The NBA, as well as other leagues, favor youngsters over seasoned vets when it comes to drafting them for good reason. A younger option gives the team youth, energy and, usually, someone with a higher ceiling. Although older rookies may be more NBA ready and mature, their ceilings aren’t as high because they haveless time to learn all there is to become the best they can be; sometimes older rooks will come into the league as good as they’ll ever be.
In Wes’s case, his age was actually attractive, especially to a team as young as the Wolves; being able to add a new piece to the puzzle that was the most NBA ready was a treasure in disguise, really. They risked age over ceiling and the gamble looked “safe” at the time.
Wes came into his rookie season as an instant starter, looking to inject Kurt Rambis’ system with some perimeter shooting while being asked to cover the NBA’s best guards and forwards on a nightly basis. Because of his poise and maturity, he held his own. He had his rookie moments, especially on offense, but for the most part, Wes proved himself to be a valuable selection; believe me, it could’ve been a lot worse.
Wes contributed nine points a contest in 26 minutes. Even playing completely out of his comfort zone at the 2-guard, Johnson showed glimpses of having an all-around NBA game — passing, defense and rebounding — but it was clear that his bread and butter was the deep-ball; he clung to it in need. Teammates knew this and got him his looks but he never demanded the ball — he knew he wasn’t a superstar nor was he in Minnesota to blossom into one — rather he just fit in where he needed to, did things that coach told him and made the plays that were designed for him, in the huddle or on the floor.
Being that mature rookie, it helped fine tune him into an above-average, serviceable rotation man with the chops to start where you need him. The value of getting a do-it-all swing guard/forward at the fourth overall slot was a bargain; championship teams would kill to have role players like him but they come at a premium. The Wolves, instead, were able to lock him in on the rookie wage scale and boast having this kind of guy for the next four years and then some.
But something went terribly array from last year to this. The lockout, for one, limited any practice time the team’s had. A new head coach was brought in to better suit the team’s new incoming rookies, Ricky Rubio and Derrick Williams, as well as Kevin Love. Question marks dotted the Wolves’ entire roster, jeopardizing any and everyone that was a part of such a dismal team in 2010-2011.
Whether any of this actually crept into Wes’ head, he’s clearly not the same as he ever was.
Wes was a smiley player last season; Canis Hoopus enthusiasts always said, “We lead the league in smiles!” Wes was one of those guys that enjoyed his rookie campaign because it was filled with minor successes and step-by-step improvements, despite not having the most fruitful season.
But in his sophomore journey, thus far, smiles haven’t ridden their way across Wes’ mug too often. He currently finds himself in the middle of one of the worst shooting draughts I’ve ever witnessed from a Timberwolf. Johnson’s stats have declined in nearly every major and advanced statistical category across the board. Most notably, his three-point shooting percentage and field goal efficiency have seen major dropoffs. That was the bread and butter, though; it was the go-to in the clutch; it was practically all he had to do last year to bare any success on the offensive end.
And the sudden decline has no genuine excuse. He hasn’t been injured; his shots aren’t being stolen away from him; he’s playing five minutes less per game than last season but that seems more like a result of his bad play, not a catalyst.
Johnson’s rough patch has wildly hurt the Wolves all season long. Without a scoring option in the starting lineup behind Nikola Pekovic and Love, the Wolves have found themselves getting out to rough first quarter starts. Johnson keeps shooting and shooting but nothing is falling. If he fails to hit his first few shots, depending on the defensive matchups, Wes has trouble ever seeing the court again. That’s a serious blow to anyone’s confidence.
In watching basketball all my life, the only proven way to get out of a slump is to keep in the game and shoot until they start to drop. In Wes’ case, the Wolves don’t necessarily have the time or patience to remedy his issues. The Wolves are trying to win now and taking time to allow Wes to catch up with his game isn’t in the winning formula.
So what’s Wes to do? If he can’t boost his confidence on the offensive end, what can he do to be more involved?
First thing’s first, he can always improve his defense. One of the only reasons he’s still on the floor this season is because he’s a physical specimen at the guard/forward combo. He’s 6′ 7″, 215 lbs; his wingspan spreads across 7′ 1″. He has the physical tools to defend the NBA’s elite at shooting guard, small forward and some tweener power forwards. Last season, Wes showed that he can become a viable defender in the NBA. But this season, Wes seems to have lost that step. Whether it’s his overall confidence that is affecting him, his defensive numbers have gone down and he looks lost on defensive rotations. Buckling down on defense could help get Wes in a “hungrier” mood. Stopping his opposition dead in his tracks could result in buckets at the other end.
Johnson could also improve his rebounding. No need to belabor his size but a “shooting guard” of his stature should be grabbing more than three rebounds a game. He’s an elite jumper; Luke Ridnour called him the best dunker on the team for that reason. Rebounds at his position come as a result of hustle more than positioning but Wes’ tools should make rebounding come easier. Those rebounds turn to fastbreaks which turn to easy lobs. He can be the catalyst in those plays and even the receiving end of a lob, rewarding his hard work on the glass.
And, finally, Johnson needs to work harder on creating off the dribble. Although it’s never been his knack, he’s an all-around type of player who has good court vision. Working off the dribble creates a plethora of options for Wes and the Wolves. Depending on what he sees underneath, one quick dribble and two steps later could mean a dunk, a layup or even a simple drop pass to Love or Pekovic. It’s easier said than done but he’s proven that he can get the the rim before. When his streaky shooting started earlier this season, head coach Rick Adelman urged Wes to drive the ball. Once that started happening, he started opening up the lane and drawing fouls. Wes makes 69-percent of his looks at the rim and only 36-percent of efficient field goals from the three-point line. The numbers don’t lie, and Wes has the tools to get to the rim more often. It bodes well in the end for all parties, whether Wes takes it himself or drops it off, it ends in two points.
It’s time to accept that Wes will never “pan out” the way we had hoped. His age already lowers his ceiling, but it’s his lost confidence that is ultimately deterring his NBA career from running on track. Wes needs to find himself on the court. His comfort zone has been breached and now he needs to do things that he’s normally not been asked to do in the past. Things like defense, rebounding and attacking the rim are all questionable aspects of his game but all can aide him going forward while he continues to find his shot.
The Wolves don’t need Wes to take over games; he was never drafted for that purpose. But the Wolves do need him to step up his game to get back to winning. Without any hint Wes, the Wolves are pretty lost themselves.