Wesley Johnson: An enigma or an asset?

Call it an extreme case of peer admiration or in all likelihood a small sample size, but back in March, when Sports Illustrated ranked the top 15 best pure shooters in the NBA based on player voting, Suns swingman Wesley Johnson was selected as the 12th-best sniper in the league.

Despite shooting less than 40 percent from the field and a meager 31.4 percent from three-point range a season ago with the Minnesota Timberwolves, the polled players placed him ahead of Kevin Durant on a list that might I add did not include Joe Johnson, Danny Granger, Paul Pierce or Manu Ginobili.

While there can of course be a case made for why some of these perennial All-Stars were left off, it’s much harder to make one for why Johnson found his name ahead of them.

Just like the SI.com poll, the sample size for Johnson’s career is very small.  But, it is safe to say that the anointed No. 12-best pure shooter in the game today has not exactly merited such high praise in two short years.

Another year, another coach

During his one and only season at Syracuse, Johnson thrived in Jim Boeheim’s up-tempo scheme, which preaches taking advantage of transition and early offense opportunities.  At 6-foot-7 (with a wingspan of over seven feet), Johnson was the perfect combo forward/wing scorer for the Orange.

Playing with a competent distributor in Scoop Jardin, a three-point weapon in Andy Rautins and two low-post — albeit developing — threats in Rick Jackson and Arinze Onuaku, Johnson was encouraged to shoot, shoot and shoot some more.

Despite averaging a bit more than 12 points per game during his two previous seasons at Iowa State, Johnson’s maturation as a shooter — one who could not only hit corner jumpers but also create off the dribble — clearly didn’t come full circle until his move to the bright lights of the Carrier Dome.

“I bounced around in college,” Johnson told reporters during his July 31 introductory press conference in US Airways Center. “One place didn’t fit for me, and I went to Syracuse and it was like paradise.”

Granted hitting 36-of-92 attempts (39.1 percent) from downtown isn’t a mind-blowing feat, but combine that with his 53.4 percent shooting from two and 78 percent shooting from the charity stripe, and it seemed at the very least, that Johnson had dramatically improved the one glaring deficiency in his game.

In addition to his improved shooting, the 2010 Big East Player of the Year appeared to be the ideal athletic combo wing at the next level. He was long (1.8 blocks per game), he was physical (8.5 rebounds per game), he was evolving as an efficient shooter and he could score in a multitude of ways given his frame and ability to move without the basketball.

No one really knows why the former No. 4 overall pick from the 2010 draft became a shell of the player many were comparing to Josh Smith, Shawn Marion or even Luol Deng. But, one plausible explanation for his fall from paradise was David Kahn’s unpredictable coaching carousel in Minnesota.

Upon entering the league in 2010-11, Johnson was paired with first-time coach Kurt Rambis. Though Rambis was in his second year when he inherited the highly-touted Johnson, it was clear his main objective was on the defensive end. And at the offensive end, he only really learned one system as a long-time disciple under Phil Jackson: the triangle offense.

Unfortunately for Rambis, there was never going to be a Shaq, Kobe or MJ walking through the door in Minneapolis. And a system Phil Jackson and Tex Winter orchestrated to the tune of multiple three-peats had no business being run by raw, undisciplined players like Jonny Flynn, Michael Beasley, Darko Milicic and Al Jefferson. A two-star system needs at the very least one star, and while Kevin Love was certainly on his way, Rambis proved that you can’t teach an old dog a new trick.

While Johnson showed glimpses of talent during his rookie campaign, the unproven forward (who at times even played power forward for Syracuse) was forced to play out of position at shooting guard in the triangle offense. Despite a relative size advantage, the system essentially took away his ability to use his athleticism as an offensive resource.

Playing nearly 80 percent of his minutes at the two-guard spot, Johnson grew into a one-dimensional, complacent shooter. According to 82games.com, a staggering 89 percent of Johnson’s field goal attempts as a rookie came from outside the painted area. To make matters worse, he stopped slashing to the basket and shot a mere 69.6 percent on only 92 free throw attempts — ranking him among the 10 worst in getting to the foul line on a per-minute basis.

