Wesley Johnson is talented but still very raw


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.

Tags: Phoenix Suns Phoenix Suns Analysis Wesley Johnson

  • Forever is2long

    Shooting 75% of his shots at 16 feet or beyond is totally unacceptable for someone as tall and athletic as Johnson. He needs a sports psychologist, a gym specialist to build some upper body muscle so he can withstand contact in the paint and a basketball tutor to make him put the ball on the floor to get to the basket. I agree he remains very raw. The draft has a lot of wings but they cannot all stroke it like Johnson. Johnson can easily raise his shooting % if he would just go to the rack.

  • Scott

    I’m not sure why Johnson can’t find his spot on defense when Hunter was drilling defense over and over. Does this relate to his play in the Syracuse defensive system?

    Also, I’d be curious what Johnson’s stats are for minutes played at SG versus SF. I always projected him as SF due to his lack of guard skills, but it seems like in his NBA career he’s rarely played there, possibly due to chronic lack of guard talent on the teams he’s been on.

  • DBreezy

    Obviously we’ll wait for official numbers, but Coro says that Burke looks 6′ tops in shoes.

  • Forever is2long

    Scott, while I think he has the skills to be a good defender I think you could be on to something regarding his Syracuse college career where there is no question they were a zone oriented team (see Carmelo Anthony).

  • john

    Johnson’s miscues on defense were one of the biggest frustrations for me in March and April. I couldn’t STAND listening to Suns fans talk so excitedly about a guy who clearly doesn’t have any idea what he’s doing out there on the court.

    The only reason I would want Johnson back is to keep the tank-job going. Johnson will be good for that. If winning is your goal, you don’t need the Wesley Johnsons of the NBA on your team. They won’t help with that cause.

  • Ty-Sun

    I’m not a big Johnson supporter but I do agree that at least part of his problem is that since he’s been in the NBA the teams he’s been on have tried to make him a shooting guard when his natural position is SF. But with that said, I also don’t really think he would be much more of a team asset if he was playing the 3 instead of the 2.

    For whatever reason he seems to settle for jump shots when he should drive hard to the basket. When you look at his first three seasons’ stats, in his first season with Minn he took 92 free throws. His second season there he attempted only 34 and this season with the Suns he attempted only35. He’s a pretty good FT shooter (.771 this season and .714 career) so I doubt he’s avoiding the paint to avoid the FT line. The drop in the # of FT attempts from season one to season two makes me wonder if the reason he doesn’t drive to the basket is because he’s afraid of drawing contact and getting hard fouls.

  • Scott

    @forever -

    Warrick was from Syracuse as well. Physically, he should have been able to defend at SF, but I guess he rarely played there because it was deemed everyone else could defend SF better.

    @Ty-Sun -

    Johnson doesn’t dribble-drive to the basket because if there’s a defender he’ll lose the ball. His handle is not good and he’s wary of TOs.

    Look at Oladipo, Shabazz, pretty much every non-PG in this draft. They can’t go anywhere with the ball without losing it. If they catch it they either have to shoot or pass. They can’t create anything on their own.

    On the Suns, think of Tucker, Brown, Beasley, and Johnson. Virtually every time they tried dribbling near another player they lost the ball. (Brown is the best handler of the group, and that’s because he practiced at playing PG for a while.)

    Anyway, that’s why I keep calling for the Suns to get a SG who has some PG skills. That way they can drive. It doesn’t mean they won’t get the ball stripped on occasion, but most other players can only navigate to the hoop when the path is totally clear.

    The Suns need a SG like Harden, basically. A big guard with PG skills. He can dribble toward the basket even if there are defenders.

    Now if you mean Johnson should cut to the basket for a lob, then sure, he should do that, but for whatever reason, few Suns did that last season, and mainly I think it was Tucker who’d move in, and he wouldn’t jump most of the time but would just throw it up.

    I understand why GMs are looking for players who are good defenders and shooters and athletes and so on. But finding players with IQ – who can handle, pass, create, and move without the ball – is important too. I don’t think Blanks was a big appreciator of IQ.

