PHOENIX — Nobel Peace Prize winner Albert Schweitzer once joked that “happiness is nothing more than good health and a bad memory.”
Now I’m not sure the German philosopher and theologian knew anything about basketball or the sometimes unfair expectations that can snowball for a former No. 4 overall pick, but something tells me he and new Suns swingman Wes Johnson would have plenty to talk about on the topic of happiness.
Truth be told, Johnson hasn’t stopped smiling since his first press conference with the organization back on July 31. At first glance, you’d assume it’s part genuine and part act. But as Johnson devoured sandwiches and cookies at a table for one, taking in the pandemonium going on around him during the Suns’ Media Day, it became crystal clear that the 2010 Big East Player of the Year isn’t putting on a show for local media and fans. The new guy just likes the idea of, well, being new. For him, a change of scenery represents a new home, a new opportunity, a new slate free from the constant labels of “draft bust” or “career NBA tweener.”
It’s not every day a team boots out a lottery pick two years removed from the selection purely for financial reasons, but Johnson isn’t concerned with his recent detour or the motives that left him to pick up the pieces in a new city. He’s here now and ready to take his first steps down Reclamation Road.
“This is exactly what everyone is saying, ‘It’s a new beginning,'” Johnson said. “A lot of things have happened over the last few seasons, but now is the time to move past it. I am here and it’s the present. So I need to put my best foot forward and treat this like the opportunity that it is.”
A Minnesota mystery
Look, general managers get it wrong all the time and some would say David Kahn has had more than a few missteps during his tenure running the Minnesota Timberwolves. But scour through the draft boards and blog posts and the scouting analysis, and most felt Johnson’s decision to leave Syracuse a year early was warranted. Maybe he wasn’t going to be the No. 4 pick, but Johnson certainly left his mark in just one year with the Orange. With a wingspan of seven-feet, an improved three-point jump shot (he shot a career high 39 percent under Jim Boehiem) and a knack for finding the basketball — be it on the boards, in transition on the wing or defensively in Syracuse’s well-established 2-3 zone scheme — Johnson screamed pro potential. And, in many ways, he still does.
It’s hard to blame Johnson’s first two underwhelming seasons in the NBA — he averaged a combined 7.7 points, 2.9 rebounds, 1.4 assists and 34 percent from three-point range in Minnesota — on coaching staffs, player personnel and schematics, but at the same time, no one will ever confuse Jim Boeheim’s teachings with those of Kurt Rambis or Rick Adelman. The three couldn’t be more different. From up-tempo to the triangle to the Princeton offense, Johnson has played three straight years in three different offensive systems and frankly it’s shown.
To say he’s been a shell of the player he was at Syracuse is an understatement. During his brief two-year stint in the league, confidence has been replaced by hesitancy. Consistency has been replaced by inefficiency. And worst of all, potential has been been replaced by words like over-hyped and mistake.
Johnson knows all of this. He knows the word around the league. How he is still very much a project. How he has the athleticism and size, but lacks the skill and swagger to go with it. He knows the statistics and analysis that precedes him, and yet he still smiles and relishes a chance to hit the court when the games begin to matter again in late October.
“I learned a lot of it up in Minnesota,” said Johnson. “I think there are definitely things I have taken with me from that experience, both good and bad, that will serve me well here. But, now being in a new situation, I think I have a mindset again that things will be alright. I just need to go out and be Wes Johnson.”
So who is he?
Johnson was never a prolific scorer. He wasn’t the guy in high school who would embarrass opposing defenses with jaw-dropping, YouTube-bound dunks or put a game away by burying shot after shot from downtown. Despite notions of the contrary as he made his way across the Draft Night podium at Madison Square Garden back in June 2010, Johnson’s offense was largely predicated on method, shrewdness and athleticism. Whether it was on his AAU team, the Corsicana High School team (Dallas, TX) or at Iowa State, Johnson didn’t make his mark with his shot. He made it with a high basketball IQ and an ability to thrive in transition.
His shooting numbers skyrocketed at Syracuse — 50 percent from the field, 41 from three-point range and 77 from the charity stripe — partly because of his maturation as a pure shooter, but more than anything because that’s what Boeheim’s on-the-go offense dictated. The Orange didn’t beat teams offensively because they were craftier or more methodical. They beat teams, because they never took their foot off the gas. Johnson shot and shot and shot some more, because it was that or a less appealing alternative — a place on the Syracuse bench.
Sound familiar? It should, because that’s what coach Alvin Gentry has told the likes of Goran Dragic, Jared Dudley and Shannon Brown in years past. It’s even what Gentry told Johnson earlier this week at Suns training camp in San Diego.
So, no wonder the third-year guard/forward can’t stop grinning from ear-to-ear. He’s finally found an offense tailor-made to his greatest assets and a coach who isn’t going to try and make him into something he’s not.
“Without a doubt, this style of play fits my game,” Johnson said. “In Syracuse, it was all about getting out in transition and scoring quick buckets. And that’s where I felt most comfortable. I don’t see a lot of difference between that and what we will try to do here this season.”
No one will mistake Johnson for a Ray Allen, Dirk Nowitzki or Kevin Durant from 25 feet away. But even he’s in agreement that his growth behind the 3-point arc hasn’t been reflected in the nightly box scores. You may expect someone who has been pestered left and right about the subject to formulate some sort of strategic public relations-friendly answer. Johnson prefers simplicity.
“I need to shoot the ball,” said Johnson, who is coming off a year in which he made just 31.4 percent of his three-point attempts. “I always have told myself that you have to shoot it to make it. It can get redundant to hear, but that’s what shooters do. They shoot. So if I want to be considered one of them, I just need to continue shooting.”
Where to put him?
Shannon Brown and Jared Dudley look to be deadlocked in a battle for the starting shooting guard position. Michael Beasley — by default and depth at the power forward position — looks to be written in at the three without much of a competition. And P.J. Tucker is trying to make the most of his second rodeo in the league and could potentially take some minutes behind Beasley.
Johnson’s been referred to as a tweener or a swingman, which can both sometimes be replaced by the disheartening phrase “basketball purgatory.” It’s the type of lingo that gets thrown around for players without a position, players who might have a body type to play one role but the skills to play another.
Now Johnson may fit that job description, but for now he will most likely find time at both spots coming off the Suns’ bench. And after he saw his minutes dwindle toward the end of his time in Minnesota, the former lottery pick doesn’t care what position is written next to his name on a roster sheet or game recap.
“For me, I can go back-and-forth,” Johnson said. “Either position works for me, and I don’t mind playing both. In the end, it doesn’t matter where I play. I have to show up every night and do my job regardless.”
While the rest of us try to determine which spot is more conducive for his professional reincarnation, Johnson admits he’s not looking to reinvent himself. Instead, he’s taken a liking to being considered a project, but one more suited for a point of reclamation.
“It’s all about starting up again and proving my worth on this team,” Johnson said. “Everything has been wiped clean since I got here. I feel as if I’m still me, yet somehow have a new identity. I think for the first time in awhile, I can finally go back to playing the level of basketball I know how to play.”
Tags: Wesley Johnson