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.

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