Last year, Kahn and Co. smartly hired a proven winner in Rick Adelman, who had turned the fortunes of three franchises (Blazers, Rockets and Kings) around over the past two decades. With Adelman, the Wolves ran a variation of the Princeton four corners offense, but Johnson still struggled to adjust. Minnesota had found its point guard of the future in Ricky Rubio and burgeoning, versatile star in Kevin Love. So wisely, Adelman tailored his offense to the franchise’s faces of the future.

In the corner offense, most halfcourt sets begin with two guards and two forwards outside the arc and a big inside the painted area.In Minnesota, this created a lot of high-low or pick-and-roll opportunities for Rubio and Love, but also allowed the likes of Beasley and Martell Webster space to slash without the basketball. Unfortunately for Johnson, this scheme was also ill-suited to his game (averaged six points in 65 games).

From a Draft Express’ article comparing Johnson at the college and pro level:

On the rare occasions when Johnson is attacking the rim, he’s doing so with a tentative finesse game that doesn’t make use of his physical tools, rarely trying to power up over the opposition or draw contact, and struggling mightily especially when contested by weak-side help.

While much of the blame for this decline can be attributed to a lack of aggressiveness on Johnson’s part, it’s impossible to ignore how his positional change and the offensive play-calling of the Timberwolves has affected him, as there is just no sense of urgency to utilize Johnson in this regard.

Change of scenery, change of position

When the Suns acquired Johnson as part of a three-way trade with Minnesota and New Orleans in late July, they did so to shed salary, to get younger and because they honestly believed they weren’t getting a wasted lottery pick.

There were those that thought Minnesota reached at No. 4 when they snagged Johnson, but there was no denying his limitless potential upon leaving Syracuse after his junior year.

When Johnson puts on the purple and orange for the first time this fall, he will be doing so under his fourth coach in the last four seasons. And while talk is very cheap, Phoenix’s recent acquisition believes the change — both in terms of scenery and style of play — will reinvigorate a career that hasn’t been the same since Syracuse was bounced from the Sweet Sixteen in 2010.

“It’s very open,” Johnson said of Alvin Gentry’s system during his press conference. “They get out in transition, and that fits my style. And the way they swing the ball on the perimeter, everybody touches it. So it fits me well.”

As Mike Schmitz noted when discussing where Michael Beasley fits in the Suns’ plans this coming season, there is a lot of uncertainty when projecting what lineups Gentry will throw out this season. Beasley’s numbers suggest he is a better fit at the four, but with the log jam formerly known as the Suns’ power forward depth (Luis Scola, Markieff Morris and potentially Channing Frye), he in all likelihood will be asked to play somewhat out of position. If the Suns are smart, though, they won’t ask his former teammate to do the same.

Wes Johnson makes the transition to the Valley of the Sun as a player who hasn’t exactly found himself at the next level. Whether it’s the increased speed of the game, playing out of position or a lack of coaching stability, the former Orange star would be the first to tell you he hasn’t lived up to the draft night hype. With that said, it’s too early to say whether he is an enigma or an asset yet. As of now, he’s still very much an unknown.

The coaching staff’s best bet is to tap in to the Wes Johnson that excelled at Syracuse. Play him at the small forward position. Let him crash the glass, roam the perimeter on defense and maybe most importantly, encourage him to shoot, shoot and shoot some more.

No one has any idea as to whether or not he will ever live up to the pre-draft billing bestowed upon him by multiple coaches, GMs and analysts, but if he’s going to be considered among the top shooters in the game, it’s time to put him in a position to actually earn it.

Dave Dulberg is a guest writer for ValleyoftheSuns.

Tags: Wesley Johnson

  • AH

    I honestly think he’s going to have a great year for us. If we use him right he could be like more versitile Jared Dudley with Shawn Marion-like trasition game. Just get him open shots and fast break dunks and he’ll out perform his first 2 years. He’s better when he’s not trying to make stuff happen and forcing shots.

  • Joe

    The last 2 months of last season he shot over 40% from 3, hopefully that carries over.