  • DBreezy

    @Scott,

    As long as we’re talking about the majority of players coming from an environment of one, two or no years of collegiate or pro ball we’re always going to struggle with IQ questions. It’s often a matter of how long the curve takes, whether the player’s talent is worth the wait, and if the player’s current talent level can keep them on the court for extended minutes while you’re waiting.

    I think finding a SG like Harden will be extremely difficult as he is very unique. Go on YouTube and check out his high school mix tapes and you’ll see him doing a lot of the same things he does now in terms of slashing and passing. He’s gotten better/smarter at ASU and in the NBA, but the core of his game isn’t terribly different than what you can see on that tape.

    Iow like Lebron, Harden is that way naturally, not because some coach, scout, or agent tried to mold him that way. Often you get a guy like Tyreke Evans who has 2 guard size, ball handling, and slashing ability, but no jumper so people say he should be a pg. I heard Fran Fraschilla on the ESPNU crew at the combine today suggest that Archie Goodwin become a pg in the Westbrook mold because his jumper is weak. I wonder how long scouts would consider Carter-Williams a one if he had a jumper?

    In the end, it’s probably easier to find a 2 guard with an aggressive mentality that can/will work on the rest of their game in the weak area(s) be they shooting or creating off the dribble. I think that best describes the path most of the league’s better 2′s and 3′s have taken.

  • foreveris2long

    I heard Shabazz and Goodwin really struggled today. Oladipo supossedly measured 6′ 4″ with shoes (maybe 6’4 1/4″). The French center, Rudy Gobert who someone has been selling, supposedly looked very good today.

  • foreveris2long

    As for Johnson, I would not give up on him if fiscal to keep him but he needs to be much more aggressive mentally and improve his skill set. Neither Adelman or any of Phoenix coaches pushed him to the level necessary but certainly he performed better in Phoenix than anywhere. He needs a lot of work but when you consider he took 75% of shots beyond 16 feet that is probably a really good % but the real point there is his butt has to get to the rim so his overall % can be above 45% and he will get to the freethrow line.

  • bill.thomas

    Case closed. I think Jodie Arias has a better chance than Johnson.

  • bill.thomas

    @Scott: Word has it on the school playground that Blanks regularly loses to his 9-year old daughter at Gin Rummy. So I’m not sure he can eval. BB IQ.

  • Scott

    @DBreezy -

    Some people may think of the jump shot as a defining trait, but to me it is something a player can add once they get into the league. Like Amare did.

    More important to me is that they have the fundamental footwork down for man and help defense, blocking out and positioning self for rebounding, and the other IQ related skills of handling, passing, and seeing the floor. If they have these basic traits, they should be able to defend and score to the degree they have size, length, and athleticism, and through practice they should develop their shots and offensive moves.

    I suspect Harden has a high IQ and high motor / aggression, to go along with what is probably average (for the NBA) athleticism. LeBron is the same way, except blessed with a body that is basically perfect for basketball.

    If the only ding on Evans is that he doesn’t have jump shot, I would tell him to develop a jump shot and put him at SG without waiting for it. He’ll quickly learn that he needs to develop a shot, and till then he can act as a scorer first and secondary distributor when that fails.

    As for PGs … I want them all to have jumpers. How can they do all the things they should do and not have a jumper? So I don’t go along with that other philosophy.

    Marshall, for instance, needs a jumper.

    As for IQ … my general opinion is that a player comes with IQ or not. If they have IQ, they can learn new things (like Dudley). If they don’t have IQ, they can’t (Brown, Beasley, maybe Johnson).

    Whether or not a player has sound fundamentals, to the limit of their athleticism, is usually a good indicator of their IQ.

    Compare Beal and McLemore. IMO, the main difference is IQ.

    If Oladipo has IQ, he’s going to learn that a SG needs to be able to drive, and he’s going to learn to do it. There’s a possibility he has good IQ, because he’s gotten better each year in college. However, if he lacks sufficient IQ, he’s going to be limited in the NBA to basically what he’s doing now.

