Now that the trade has been finalized which sent Robin Lopez and Hakim Warrick to the New Orleans Hornets, and Wesley Johnson plus a conditional first round back pick to the Suns by way of Minnesota ... it is time to take a look at the newest member of Planet Orange.
Wesley Johnson is a 25 year old 6-foot-7, 215 pound SG/SF formerly of Iowa St./Syracuse, and fourth pick of the draft in 2010. Coming out of college he was regarded as one of the top talents in the draft, and one of the most NBA-ready players available. But after two very underwhelming seasons in Minnesota he has been maligned as one of the worst starting shooting guards in the league and was basically given up on by his former team in order to clear cap space ... So what went wrong?
Continue reading after the jump for possible answers to that question, and an in-depth look at the newest Phoenix Sun.
Going back to his college years, I was pretty familiar with Wesley Johnson when he played with Iowa St. and Syracuse. By the time he entered the draft, I saw him as a seasoned college player who was ready to step onto an NBA team as a small forward and contribute immediately. I loved his rebounding, his defense, his athleticism, and his accurate shooting from both inside and outside of the arc.
Did I believe he was deserving of the #4 pick overall when he was selected by the Minnesota Timberwolves in the 2012 draft? Absolutely.
Let's take a look at his stats from his three years in college:
As you can see, Johnson showed a nice progression over those three years, even with a move to Syracuse to play his final year in college in which he averaged 16.5 points and 8.5 rebounds per game. He showed the ability to be a game changer with his rare combination of length, athleticism, defense and a pure jump-shot.
But then contrast that to his stats in the two years he's played in the NBA with Minnesota:
What the heck happened?
That's the million dollar question. I certainly have my theories, but then again, I haven't watched Wes Johnson play that many games in Minnesota. So in order to gain a better perspective on Wes, I contacted Canis Hoopus writer Oceanary and asked him for his input about Johnson's past struggles, positives and possible future outlook. Here's what he had to say:
Wes is a difficult player to figure out.
On one hand, he was drafted into a very difficult position, by a front office that honestly ... and frighteningly ... doesn't really know what it's doing. The Wolves had pinned two players to the draft board that year ... Wes Johnson and Derrick Favors ... and determined to take whichever one the Nets didn't.
Spending his rookie year playing for Kurt Rambis did not help. Rambis was a very hands-off coach ... very 'Zen,' like the Zen master he apprenticed under in Los Angeles. He was given little instruction and little encouragement. Rambis just kind of threw him out there ... the way he did to all the players ... and then got upset when he didn't follow instructions he was never given in the first place.
Playing in the faux-Triangle system (which we have affectionately nicknamed the 'Rambangle') was even more unhelpful. Wes was played out of position at shooting guard (to allow Love and Beasley to both start) and was told to basically camp on the three point line. And because we simultaneously lacked a respectable point guard and a playbook with any kind of real ball movement, most of the shots he took were contested.
And then, of course, starting his sophomore season with no training camp was even more than less than unhelpful.
Oceanary seems to believe the cards were stacked against Wes from the beginning due to a combination of poor coaching, an unnatural position and the offensive system he had to play in. I couldn't agree with him more. I thought Minny rushed Wes into playing and then starting, especially when he wasn't playing his natural position of small forward. I was unaware of the dynamic created by former Timberwolves head coach Kurt Rambis, and the way in which he was asked to contribute which certainly could have stifled his development as well.
After seeing all of these issues together, is it any wonder he's had such a rough time finding his rhythm in his first two years after such a bumpy start? By the way, will the Suns see fit to move Johnson back to his natural small forward position after seeing how he struggled as a two guard? Let's hope so.
But that doesn't mean Wes is absolved from all blame either. There are still considerable flaws in his game that he needs to work on if he wants to succeed at this level. Oceanary continued:
On the other hand, Wes can be pretty passive on the court, hasn't been good at the things he was billed as being good at, and lacks a key fundamental skill.
