To Phoenix Suns fans, Wesley Johnson was a throw-in of the Robin Lopez trade that netted the Suns a future first-round pick likely in the 15-22 range sometime before 2016. He was a necessary part of the trade, in that Minnesota required the Suns to take Wes' multi-million dollar contract to consummate the deal for the future first rounder. Fans expected nothing from Wes, so really anything he provided would be a plus.
How does a #4 overall pick fall so far in just two seasons that his team is willing to include a future first-round pick just to get a buyer to take him off their hands? Especially when that former #4 overall pick is only on the books for one more season?
You'd have to ask the recently-fired Kahn about that. The trade with the Suns gained Minnesota $4.2 million in cap space that they were able to use in a large contract offer to Nicolas Batum (later matched by Portland) and eventually spend on Brandon Roy, who was signed at the end of July but hardly played last season.
In his rookie season (2010-11), Johnson started 63 of 79 games for the Wolves next to Michael Beasley, who played the SF position. The offense ran through Beasley while Johnson stayed on the perimeter to shoot threes (nearly half of Wes' shot attempts were 3-pointers, hitting 35.6%). The Wolves won very few games and the next summer they searched for a new head coach.
"One of the selling points to Rick [Adelman] on this job when he was watching film of the team, he really liked Wes Johnson," former Wolves President David Kahn recalled, about the hiring of Adelman in 2011. "And there was a lot to like about Wes. He was athletic. Even though he didn't have a ball that had a lot of rotation on it, seemed to go in from a distance. You could really see him developing into an elite defender."
Under Adelman, in a lockout-shortened season, Wes Johnson once again started most of his team's games despite failing to produce at a high level. He started 64 of 65 games but played only 22 minutes per contest, and averaged a meager 6.1 points on 39.8% shooting (31% on threes, once again nearly half of his shot attempts). Fans were baffled over Adelman's mancrush on Johnson.
Given that Wes Johnson was already 24, the Wolves knew they didn't have a future star on their hands so they got another team to take him and his contract.
"I just think one of the things we missed was I'm not sure at the time his commitment was what was necessary," Kahn said last week after being dismissed as team President.
First, let's look at his peers on the Phoenix Suns - other guys who could play the shooting guard position. Much like in Minnesota in his first two years, Johnson didn't have much quality competition. None of Shannon Brown, Jared Dudley or P.J. Tucker is a starting quality NBA shooting guard that demands the attention of the opposing team.
None of these guys are world beaters. Clearly, Dudley has the highest productivity and he did not like losing minutes to Wesley Johnson this past season.
"How I always feel is that the best people should play," Dudley said after the season ended, regarding his diminished role in the second half. "That doesn't mean the best people should start because that's not how it is, but you should play the most minutes. If Wes [Johnson] or P.J. Tucker, if they produce more than me then they should play more. And I think for the most part when Lindsey took over my role diminished a little bit and that's fair because we were out of playoff contention.
"But I definitely think I should play more minutes because I was the best wing."
While Dudley was frustrated, it was really Shannon Brown who lost everything when Johnson got his chance. Yet even factoring in Johnson's poor(er) shooting first-half, the two are pretty even across the board. And Johnson is two years younger.
You could say Johnson is the antithesis of Shannon Brown. Shannon Brown is more than ready to try to throw his team on his back and carry the scoring load (note the emphasis on the word "try"). Brown tends to toss out the offensive play call as he dribbles himself into a tougher shot than he started with.
Wes Johnson, on the other hand, won't take over a game but he's always where he's supposed to be, staying within the scheme and producing within his comfort level. Johnson is predictable, and coaches love that. Short of stardom, you pray for consistency. As a coach, if you know what you're going to get, you can spend more time on getting the most out of the matchups and second units. That's why Johnson started nearly every game for Kurt Rambis, Rick Adelman and Lindsey Hunter. Only Alvin Gentry eschewed Johnson for any other player on the roster. In each case, the coach was resolute in his decision, yet in each case the coach agreed there had to be better guys out there in free agency.
