Johnson wasn’t going to be a star under better circumstances, but it’s hard to believe he didn’t suffer from all the instability.
He’s made incremental improvements in his three-point shooting, helping fuel a career best true shooting percentage. His assist percentages are higher over his last two years than the two years prior. Johnson’s turnover rate is very low, in part because he doesn’t handle the ball much, but also because he doesn’t take careless risks. Still, as a total package, Johnson’s statistical profile isn’t much different now than it was in his rookie season. And while inconsistency is commonly (and justifiably) listed as one of the great criticisms of his game — Johnson routinely teases with a couple great weeks every month or two — at the end of the season his numbers generally look the same every season.
Some of that statistical fluctuation Johnson notes fairly, is because he’s never really asked to do the same thing, night to night. Sometimes he’s cutting more, other times spotting up. (Either way, his buckets are almost always assisted.) Johnson might be asked to attack the glass one night, but not another, depending on who he’s guarding.
But after playing four years of college ball, at 27 by modern NBA standard Johnson is an old fifth year player. After 300-plus NBA games, he’s unlikely to have a the kind of breakout campaign that might bump him up a few runs on the NBA hierarchy. Most people I’ve asked believe something in his athletic makeup simply hasn’t let let Johnson grow significantly, whether it’s an overabundance of deference to teammates or coaches, a lack of killer instinct, or whatever.
As one NBA scout pointed out Thursday night, Johnson is just missing it, that intangible thing helping separate the NBA’s middle and upper classes.
But it’s an accident of Draft, entirely out of his control, branding him a bust. That was a mistake of executives, though. The league may be fueled by superstars, but it’s populated, for the most part, with Wes Johnsons. Players with imperfections, putting in the time and energy required to succeed but nonetheless heavily dependent on fate to put them in the best opportunity to succeed. In the end, he’ll probably play for a decade in the NBA, so it’s hard to call Johnson a failure.
Like a lot of players, Johnson would benefit greatly playing on a good team where he could be pointed in very specific directions tailored to his best qualities, and asked to excel. Finding that kind of team — the Lakers don’t qualify — would be the best way to find out how good a pro Johnson can still be. But how would his career be different had he spent the first three or four seasons in relative stability? Or, even better, with Pop or Rick Carlisle? What would he look like surrounded by high end, veteran teammates for two or three years? Not a star, but could he land in that Danny Green neighborhood? There’s a universe somewhere in which everything clicked, and Johnson reached his max potential.
What does that universe look like?
Johnson doesn’t deserve anyone’s pity. He’s not some sort of NBA hard case. Nor is his career this wild horse over which he has no influence, whether through natural talent, work ethic, or mental makeup. But it’s interesting consider how many players there are roaming the NBA with relatively similar skill levels, and the ways in which context and skill combine in the creation of Wes Johnson, whether the type or the real deal.[divide]
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