    With his 3 point shooting ability and his defensive skill, he could develop into a more athletic Battier/Sefolosha type player. Thunder Dan? :)

  • martin

    you guys above need to see the excellent video on WJ from this site: http://valleyofthesuns.com/2012/08/20/how-does-wesley-johnson-help-the-phoenix-suns/

    The guy can’t handle the ball at all, or pass. Which is a bad combination. He’ll never be Thunder Dan or those other guys.

    Having said that, I have high hopes for him being useful as a spot-up shooter off the outlet pass and in transition. I hope he shows defensive skill. Not clear yet how good he is on that end, even from the video analysis.

  • Ty-Sun

    Thanks for such a well written and informative article! I really knew very little about Johnson before he joined the Suns and what I did know made me think he could fit in mostly as a defensive stopper but now I’m really thinking that he could be much more if used correctly. It’s also interesting that to use him at his most effective position that he will be battling Beasley for minutes at the 3 spot. As the article suggests, Beasley might be a better fit at the 4 but that creates a “logjam” there with Beasley, Scola, Morris and Frye.

    As much as I’m looking forward to seeing Scola play with the Suns this season, he might be a candidate for a mid-season trade which could reduce that logjam. Yeah, I know that a lot of people would rather trade Frye but Scola has proven himself and might be the best option to bring in some potential help at the 2 at mid-season. Of course that is all based on the assumption that Beasley actually turns out to be a better 4 than a 3… AND a better 4 than Scola.

    However things actually develop this season, I think the chances of a mid-season trade will be high this year. Just who could be traded is completely up in the air right now.

  • bloody mary

    T-Will between Suns and Pistons. Good option guys!!!

  • Scott

    I think it is likely the Suns will try to use Johnson at SG. From what Blanks said at his introduction, I don’t think they were thinking he’d shine if only they changed his position.

    My early research on Johnson on Draft Express, which I reported here, led me to believe he was being used wrong by the Wolves, and that he really needed to be played at SF. The Wolves should have recognized this, but then again, they were also playing Martell Webster – who was better at SF – out of position at SG.

    Hopefully the Suns struck gold when they landed WJ. While skeptical, I already have more faith in him than I do in Beasley (because Johnson can play defense, and there is the chance he will play at his correct position, while Beasley won’t be playing at the 4, where he has statistically done best). With luck, WJ can have a solid year, come on strong by the end of the season, and win a modest multi-year contract with the Suns.

    @Ty-Sun -

    Scola can’t be traded till the summer (1 year after he was picked up off waivers).

  • Ty-Sun

    @Scott – Scola wasn’t waived, he was amnestied by Houston. But I did some research and it seems that the rules for trades involving amnestied players are the same for players who were waived as long as they were picked up as the Suns did with Scola before he actually became a free agent so you’re right. I’m not at all disappointed that Scola can’t be traded during the season though.

    My line of thinking was that – if it was possible – there might be several teams that would be interested in a proven, veteran PF around the trade deadline to boost their chances in the playoffs.

    I still think that the Suns will make – or at least look to make – some sort of mid-season trade this year and it will involve one of our PFs. Unless Frye comes back from his injury quickly AND plays better than he did last year, he is doubtful to be the one to gain much interest. Scola – who can’t be traded – is the proven vet and Morris is the young player with potential. If Beasley actually does play better at the 4 than the 3 then the Suns will have a problem finding enough minutes for everyone inside. Too bad the Suns didn’t have this potential problem for the past two years.

  • AH

    @Martin, I have seen the video and I’ve been following Johnson for a while, I really believe he’ll be like Dudley 2.0

    If we use Johson like we do dudley (spot-up shooting, cutting, occasional drives) then we’re playing to his strengths. As the video states, he also great coming off screens so that’s a way another way we can use him. He’s also got the length and quickness to defend any 2-3 in the league. Along with the fact that he’s a great athlete and fastbreak finisher I think this could end up being one of the most underrated additions this year.

    If Johnson’s going to be a good NBA player, we’re the right team to get it out of him.

