2010-11 took just 125 shots in the paint, according to NBA Stats Cube, Jackson took 397.

But it might be worth remembering that Wes is entering just his second season as an NBA player. His athleticism can’t be taught. And while the excitement surrounding the draft has Timberwolves nation (understandably) looking ahead, be aware of the talent the Timberwolves displayed last season as well. Wes has athleticism. Wes can shoot the ball. Wes has value on an NBA team.

We just need to hope he can develop enough to have value where he is.

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