Will Wesley be able turn it around in Phoenix?

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.

Lots of change in this here picture

News surrounding the Phoenix Suns has been hot and heavy these past few weeks, and Friday was no exception. Friday brought us changes in the Suns roster, front office and TV voices all in one day, while rumors continued of Suns coaching wanderlust and a future "star" player's interest.

Certainly, if you are a fan of change then this summer is your panacea.

Last year's opening night starting lineup will probably return only Marcin Gortat and Jared Dudley on opening night of the 2012-13 season. In-with-the-new includes Goran Dragic, Michael Beasley and Luis Scola to the starting unit.

Last year's backups on opening night will return only Shannon Brown, Sebastian Telfair and Markieff Morris, to be joined by Channing Frye, Kendall Marshall, Wes Johnson, P.J. Tucker and an as-yet-unnamed backup C.

Last year's all-too-often game-calling duo were Tom Leander and Scott Williams. Leander has now been re-focused on studio shows (pre, halftime and post) while Scott Williams has left the organization entirely. Next year's play-by-play man is Marv Albert's younger brother, Steve Albert who has a long career of announcing NBA and boxing. Joining him will be more of Eddie Johnson and a little of Ann Myers-Drysdale.

And in the Suns' front office, the curious hiring of Brad Casper - a very successful businessman who'd hardly ever even been to a Suns game - has been put out to pasture. Casper replaced Rick Welts after Welts moved to California to be closer to his partner, a "coming out" that was unprecedented in major mens' sports. Previously, Welts made a name for himself as the guy who started the Suns' annual outdoor preseason game in Indian Wells. Nine months later, Casper left to pursue other interests and the Suns promoted a guy who's been with the team for years: Jason Rowley.

And that's not all. Oh no, that is not all.

The coaching staff will change as well. Former lead assistant and big-man coach Bill Cartwright has left the organization. Guys like Mark West and Lindsey Hunter have joined the player-development ranks along with Corey Gaines, who right now is coaching the WNBA's Phoenix Mercury.

Defensive coordinator Elston Turner is one of four finalists for the Portland head coaching job, while player-development staffer Lindsey Hunter was a finalist for the Orlando job until they hired Jacque Vaughn. It's quite possible that Hunter will be snatched up for a full-time coaching position this summer, in either Portland or Orlando.

Phew, lots of change. Luckily for us, Sarver, Babby, Blanks, Treloar and Gentry remain entrenched in their positions, though the latter four's contracts are all up in a year.

Changes may not stop coming for a while.


The Suns' trade of Robin Lopez and Hakim Warrick was held up by a completely different reason than I had surmised. It would be easy to blame someone else for this, but I cannot. When I heard that the 3-team trade was being held up for issues of legality under the CBA, I combed the cbafaq.com for clues. There's actually a FAQ answer that deals specifically with "when a player cannot be traded".

Once I did the numbers and realized New Orleans is now "over the cap" after re-signing Eric Gordon using his Bird Rights, and after previously acquiring Ryan Anderson and Brad Miller, the article pretty much wrote itself. Teams "over the cap" have more restrictions than those under the cap. One of those restrictions is that once you receive a player in trade, you cannot re-trade that player along with any other players (aggregation) for two months. The Hornets were trying to send Brad Miller (just acquired 11 days before) along with Dyson in the deal.

Another trade limitation to teams over the cap is that they must send out somewhat similar salaries than they receive - within 150% plus $100,000. Without the ability to aggregate Miller's salary with another player, there appeared to be no way New Orleans could meet the salary-matching demand with the players they proposed.

Apparently, the latter rule applied to the Hornets, but not the former.

In the media conference call that took place after the trade was made final, Lon Babby clarified how the trade was legal.

Apparently, when it comes to "under the cap", "over the cap" and "over the apron", it's all about timing.

At the time New Orleans acquired Brad Miiler, they were "under the cap". This was before the Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon signings. So, apparently, Brad Miller was able to be re-traded with other players immediately and any time thereafter. Once given, that ability to aggregate him with others is immutable, even if the team moves into another cap classification later.

When the trade went down, the Hornets were by that time "over the cap", so they had to meet the salary-matching rules. But that was easy as long as they could package Miller's $5.1 with another player.

Bingo, the trade was legal as soon as it was proposed.

These guys are smart, I tell ya.

The holdup, apparently, was the haggling over the first-round pick the Suns would receive from Minnesota. It's complicated and I'm sure it took a lot of negotiation to get it right.


Looks clean on the surface, like the Suns are going to pick real soon, but the way I read that tweet (and Babby's explanation on the conference call) was that Memphis' pick only come into play if Minnesota would otherwise be sending us theirs.

So root for Minnesota to play really well next season!

James Harden answers an obvious question with an obvious answer

The Suns' pursuit of Eric Gordon failed this summer, but that may just have been a trial run for next summer anyway. The Suns offered restricted free agent Gordon a max-level extension on July 3, 2012 and may do the same with either James Harden or Serge Ibaka in 2013.

