The narrative of Wesley Johnson’s first, and possibly last, season in Phoenix perfectly mirrors the story of the Suns’ season as a whole.
Johnson’s arrival this past summer, like that of so many of his teammates, was unexpected. The Suns put together a three-team trade that sent backup center Robin Lopez and and reserve forward Hakim Warrick to New Orleans. Johnson joined former Minnesota Timberwolves teammate Michael Beasley on the roster. The reasoning behind the acquisitions of both Beasley and Johnson was simple: acquire a former Top 5 pick in desperate need of a change of scenery and see if he can realize his talent in Phoenix. Johnson had been the #4 in the draft just two years before, but despite ample playing time in Minnesota, he had never found himself as a player. The Suns were in need of athleticism and outside shooting. Johnson was supposed to provide both.
There was a great deal of optimism surrounding the Suns coming out of the summer. The roster was full of fresh faces and potential. All the parts seemed to fit together and the team seemed like it might have a chance to make some noise. Much of the pre-season optimism was inspired by Johnson. Johnson was red hot from downtown during training camp and preseason. By all accounts he looked to be the Suns’ most athletic and versatile wing player. At the time most people in and around the Suns’ organization were still drinking the Michael Beasley Kool-Aid, so it was assumed that Johnson would be an off-the-bench scorer and floor spacer.
But the season started and Johnson was nowhere to be found. He played only 72 minutes in 2012 and appeared in less than half of the Suns games. Despite Alvin Gentry’s preseason encouragement, Johnson seemed to have completely fallen out of favor with his head coach. As the Suns struggled, Gentry constantly juggled his lineup, but Wes didn’t factor in to any of Coach Gentry’s plans. Johnson seemed to lack the focus and effort that Gentry required, especially from his young players. Though the Suns were on a one-way trip to the cellar, getting Johnson minutes to develop and see what kind of player he might be was not a priority in Phoenix.
That was all supposed to change when Gentry stepped aside in January. Lindsey Hunter taking over was supposed to open the door for Johnson to work his way into the rotation. This did not happen right away. Johnson continued to toil away on the bench until the All-Star break.
At that point, the Suns dramatically changed course. Wes began averaging double-digit minutes, and by mid-March he was a regular starter. It wasn’t until two thirds of the way through the season, when the Suns were focused more on lottery balls than winning games, that Johnson was finally given a chance to play and truly find his game.
He averaged better than 13 points per game in March and April. That production was enough to make him the Suns’ second leading scorer over that period behind Goran Dragic. His scoring numbers were the good; his shooting percentages were the bad. Wes shot only 43% from the field and 33% from downtown over that time according to NBAWowy. His substandard accuracy was no doubt a product of his shot selection. He took more than 75% of his shots from beyond 16 feet. Despite all his athleticism, Johnson rarely drove to the basket. He was content to shoot threes and long twos no matter what the defense was giving him.
The Suns tried to use Johnson as the a pick and roll ball handler but he almost never used the screen to penetrate into the paint. Johnson prefers to shoot off the dribble, and thus nearly every shot he took out of pick and roll was a pull up jumper. That is not the kind of look the Suns want out of the pick and roll.
Dribble-happy wing players who don’t get to the rim are a dying breed in the NBA. That’s exactly what Johnson is at this point in his career. Despite having tons more athleticism, Johnson plays and produces like late-era Rip Hamilton. He was given a chance late in the season to develop and show the versatility of his offensive game, but Johnson’s shot selection and offensive discipline did improve at all.
Johnson’s defense was the ugly. According to Basketball Reference, the Suns were -12.4 points per 100 possessions when Johnson was on the floor. No matter how he may have struggled with his FG%, a negative rating that large is very indicative of a serious defensive deficiency. Johnson’s shortcomings were not for a lack of effort or athleticism. He was simply never in the right place at the right time and the Suns suffered as a result.
After Johnson became a starter, the Suns lost 17 of their final 21 games. All that losing was not solely Wes’ fault, but his struggles and lack of improvement were indicative of the team’s larger, more pervasive issues. The fact that Lindsey Hunter, a player development specialist, could not get more out of Johnson is probably the biggest mark against Hunter and a big reason why Wes may not return.
Watching Johnson play for five minutes, it’s very clear he has potential. But that potential has not been molded at all during his three years in the NBA. He’s still incredibly raw, and if someone with experience and authority doesn’t intervene soon, Johnson’s career might be completely spoiled.
Ideally, Johnson would learn to be a spot-up shooter who spaces the floor, hits threes from the corner and wing, and cuts from the backside to get layups and dunks. It will take a strong yet patient coach to turn Johnson into that.
Whether or not he’ll return depends on how immediately the Suns want to contend. If the front office doesn’t mind another lottery-bound season, then Johnson could get a short-term deal and enough playing time to develop into the type of player the organization wants him to be. On the other hand, a new contract and guaranteed playing time is a big commitment, especially to a player who hasn’t figured it out after three years. The front office and Phoenix’s new coach, whoever he may be, may not want to waste their time by investing in an asset that might not pay off. That leaves Johnson in limbo for now.
Perhaps the stress of an uncertain future will be just the spark he needs to transform his game this summer.