Wes cannot dribble. At all. To the point he barely has even straight line movement. This affects him in a number of ways, most noticeably in isolation situations. He has great quickness, but no first step because he lacks the ability to put the ball on the floor in a coordinated manner. He also has difficulty changing directions, both off the dribble and on basket cuts. And, as one would expect, he very rarely gets to the free throw line because of this. He averaged less than a single free throw in 24 minutes/game last year. Us Wolves fans were sure we had seen the NBA floor on ball handling in Corey Brewer, but Wes somehow managed to dig below it.
He also ... well, let's put it this way. Since the start of David Kahn's reign, us Hoopusters have talked at great lengths about 'looks the part' versus 'is the part'. Kahn loves guys who 'look the part' ... long limbs, fast, athletic ... but often takes it at the cost of actual productive players. Jonny Flynn. Ryan Hollins. Darko. Wes is most definitely a guy who 'looks the part' ... he has 747 arms, drops from the ceiling, and shows perfect form on his jumpers. Unfortunately his athleticism doesn't get put to very good use, and his jump shots don't fall with any regularity. He was billed as three things as a rookie ... athletic, a good defender, and a lights-out shooter. As a pro? Athletic: check. Defense: not terrible. Shooting: ... not good. Wes shot 50% as a junior at Syracuse, but has yet to break 40% in the NBA, despite a shooting form that looks positively Durant-ish.
That's one part of Johnson's game I just can't figure out. He evolved into a very nice and efficient jump shooter in college, yet he's struggled to translate this aspect of his game to the NBA, despite having a very pretty and fundamentally sound shot. Maybe the system has something to do with it, making Johnson uncomfortable or unable to get open shots. Either way, I'm led to believe this is a very fixable issue and he can still improve his shooting ... especially if he has the opportunity to focus more on that part of his game.
As for the ball handling ... well, that's just something he's going to really have to improve upon if he wants to succeed in the NBA. Hopefully the Suns have coaches who are willing to work with him to improve his handle. As someone who has coached adolescent basketball players for many years, I can tell you the best way to improve one's dribble is simply to spend a lot of time doing various ball handling drills. It takes dedication and many hours of repetition, but it is something that players can improve exponentially in a relatively short amount of time if they're willing to put in the work.
So what about Wes's future? Well, my magic 8-ball seems stuck on "Reply hazy, try again." However, Oceanary had this to say:
I still have hope for Wes. I think a change of city and scenery ... especially away from our ultra-critical fan base ... will help him. I also think that a full training camp under a real coach can do him a lot of good. The tools are all there. He just hasn't used them right. The big question is will he ever learn to? Ideally he's a very natural fit for the Nash-system Suns (if that system will still exist) ... potentially a super-suped-up Jared Dudley. But he has a lot of work to do ... fundamentally and mentally ... to get to that level.
This could be a brand new start for Wes; a chance for him to get a fresh new start and finally live up to his billing as one of the top prospects in the country only a couple years ago. Or, it could be more of the same in which case the Suns will likely choose to let him walk, assuming they decline picking up the team option that comes due in October ... in which case he will be a restricted free agent at the end of the season.
This is the most likely course of action either way, due to the simple fact that the Suns will be unable to evaluate Wes in any live games before a decision must be made. If Wes turns it around and shows promise this year the Suns can simply extend him a qualifying offer and match anything else that comes his way. If not then they can simply renounce his rights and free up the cap space to sign other free agents next year.
Attached below is a media interview that Lon Babby and Lance Blanks participated in to answer questions about trading Robin Lopez and Hakim Warrick, along with acquiring Wesley Johnson. We've already covered the loss of Robin Lopez at length, but you may find the reasons they wanted to trade for Wes Johnson interesting. Fast forward to the five minute mark if you want to skip over the Warrick and Lopez talk and hear how excited Blanks is about the prospect of obtaining a talent like Wes, and how he believes the new and supportive environment will help him to make a fresh new start in Phoenix.
Babby and Blanks Media Conference Call
The bottom line is, Wesley Johnson will have the opportunity to make a clean break from his tarnished reputation in Minnesota and get a fresh start in the Valley of the Sun. With a new coaching staff, a reduced role, less expectations and hopefully a change in position, maybe Wesley can turn it all around and finally become the player so many thought he could be. Only time will tell.