Except that the Suns may have a lot more luck next year. New Orleans matched the Gordon offer because Gordon was their only star player and they were way under the salary cap at the time. NOLA had no choice, and no real reason to make one anyway.

Oklahoma City, on the other hand, has a HUGE choice to make. They already have Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook on max extensions, giving the latter player their one and only 5-year-extension contract. It would be impossible to sign both Harden and Ibaka to max extensions of their own.

Questions abound whether OKC can convince both Harden and Ibaka to take less than they can get (ie. MAX) on the open market before next summer to stay in OKC as the third and fourth fiddles. Both are eligible for contract extensions this fall, and both will probably say "no thanks" to anything less than the max (starting at no less than $13.7 million).

Harden, for his part, is taking this in stride. In the first of likely many questions about his future, he handled a query by the Republic's Dan Bickley last week just as expected.

"Yeah," he said about maybe signing with the Suns next summer. "Of course. I love it there. My mom lives there still. So that's definitely my second home as far as my comfort level and going to school there. But obviously, I'm with the Thunder right now and what we have is special."

That's Harden ratcheting up the pressure on OKC to pony up. Ibaka will likely do the same, and at least one of these guys will most certainly be traded by next July 1 before they can reach free agency. The Suns have 6 first-round draft picks in the next 3 years (10 overall), young players Marshall and Morris along with a plethora of tradeable contracts on short term.

Before we debate whether the 2012 US Olympic basketball team could defeat the 1992 Dream Team, it would probably behoove the Americans to prove they are the best basketball team in 2012. Unlike 20...

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Basketball Operations Event with Lon Babby.  Wednesday 7/25/2012

The phone call I received from a member of the Phoenix Suns staff was quite unexpected. First impression - sales call. After some preliminary information about the event, I explicitly stated that I wasn't in a position to entertain purchasing a season ticket package (I was partly right on that first impression), but that I did write for Bright Side of the Sun under the umbrella of SB Nation and I might be interested in coming down to the arena to survey the event and possibly write a story about it. This is that story.

When I was told the Suns were reaching out to fans that had attended games in the past (they are keeping tabs on us apparently), I was intrigued again. I hadn't attended a game last season. I had imposed an ascetic ban on all things NBA based on the selfish and puerile behavior both the owners and players displayed during the lockout. I had vowed not to spend a dollar on tickets, merchandise, etc. for the lockout shortened season. In a contradiction that hasn't evaded my notice, I'm kind of helping grow their brand by my participation in the BSotS forum, but I guess I have to pick my battles. I hoped my abstemious act would play a small role in a less than desirable bottom line for the league that might discourage such contemptible behavior in the future.

My boycott is up so I will be in attendance at some games this season. With the assurance that there would be no pressure to buy, and that I was welcome as a dilettante writer, I decided to attend the event. Here is a portion of the follow up email invitation I received:

Nice to speak with you today! I'm extremely excited that you will be able to join us for this VIP event. As I mentioned, you will get to hear Lon Babby our President of Basketball Operations talk about our free agency moves and outlook for the future as we continue our tradition as the 4th winningest team in the NBA. I've provided the details below. If you have any further questions, please let me know.

- Who: Jim Coughenour and Guest

- What: Basketball Operations Event with Lon Babby, President of Basketball Operations

- Where: US Airways Center, FlexPrint Club (Courtside)

- When: Wednesday, July 25 at 6pm

Please park in the attached US Airways Center garage off of 1st street between Jefferson and Jackson. Parking is complimentary. After you park, walk into the Casino Arizona Pavilion and check in at our registration table. Then walk down through the FlexPrint Club where we will have heavy appetizers, dessert, beer, and wine.

Upon arriving I received a folder with 6th Man and season ticket information (promotional material), a lanyard that identified me and was instructed to fill out an entry for a free raffle (this will have significance later). The attendees were then funneled downstairs from the main pavilion where appetizers and drinks were served. Despite fancying myself a bit of a gastronome, I did not partake of the panoply of savory foods that were made available. I didn't drink any of Sarver's free beer, either. I was there on a mission of discovery, and a full belly can lead to a slow wit. Plus, after all the buildup, I wanted my first official free meal from the Suns to be a sandwich; and alas there were none. There were, what appeared to be, Southwestern egg rolls and meatballs among the selection. Babby himself commented that the meatballs were delicious (and spicy). In retrospect, maybe I should have had one.

Now that the appetizers are out of the way, jump it for the main course.

The presentation began with a speech by Lon Babby. He summarized some of the activities of the team during the free agency period and spoke about the mission statement moving forward. He reiterated that the goal of the franchise was to compete for championships. He mentioned that he wouldn't have taken the job if he didn't feel he would be given the opportunity and afforded the necessary resources to do so. He did seem somewhat more gesticulative and animated at points during the speech than I've seen him in his public appearances I've watched. He drew unprompted (good natured) boos on one occasion (when referring to Mitch Kupchak and the Lakers calling about Nash) as well as genuine laughter (when referring to his initial reaction to the Lakers inquiry).