  • Jeff

    I watched Wes a lot at Syracuse and was impressed by his talents, but not his mentality. He scored 16 points a game his last season, which isn’t that much for a lottery pick on a team with no other draftable players. He was able to score 20 points without you really noticing, because he never really took over the game. He has all the ability of a star without the mentality. If he reaches his potential I could absolutely see him giving 18 and 7 consistently with a couple blocks and steals. Alvin was able to turn Goran in to the Dragon, and if he can do something similar with Wes the Suns could have a real quality small forward on their hands.

  • Scott

    @AH -

    WJ is the same height as Dudley (6′ 7″) but with a long reach and athleticism in addition to his defense and shooting.

    However, where Dudley has it over WJ is on handling, court vision, and b-ball IQ. So Johnson is not quite a Dudley 2.0. He’s maybe more like a young Shawn Marion.

  • Lloyd I. Cadle

    Gentry will be his first good coach. That might make a huge difference.

  • Scott

    @Lloyd -

    He had Rick Adelman in Minnesota.

  • Andres

    I’d say that Gentry will be the 1st coach to give him a real shot at playing a significant role with good amount of minutes – not the 1st good coach…
    Hopefully Wes will take advantage of this new opportunity

  • AH

    @Scott, I kind of phrased that bit wrong. I don’t mean he’ll be like Dudley as a player, I mean he can be used in the same way we use Dudley along with a few other extra ways we don’t use him (coming off screens, alley-oops, etc). That way he’d be playing to his strengths.

    @Andres, I think the problem with Wes is that he’s had a too significant role in his first two years. The Wolves tried to use him like Kobe (as a play-maker, trying to make stuff happen) when really he’s more suited to being a catch and shoot type guy. We’ve had a lot of success with players like that. He’s not going to be a go to guy but he could probably get 13ppg with good shooting % as a role player.

  • Andres

    On a different note: The Phoenix Suns rank 84th in the The Mag’s annual Ultimate Standings. Even the Magic (!!!) is ahead on the ranking


    Last year’s rank: 80
    Title track: 107
    Ownership: 102
    Coaching: 69
    Players: 60
    Fan relations: 62
    Affordability: 83
    Stadium experience: 90
    Bang for the buck: 86

    With Steve Nash now a member of the Lakers, the Phoenix Suns are clearly an organization at a crossroads. But given the Suns’ rankings in our poll this year, it seems the fans have been questioning the direction of the team well before its decision to deal the most popular Sun since Charles Barkley. Most of the discontent centers around owner Robert Sarver. He has long been viewed as a cheapskate who puts dollars ahead of winning, and two playoffs missed since 2010′s surprise run to the Western Conference finals has done him no favors. According to Michael Schwartz of ValleyoftheSuns.com: “Sarver is actually one of the hottest topics in the comments section … No matter the subject my readers often bring it back to him, and there’s constant fighting between the Sarver supporters and the Sarver bashers. The fans who don’t like him, REALLY don’t like him.”

    What they also really don’t like? Shelling out for the most expensive ticket ($60.63) of any non-playoff NBA team. In fact, no team in the entire league charged more money to watch fewer wins (33) than the Suns. The bang for the buck factor was already dropping even with the inherent entertainment value of Nash. Good luck trying to spin those prices moving forward.

  • Ty-Sun

    Lol. One thing you left out, Andres, is that the Suns still ranked higher overall than the Lakers (whom you mentioned in your post) at #89. It’s an interesting article but that’s about all it is.

  • Andres


    You are right, that really doesnt make sense, not sure what’s the criteria for these rankings

  • http://n/a Keith

    Wesley Johnson sucks. And wow what a horrible list. They did pretty well with 1 and 2 and then the rest of the list is garbage. I’d be pissed if I was Nash at 5 or Durant at 13. LOL at all the white guys in the top 10, especially Novak. It’s like all the black players just picked some random white guy and said white guys can shoot.

  • Scott

    Only another month or so till we start to see these new Suns … :D

  • bloody mary

    T-Will between Suns and Pistons. It’s possible?


  • Mark

    If Johnson has as low a basketball IQ as everyone says he will ride Gentry’s bench and never get off it like Childress did.

  • steve

    Are you trying to say Childress has low bball IQ? If anything, it’s quite the opposite.

    I agree that Johnson will be riding the bench, though.