Now, let's compare Wes Johnson to other shooting guards in the Pacific Division.
Here's where you see that the Suns could do a lot better than anything they've currently got on their roster.
U.G.L.Y. Clearly, the Suns could use an upgrade at the shooting guard position. Sure, Johnson is younger than Bryant and Crawford, but his upside is pretty much what we see right now.
Grade for Johnson in relation to peers: D
In Phoenix, Wes Johnson finished up the season much the same way he played his first two seasons, except it was a little bit better.
Johnson scored in double figures in 17 of the Suns last 29 games, putting up 13.4 points in 21 starts (29 minutes per game). Compared to averages of 9 and 6 points in two starting seasons in Minnesota, this was a step up. He took more shots per game, upping his per-36 scoring numbers despite while shooting a little better (42.9%) than before.
You can also credit Johnson for handling the benching during the first half of the season with professionalism. While others complained about diminished roles and unfilled personal expectations, Johnson remained calm and patient even during his free agency year.
Grade for Johnson's improvement: B
We expected nothing from Wes Johnson. Zilch. Nada. He was a throw-in. Even the Suns front office didn't expect much, declining to guarantee his 2013-14 season and making him a free agent this summer. And in the first 45 games, Johnson barely sniffed the court.
But when the Suns sucked the big one, and the shooting guards playing ahead of Johnson were either long-term known quantities with low ceilings (Dudley) or short-term known quantities with low ceilings (Shannon Brown), the Suns rolled the dice to see what they had in Johnson.
As it turns out, what they had was a guy just as good as anyone else who could play that position while also being predictable night in and night out.
To me, that exceeded any expectations we might have had. He's not a star, but he's not the worst player in the game (as had been assumed early in the season)
Grade for exceeding expectations: B
Wes Johnson is a laid-back dude. He's very quiet and unassuming. He doesn't beat his chest, or rally a team, or throw them on his back to carry them to victory. He's soft-spoken, often making media lean in closer than usual to try to pick up the audio.
He's not the best player on any court - though there were times in the last couple months he appeared to be the best player for minutes at a time - but he's not a guy that drives you crazy either.
Is he worth his rookie fourth-year contract of $5.4 million? No. That's why it wasn't picked up.
Is he worth the money the Suns gave Shannon Brown last summer ($3.5 million/year)? No, probably not.
But is the worth having as a cheap, second or third-string shooter who can fill in as a starter in case of injury, for $1-3 million/year? Yes. Most definitely.
He's not a sexy pic. But Wesley Johnson is a viable NBA player and that's better than we thought six months ago.
Overall grade: C-
Pop quiz! How many times in NBA history has a team drafted at No. 30 position of the first round of an NBA Draft? The answer is eight times to date and the Phoenix Suns are in position to be the ninth team in just under two months.
This pick has traveled a lot this season. It started in South Beach with the Miami Heat, but was subsequently moved to the Cleveland Cavaliers as part of the LeBron James "trade." The Cavs then sent it to the Los Angeles Lakers in the Ramon Sessions deal and then they shipped it to the Suns for Steve Nash. There is a winner in there somewhere.
The pick itself has wielded mixed results, but has offered two not so subtle themes over the years.
Over the years the trend for the last pick in the first round has become either a college senior or an international prospect that may or may not pan out.
Five times a senior has been selected with the No. 30 pick because it came from a team with title aspirations.
David Lee (Knicks, 2005), J.R. Giddens (Celtics, 2008), Lazar Hayward (Wizards, 2010), Jimmy Butler (Bulls, 2011), and Festus Ezeli (Warriors, 2012) have all gone with the final pick in the first. They all filled a need for a team with the potential of making the playoffs or even making a deep run. Aside from Giddens the group as a whole has produced at a high level for having 29 others taken in-front of them.
Players like Butler help teams in ways that do not necessarily show-up in the boxscores, but then again they do. With all the injuries to the Chicago Bulls this season he has become an Ironman in some respects playing all game when needed and defending three positions.