The first question posed to Babby was regarding who the backup center would be for the Suns this season with Lopez being traded to the Hornets. Babby responded that the trade was actually in jeopardy due to complications with the rules. He put the odds at 50/50, which was a stark contrast from the reports that had been swirling around from various media outlets professing that the consummation of the deal was basically a formality. Babby's prediction did seem somewhat prophetic/accurate in hindsight as the trade ended up taking two additional days to complete, apparently due to CBA rule obstacles.

After emailing news of the differing characterization of the pending trade to BSotS staff members, they relayed it on twitter:

Babby told meeting of Suns fans that Lopez trade is 50/50 due to rules complications.

— BrightSideoftheSun (@BrightSideSun) July 26, 2012

It was later confirmed by Paul Coro of the Arizona Republic:

Confirmed @BrightSideSun tweet that Babby told fans that Lopez trade chance is 50-50. An agreement remains. Obliging the rules is the issue.

— Paul Coro (@paulcoro) July 26, 2012

Breaking news courtesy of Bright Side of the Sun. Alex Laugan followed up on this the next morning with his compelling and informative piece outlining the possible obstacles in the 3 team trade and BSotS was the head of the snake in delivering the most up to date information on this topic.

Two other questions from the audience centered around acquiring a new superstar for the Suns after the evanescence of elite talent from the last era. Babby elicited laughter from the audience again when one of the questions asked about the possibility of trading for a 6'10" player from Florida who was a good rebounder, to which Babby retorted that Ryan Andersen had already been traded to the Hornets. A third inquired about how Babby sees the dynamic working between Dragic and Marshall moving forward (not this year, but two or three years down the road).

Then, I was given the opportunity to ask Lon Babby a question. Since I had just finished writing a post that raised many questions about the details surrounding Grant Hill's departure, it seemed only natural to propose a query pertaining to that. I asked a brilliantly crafted (and delivered) question encompassing many of the issues I raised in my story from Wednesday morning (Babby seemed very impressed) and I got more from his answer than I expected. For anyone not familiar with the story (and those who didn't click on the link right above this and read it - do it), my question to Babby was framed along these lines:

The Luis Scola amnesty waiver claim appears to be a win now move. Wouldn't Grant Hill have been able to provide many of the same attributes as Scola at a bargain price? You had stated previously that you would be extremely disappointed if Hill played somewhere else. Given the nature of your long standing relationship with Hill, how would you characterize the nature of his departure from the Phoenix Suns and do you think there is a chance he might return to Phoenix in some capacity at a point in the future?

Babby seemed rather restrained in his answer. I thought I sensed that he was somewhat conflicted over the situation (just my impression). He said that he was extremely disappointed (just as he stated he would be). He said that he would never consider saying anything derogatory about Hill or the circumstances surrounding the situation. He said that the Scola waiver claim was made after Hill and he had discussed his future, or lack thereof, with the team. Scola was (partly) acquired in an attempt to fill the vacuous void in team leadership that was created by the egress of the former team leaders. He said that it would be a great boon to the franchise if Hill chose to be affiliated with the Suns after his playing career, but that Hill was such a profoundly talented individual that it might be limiting for him to accept a role with the Suns when he was capable of such prodigious accomplishments.

After the Q & A session ended they took everybody out on the court and people were served cookies and coffee and given the opportunity to have a shoot around on the baskets. People that were interested were taken up to seats in the lower bowl and discussed ticket plan options. I spent most of this time talking with a sales manager, who was a recent transplant that had previously worked in the Kansas City Royals organization. He took me back to the Suns practice court and gave me a brief tour of the arena.

I also spoke with the person who invited me to the event. It appears she was also a tyro in the organization and informed me that the Suns have been adding staff in preparation to return to normal operating levels after the truncated season. It was a very low pressure atmosphere and the staff was very cordial and accommodating. It was nothing like the car dealership climate I had been chary of stumbling into. I thought that the event was a good way of reaching out to fans and giving them an inside look at things they normally aren't privy to. She said the organization planned on hosting more events like this in the future, so maybe next time your phone will ring.

One last thing. Right before they introduced Babby they held a raffle (I foreshadowed this earlier). I won an autographed Dudley jersey (he was on the screens in the flexprint room so I guess he's the de facto face of the franchise). An interestingly coincidental night where a BSotS staff member is randomly invited to a Suns event and breaks news on a trade while taking home a signed jersey (pictured below) he wins in a raffle. Not how I had envisioned my Wednesday night unfurling before I got that phone call on Monday.


The NBA is a league where superstardom is not only needed to win, but needed to boast about relevance. Or at least, it’s used to boast about a pseudo-relevance. Like the Phoenix Suns’...

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