  • Hesam

    Wes Johnston needs to do three things: 1. Develop strong defense 2. Find a smarter friends than Beasley and 3. Don’t overdo shooting threes

  • DBreezy

    @Scott,

    I’d actually say the main difference between Beal and BMac is that Bradley was a much better ball handler, but your IQ point is taken. While there are a few special guys or guys who are either coach’s kids or former player’s kids, most of these guys don’t exhibit their hoops iq after 1 college season. That’s especially true for bigs.

    Besides these guys can have high IQ in one area, but not in another Goodwin and Shabazz do things offensively that demonstrate higher IQ in that area than BMac and Oladipo, but when you look at other areas of their games….not so much. They’re so young hoops wise to me the thing I look for most is work ethic. Are they willing to put that work in and do they truly understand that they need to?

  • Elviro (Italy)

    Wes Johnson is strong and where to play … more … Gentry did not give him no chance but when he was unable to play due to Hunter has proven to be a talent … sure … but needs to improve in the team could play …! and has proven to be also a good rebounder ….

    suggest new coach … for my compatriot Ettore Messina …. but it seems that they like the Atlanta Hawks …

    news on the draft?

  • Scott

    @DBreezy -

    For me, IQ includes the ability to expand their game, so if I see a player that is raw but has IQ, that’s significant.

    Shabazz is 20 and has a fairly narrow game. He has aggression, and while I’ve not seen an interview with him yet, I gather he’s got IQ. So while he may be trapped in a comfort zone right now, like Marshall, it seems like he could add things to his game as time goes on. If he could show something new in before the draft, that would be a good indicator that he can improve.

    I’d put Goodwin ahead of Shabazz in that he’s already stretched himself to play PG in college, and he’s just 18. So I think he’s got excellent potential to grow and add to his game.

    At the center position, Steven Adams seems to be a higher IQ guy, despite being raw. Now IQ isn’t everything; another question with him is his will to win and his personal aggression level. If you can find a player with IQ, motor, and aggression or a killer instinct, you’ve got someone who is going to mature in the NBA and develop a complete game.

    Zeller appears to have a good IQ, but he also appears to have critical physical limitations, like lack of length and lateral quickness.

    I like Dieng because he appears to have a good IQ as demonstrated by his good fundamentals and passing, despite being somewhat behind in his development for his age. And even if Dieng never advances much beyond where he is now, he’s roughly equivalent at present to Gortat, so there’s not much risk. Once he adapts to the speed of the NBA, he could probably start for teams that don’t have a star at center.

    Of course, these are not the only things to look for in a draft candidate. You like to have size, length, durability, athleticism, motor, aggression, character, and preferably basketball skills that are already developed.

    For instance, a question about Gobert is his durability. I’m not aware of an injury history with him, but he’s so big … you have to wonder if he can compete without injury. Look at Yao and Oden.

  • http://valleyofthesuns.com hawki

    Been watching the NBA Scouting Combine & Kenny Kadji continues to impress.

    Not only was he burying 3 pt shots but he had the highest standing vertical of all Big Men at 34″….no one else was really close.

    Tim Hardaway Jr. has looked very impressive on the wing.

  • http://valleyofthesuns.com hawki

    Spoke too soon….Cody Zeller just had a 35 1/2 inch standing vert.
    Strangely, he is listed as a small forward despite measuring slightly overt 7′ tall.

  • DBreezy

    @Scott,

    I really liked Goodwin at the start of the year and overall still do. I think he probably has the best natural breakdown ability and creativity of the guys in this draft. While he played the 1 willingly while Harrow was injured, I just don’t see him as a 1 mentality wise. Westbrook wasn’t/isn’t a natural pg and sometimes misses things offensively because of it, but I do think he wants to be a pg more than Goodwin does. Same with Parker who wasn’t always a facilitator mentality wise.

    The thing that gets me with Goodwin is that I’m not convinced that he either understands what he needs to do to improve or that he is willing to. I’m nowhere near as hard on these one and done guys as a lot of the media and some fans are. I don’t expect them to necessarily be transcendent off the bat and basically think that they’ll try to play their high school for most of the season. However I do expect to see them try to work on their known weaknesses.