The Suns have Goran Dragic and to some extent P.J. Tucker that can do that, but Dragic is supposed to be the teams star and Tucker is limited.
He is somewhere between a Lee and an Ezeli as a perfect role player that does not hurt you when he is one the court. Butler plays both ends of the floor with vigor and is not a liability for the coaching staff.
Internationally there have been three picks at No. 30 in Joel Freeland (2006), Petteri Koponen (2007), and Christian Eyenga (2009). All three have had not had much semblance of a career in the NBA today.
There has been a run of three years with a senior selected and four in the past five years with Eyenga sliding in-between Giddens and his peers. Eyenga was and still is a player with potential to become a productive player in the NBA, but the same cannot be said for Koponen and Freeland. Up until this season (Freeland came over this year) neither had dressed for an NBA game and the picks were throwaways.
Adding a proven talent that knows their role and value provides in itself some inherent value. These prospects are different than a typical rookie. They are borderline veterans at ages 21, 22, and sometimes older in the increasingly younger NBA game.
The Suns have the 30th pick, but the last pick in the draft in general over the past 20 years has produced some hits and some misses, but with the margin of error on a smaller cliff.
Over the years the likes of Mark Madsen (2000) and Nazr Mohammed (1998) became quality role players with elongated careers as the last pick in the first round. Both won championships and were key producers for their teams, coming out of college as seniors that knew their roles.
Parker is the ultimate example of maximizing value at the end of the first round. He is a multi-time NBA Champion, All-Star, and widely looked at as one of the top point guards in the league today. That is an expectation nobody has with the No. 30 pick. It can be a throw-away as seen in many years.
Even taking a senior here can be seen as a throw-away, but they are the ones that produce.
For every Parker, Lee, Butler, or Howard there are a dozen David Harrison's (2004), Leon Smith's (1999), or Malcolm Mackey's (1993). Suns historians will remember (or maybe not) the 22 game stint of Mackey on the 1993-1994 Suns team that that lost in the Conference Semifinals.
Whether the Suns go with a seasoned college player or an international risk, there will be choices for both in the upcoming draft.
There are three seniors ranked between 20-40 on the NDI Big Board this year in Brandon Paul (SG, Illinois), Richard Howell (PF, N.C. State), and Solomon Hill (F, Arizona) that could be options. In some ways they all fill a need with shooting/scoring (Paul), leadership/rebounding (Howell), and leadership/basketball IQ (Hill) that would be welcome with the value of No. 30.
The internationals that fall in that same ranking window are Dennis Schroder (PG, Germany), Giannis Adetokunbo (SF, Greece), Mouhammadou Jaiteh (F/C, France), Lucas Nogueira (C, Brazil), Livio Jean-Charles (F, France), and Nemanja Nedovic (G, Serbia).
That group has some ultimate risk/reward talents in Schroder, Adetokunbo, and Nedovic. All three could be pedestrian NBA players, but they also have the upside of a Tony Parker type.
With that the Suns can explore the options of taking the calculated risk or an international prospect, a college veteran, or the best player available with the last pick in the first round. All strategies have seen success and shortfalls. The good teams seem to find the success stories.
None of this is confirmed, but wouldn't it be a PR fourth of July if Lon Babby decided to hire former Sun Charles Barkley as his General Manager and former Sun Jeff Hornacek (who was traded for Barkley) as his head coach?
The entire Suns community would be exploding with cotton candy and sweet tarts if those names headlined a new chapter of Suns lore. Fans would start buying Suns jerseys again, painting their houses and cars orange, begging for season tickets and generating a buzz not seen in these here parts since the last time those guys wore purple and orange.
Say what you want about the Nash years, but the shiny penny feeling of 1989-1992 (Horny's best years) and the 350,000 fan parade for losing the NBA Finals in 1993 (Barkley's best) still remain, to this day, as the greatest moments of pure joy in Suns lore for a multi-generation fan base now laying dormant in the valley.
