The Problem of Wes Johnson

In the second quarter of his first regular season game as an NBA player, Wesley Johnson banged home an impressive one handed dunk in transition, putting Luther Head of the Sacramento Kings on a poster. The Target Center crowd, completely caught off guard, collectively reacted like a person who missed a step going downstairs in the dark…”whoooOAH!”

From there, the 2010-2011 season went mostly downhill for Wes and the Timberwolves.

Kurt Rambis, was utterly set in his offensive ways. Coming from Phil Jackson’s Lakers, a team for which the Triangle offense has been run effectively to win multiple championships, Rambis brought the same stylings to Minnesota.

Flying in the face of logic, he continued to run the Triangle (built for superstar wings like Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan) for Michael Beasley and Johnson, playing Beasley at the small forward and Wes at shooting guard.

It was an understandable idea. Beasley’s size made him a mismatch for most small forwards. And if Wes could have pulled it off, he would have been one of the taller shooting guards in the league, standing somewhere between 6’6 and 6’7. He’s an inch taller than Kobe, and 2-3 inches taller than Dwyane Wade and Ray Allen. With his athleticism, the mismatch potential had to be tempting for Rambis.

Surprisingly enough, however, putting Johnson at a position he had never played in college didn’t work. The Timberwolves were incredibly inefficient last season, and Johnson was one of the main offenders. He shot 39.7% from the field overall. Worse, a rather stunning amount of his shots were jump shots (89% according to 82games.com), while only 7% of his shots came from close to the basket. This was a full 7% higher than fellow shot-happy rookie Jordan Crawford. One of the NBA’s more offensively efficient shooting guards, the recently dealt Eric Gordon, took 26% of his shots close to the basket, while shooting only 70% jumpers.

Obviously, Johnson was settling for too many jumpers and not taking the ball to the basket enough. And the problem for Wes was that when he did go to the basket, he turned the ball over quite a bit, 11.6 times per 100 possessions. While this number doesn’t look awful on its own (in fact, it’s identical to Kobe’s), the difference is the usage rate. While Kobe’s usage rate was very high, at 35.1, Wes was merely 16.8. Basically, Wes turned the ball over exactly as many times as Kobe in half the possessions.

Ignoring the statistical evidence against Minnesota using the Triangle, Rambis continued to run it with  Johnson at shooting guard. He saw more than 80% of his minutes at the 2, and played the rest as a small forward. A player whose skillset had been compared to Shawn Marion coming into the league, Wes looked out of position and uncomfortable for the entire year.

None of this is to say that Wes is a bad player. He actually does have a decent (if over-utilized) jump shot, and when he gets on a hot streak, it can be a game-changer. He’s quite athletic and has the build (long arms, quick feet) to become a very good defender. If the Wolves turned him into a Shane Battier-type defender who could knock down open threes and run the floor in transition, perhaps that would be his calling as an NBA player.

The good news for Wes is that Rick Adelman won’t limit the offense to a single formation the way Kurt Rambis did much of last year, and is much better at juggling rotations and recognizing player strengths.

The bad news remains the same: this team is chalk full of athletic forwards. And unless he has made some very significant improvements over the summer, Wes simply is not an effective shooting guard.

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.

This summer's sizzling debate

Let us rewind to earlier this Summer. The Wolves’ morale was punctured yet again after receiving the fourth pick in the 2010 NBA Draft. It seemed inevitable that the Wolves would miss out on the John Wall sweepstakes, the sure pick in Evan Turner at #2, and the dark-horse of the entire lottery, Derrick Favors, who was slotted to go third.

The stars failed to align in our favor and we were going to be left with the bare remnants after the first three teams picked. Questions arose wondering if Kahn and the Wolves would trade up to get their man in Turner or just let it play out and hope for the best. And in true blue Timberwolf form, we stood idly aside as other team’s drafted glittered-eyed thinking they just improved their team’s chances at turning things around in the future.

But low and behold, those bare remnants have turned into a priceless and valuable player in Wes Johnson. A golden asset that has performed well for the team this year, and might be quite useful down the road.

Wes is an older, more mature rookie who possesses an all-around game but is still trying to find his niche in the NBA. Is he a one-dimensional offensive wing who can only shoot the deep ball? Can he learn to become a slasher in the NBA? Will his defense ever improve to the level where he is no longer considered a liability? Needless to say there are a lot of questions surrounding Wes and his role on this team.

Evan Turner Evan Turner #12 of the Philadelphia 76ers passes the ball around LeBron James #6 of the Miami Heat at the Wells Fargo Center on October 27, 2010 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.But more so than Wes, Turner’s facing a more difficult and pressing situation out in Philadelphia, where even more questions are whirling about his name. When the 76ers drafted Turner, they didn’t quite know where he’d fit in. They already had a shooting guard with an all-around game that seemed to do most things the right way in Andre Iguodala. All they were doing is drafting the best person available.

And now they’re realizing the faults of their decision to draft the best player available. Poor Turner still has no role on their team at this point in the season, and hasn’t been given the proper amount of minutes to show what he’s got. Turner’s averaging only 23 minutes per game off of Doug Collins’ bench, and those minutes decreased even more this month when Turner saw the court more than 15 minutes only three times in December. It’s easy to say he may be falling out of Collins’ favor. As a result of Turner’s dismal minutes, he’s only averaging 6.3 ppg and a true shooting percentage of only 44.9 percent. What was so enticing about Turner’s game out of college was his open-court vision and passing ability. That hasn’t translated to the NBA level so well either, as he’s only dishing out 1.8 assists per game.

As for Wes, he’s already found a special spot in the Wolves’ starting lineup and slowly making a name for himself as a fan-favorite in Minneapolis thanks to his charming wit, silky strut and sparkling smile. More importantly than how he carries himself off the court, Wes has produced on the court and is doing it efficiently. He’s scoring more than Turner at 9.1 ppg and sports a better true shooting percentage at 53.8 percent. His three point shooting percentage, 36 percent, is considerably better than Turner’s 15 percent. And what about Turner’s highly touted passing ability? Wes is actually averaging more assists per game than Turner is. He’s actually become a much better passer since entering the NBA, which should tickle the fancy of Rambis and his coaching staff.

So although they’re both rookies still searching for their niche on their respective teams, Wes has outperformed Turner thus far this season, proving why he was the right guy. Some really thought Wes was the wrong pick, mostly judging by the reaction at the Timberwolves Draft Party, and that the Wolves should’ve done something else to help out the franchise and its future like trading up for Turner or Favors. But it turns out the Wes was, in fact, the better decision, for now that is. Notch one up for Kahn!