    I like seeing the YouTube videos of Shabazz working on improving his jumper before he went to UCLA and hearing about he worked on his game during last season when things went awry early. I liked hearing about Tyreke Evans working on his game midseason at Kentucky when he was struggling or D. Rose adjusting midseason to become a terror by the tourney

    . I’m not even that worried if we don’t see the results right away, but the work needs to be there and I’m not sure that it is with Goodwin or Poythress for that matter. Something’s fishy with how he left Kentucky after being the strongest advocate for staying and the brief clips I saw at the combine didn’t look like someone who has been working on their J. You could look at all the groups of players, including a lot of the bigs who clearly aren’t shooters and see that they’ve been working on their jumpers just by watching the form they attempted. I didn’t get that sense with Archie.

    As for Shabazz, he does have a narrow game at this point. He’s improved as a standstill shooter, but is largely someone who leaks out well on the break, offensive rebounds well, gets to the line and will bully players down low-especially if he gets to play the 2 as he wishes. He needs work on his handle, shooting on the move, and like most young players defense. I don’t care that he can’t go right well yet as I always find it funny that scouts and the media get riled up about a lefty who can’t go right when damn near all of the righties in the draft can’t go left for shit and they don’t seem to care.

    There are interviews with him on YouTube and other places. He seems like a nice enough kid, albeit quieter than I would have expected. He’s got that stonewall expression, but I wonder if that has to do with him overcoming Tourette’s. Remember how MKG famously avoided interviews and scrunched up his face when it came time for them? I know from a selfish NBA fan pov I shouldn’t care about this, but he doesn’t seem like he has much else in his life besides basketball. It seems like he focuses on that and little else and is a bit of a young Kobe loner because of it. He made a point yesterday to say that he’s let his family do the talking for him to this point, but that he wants to change that. Seems like he doesn’t want to bury his father for the age flap, but knows that’s why he’s in the position he’s in.

  • Scott

    I watched a lot of the Combine stuff today, and it looked like Steven Adams could not miss a shot, which was a revelation that’s sure to boost his draft stock. He might be the best healthy C out there right now.

    As for Zeller, depending on the listing, he was put forth variously as C, PF, and SF. I suppose it is a meaningless designation.

    @DBreezy -

    Schmitz raised the red flag on Goodwin leaving college early too. However, I read somewhere that with the new recruits coming into his old program, he was going to get squeezed for minutes, so despite his declaration that he wasn’t ready he decided to take the jump into the NBA anyway.

    I agree that he’s too young and isn’t ready to play. He came out too soon. But it could be that he doesn’t miss college life and just wants to be in the NBA, working on his game at the professional level.

    I never saw Goodwin play in college; I generally don’t watch college games. What I like is his length, his athleticism (which I expect to improve), and the fact that he’s a shooting guard who doesn’t just catch and shoot.

    I believe the NBA is going to be a school of hard knocks for him, but he has a lot of the tools needed to make it through. When he’s 20, we’ll start to see the real Goodwin, for good or ill.

  • Scott

    BTW, one disturbing Combine note … Noel only weighs 206.

    If you want to list a 7 footer at SF, you should consider Noel, not Zeller.

    Now if Noel can just work on his corner 3 while he rehabs … :)

  • Scott

    A few more welcome notes … Oladipo’s wingspan is 6′ 9″. That puts him between Beal and Wade, which is good company.

    Steven Adams is physically nearly identical to Greg Oden. His wingspan is 1″ greater than that of Dieng.

    Franklin measured out well too, at 6′ 4″ (w/o shoes) and 6′ 11″ wingspan. Snell is two inches taller with the same wingspan.

    Schroeder weighed out as ultra-light. He’s only 165 lbs.

    MCW gained a couple inches on his toes and wings. He measured 6′ 5″ (w/o shoes), with a 6′ 7″ wingspan. His weight has gone up to 184, which is good to see. (His profile is looking more like the SG I believe he should be.)

  • Forever is2long

    Snell from Univ of New Mexico keeps moving. He is now projected in the top 20 in at least one mock draft. The Suns need to trade Gortat before the draft for a pick now or next season. I see Burke measured at 6’1″ with shoes.

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