Back in the Hornacek and Barkley years, my father was a Suns fan through and through. He had season tickets in the 12th row, dedicated an entire room of his house to Suns colors, re-watched every game on VHS after seeing it live, bought autographed this and that, and generally epitomized the ultimate Suns fan.
But after Barkley left, a lot of air went out of the balloon. Through this season, twenty years later, those tickets were still in my dad's name but he stopped going to games in the late 90s. He re-sold the tickets each summer to a friend, who shared them with me the last several years.
Last month, my dad, the friend and I all gave up the tickets. I've got the media pass at this time, so I couldn't even use them last season for the most part. Dad's friend just lost her fire. So we rebuffed the Sixth Man rep and let the tickets go, knowing we could buy back in anytime we wanted because the arena might never be sold out again.
But if Barkley and Hornacek are hired to run the Suns, would Dad or my friend buy back in immediately? Probably not (the team still sucks). But they would at least consider it. Their hearts would pitter-patter with hope and excitement. Their minds would harken back to the glory days of Suns basketball. They would smile, for the first time in a long time, at the future prospects of the Suns franchise.
But are these guys REALLY in the hunt to return to the Suns?
One rumor is from an off the cuff comment by Shaquille O'Neal on TV. At the end of their nightly TNT show during the playoffs, Shaq riffed that Barkley - who was apparently less jovial and cavalier on TNT than usual all evening - was "auditioning" for the Suns GM job. In response, Barkley said... nothing.
Does that mean Barkley had (or would soon) interview for the Suns GM post? Or is that just some made-up crap? The use of the word "auditioning" is suspect to me. Auditioning is for television. Interviewing is for jobs. Was it a simple slip of the tongue?
The other rumor, the one on Hornacek, is even sketchier. Adrian Wojnarowski, the most plugged in NBA reporter in the business, wrote that Hornacek "could be considered" for the Suns' head coach position. It was an innocuous comment that offered no backing, no sourcing. But if it came from Woj, could it be laced with truth?
As you can see, this is all sketchy.
But if I were Lon Babby, I would interview Barkley. Without even thinking twice. Would I expect to hire him? Probably not. But I would want to talk to him. I would want to give Barkley a chance to "wow" me. I would want to compare his answers to my tough questions to the answers I got from real, live front office guys. I would want to see how Barkley stacked up. I've hired novices before, and been successful because of it, thanks to this strategy. And I've discounted novices too, when their answers just didn't stack up. The key is having an open mind.
Jeff Hornacek, on the other hand, is a much better known quantity. He's been an assistant with Utah for years and has a great demeanor. He fits the bill of former players who became successful coaches - he did more with less all through his career. He wasn't the most skilled or most athletic, but he made himself into a star nonetheless. He knows how to mold, and shape, and make it work.
Let's pretend, for a moment, both of these rumors are true. What would a team run by Babby, Barkley and Hornacek look like?
Well, exactly as it looks today. At least for a while.
The Suns have 10 guys under contract for next season already. Barkley would have to hit the ground running (I don't think he's run anywhere in a decade at least) to make a number of trades if he wants to reshape the roster. He clearly doesn't like the one that's already here.
Barkley, who has never held an NBA front office position, would have to learn the ins and outs from Lon Babby, whose only been here for three years, and remake an entire roster within months. Could he do it? Would it be even better than the one he's got now? It's one thing to say what you'd do, to "audition" for a job, but it's quite another to actually DO it well.
I don't think Barkley would be hired over up-and-comers Jeff Weltman or Ryan McDonough, or even a seasoned veteran like Scott Layden or David Morway.
But it sure is fun to think about, isn't it?
Charles Barkley at GM. Maybe he would hire Grant Hill to work alongside him?
Jeff Hornacek at coach. Maybe Horny would hire Eddie Johnson as an assistant to be the team's shooting coach? Or Tom Chambers to coach the big men. Or Paul Westphal to give awesome post-game speeches. Or all three, for goodness sakes.
The team might suck, but at least the fans would get enjoy the press conferences again.