When Time Warner Cable Sportsnet, television home of the Lakers, put out their package of the ten best plays for the Lakers in 2014 — yes, there were 10, but it’s best they didn’t go for 20 — Wesley Johnson was featured in probably half of them.
Wes cutting along the baseline for a thunderous dunk.
Wes making a critical steal on one end, and finishing on the other.
Wes chasing a play in transition, then swatting a would-be layup into the stands.
And so on.
Someone who has never seen professional basketball might see that package and assume Johnson is a star. He’s long, lean, agile and absurdly athletic. He glides on the floor, then explodes. Johnson isn’t Steph Curry by any stretch, but on catch and shoot opportunities he generally looks smooth (even if the ball doesn’t go in). The limitations of some players are incredibly obvious, but aesthetically speaking Johnson is straight from Basketball Central Casting. He looks like he should be much, much more effective than he is. And when he’s not, people scratch their heads.
So that’s his first problem.
His second is even more significant, and it was born with 18 words from David Stern. “With the fourth pick in the 2010 NBA Draft, the Minnesota Timberwolves select Wesley Johnson, of Syracuse University.” He was selected one spot ahead of DeMarcus Cousins and three in front of Greg Monroe. Gordon Hayward went ninth, Paul George 10th.
While fans love to think every first-rounder can become a star, in reality they rarely come from outside the top 10. At least not without special circumstances (Marc Gasol, for example, was fat and Spanish.) Top five picks are a chance to completely reshape the future of a franchise. Anyone over-drafted, as Johnson clearly was, will struggle, and almost always fail, to reach the high bar of expectations.
A world in which Johnson was taken 14th or 24th? “It would be a lot different,” Johnson says. “I wouldn’t be criticized as much. Eric Bledsoe, he was, I think the 18th pick. He grew into his own, and they didn’t say anything about it his first couple years.”
When picks outside the lottery hit it big, it’s like stealing. And when they settle into careers as solid role players, nobody bats an eye. “It’s fine,” Johnson says. Good teams need good role players.
The career path of an NBA player, particularly one without transcendent talent, is determined in large part by a series of accidents. The accident of draft position, which sets the level of expectation, whether high, low, or somewhere in between. The accident of team. What kind of coach? How good an owner? Of teammates, system, role, and injury. It’s one Sliding Doors moment after another. Most coaches will tell you the gap between good and great isn’t all that large. Any number of things can lift a player up, or drag him down.
When Johnson broke in with the Timberwolves, they were a painfully young team featuring three starters under 24 and an embattled coach (Kurt Rambis) trying to install a tricky offense (the triangle). Save Luke Ridnour, nobody playing consistent minutes was over 25. Fast forward a year, and they’ve blown out Kurt Rambis, replacing him with Rick Adelman, who was tasked with integrating two more lottery picks (Ricky Rubio and Derrick Williams) into the lineup without the benefit of summer work thanks to the lockout.
The team made progress, relatively speaking, but still finished 26-40. Meanwhile, statistically at least Johnson regressed, and that summer was traded to Phoenix. “I think about it all the time. All the time. It could have been something special up there,” Johnson says about what might have been in Minnesota. “But you never know. It’s one of those things where you wanted it to happen, but it didn’t.”
In five seasons, he’s played three teams and six coaches, never the same one in consecutive seasons. “It’s just the places I’ve been, and the situations that basically went (south). The first year was kind of hectic,” Johnson says. “The second year we were transitioning to a new coach. In Phoenix, they just cleaned house, and it’s just one of those things I just happened to be a part of. I just happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time.”[divide]
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CONTINUE READING: The Creation of Wesley Johnson