David Kahn and the Minnesota Timberwolves rolled the dice in picking the 23-year-old late blooming Wesley Johnson with the 4th pick in the 2010 NBA Draft, especially with other younger and seemingly more talented prospects on the board.
While most expected Johnson to be one of the most NBA-ready players in the draft, able to contribute in a versatile Josh Smith/Shawn Marion combo-forward type role, things have headed in a different direction for Johnson in his first 33 games, and it doesn't appear that it's for the better.
Part One: Offensive Role
As already discussed in each of our three previous scouting reports, Johnson fits the mold of your prototypical NBA small forward from a physical standpoint, and then some. His excellent size, length and athleticism give him a terrific base from which to build off of, and he's really rounded out his skill-set now as well.
Johnson contributes in a variety of areas for Syracuse, showing excellent versatility. Extremely unselfish and seemingly an outstanding teammate (on and off the court reportedly), the ball rarely gets stuck in his hands for more than a few seconds. He's a terror in transition and a force on the offensive glass, averaging over 10 rebounds per-40 minutes pace adjusted. His scoring efficiency is impressive considering the load he carries for Syracuse, as he shoots 59% from 2-point range and 46% from beyond the arc.
-NCAA Weekly Performers, January 15, 2010
In his lone season at Syracuse at the college level, Johnson played a style where he contributed in virtually every aspect of the game for his team, making full use of his outstanding physical tools by aggressively putting them to work all over the floor. From a stylistic standpoint, Johnson has been a completely different player at the NBA level, making a move from the combo forward position to seeing almost all of his minutes at shooting guard and being utilized in far fewer ways on the offensive end.
According to 82games.com, Johnson is seeing roughly 84% of his minutes at the shooting guard spot thus far this season, with the remainder coming at small forward and virtually none of his minutes coming at power forward. Compared to how many projected him to be utilized in the pros, this is a somewhat unexpected development.
Beyond pure position, Johnson's possession distribution has also changed drastically, which can easily be illustrated by looking at his half-court offensive numbers according to Synergy. Last season Johnson attempted 170 jump shots compared to 140 shots around the basket for the Orange, whereas this year he's already taken 184 jump shots compared to just 35 shots around the basket, being transformed into essentially a one-dimensional role player.
Further, three-pointers make up 43% of his field goal attempts this year compared to 30% in college, his usage or percentage of team possessions used has been more than cut in half, and his FTA/FGA have dropped from a respectable 0.35 to an abysmal 0.14, one of the lowest rates in the entire league.
Studying his film, it appears that Johnson's role is essentially to park himself behind the three-point line the vast majority of the time on offense in both half-court and up tempo situations. He mostly serves as just a cog for passing and shooting when the ball comes to him, and when he does make moves towards the basket both on and off the ball, it's from further out and with noticeably less aggressiveness than he showed as a college junior.
Part Two: Perimeter Shooting
The biggest development that must be discussed is the improvement Johnson has made as a perimeter shooter. A career 31.6% 3-point shooter going into this season, Johnson has made 25 of his 55 attempts from beyond the arc thus far, good for 46%. While the number of attempts he's averaging (just over 3) per game leaves something to be desired as far as the sample size is concerned, the smooth mechanics, deep range, quick release and terrific separation he creates elevating away from his defender should ease most of the concerns teams might have. As we discussed in the past, Johnson's issues mostly stemmed from poor shot-selection, and since that problem has completely evaporated, his percentages have sky-rocketed accordingly.
-NCAA Weekly Performers, January 15, 2010
The one offensive area where Johnson is making noteworthy, consistent contributions for his team this year, it appears his breakout junior season was not a fluke at least in this regard, as his percentages shooting the ball have held steady if not improved in most regards despite the increase in competition and the deeper three-point line.
Johnson's three-point percentage is down slightly from 41.5% as a junior to 39.7% his first year in the pros, but his overall points per shot on jumpers are up from 0.965 to 1.033 according to Synergy Sports Technology, and curiously enough Johnson has already attempted more shots off the dribble in the NBA than he did his final year in college, scoring an impressive 1.073 points per shot in those situations, which puts him in the 93rd percentile of NBA players.
To be fair, the majority of the shots Johnson are taking off the dribble are not out of pure isolations but more so one or two dribble pull ups that aren't closely contested, but he is regardless establishing himself as at least somewhat versatile within this segment of the game.
Looking at his shooting in depth, Johnson still possesses the smooth mechanics we observed evaluating him as a draft prospect, possessing a high and quick release and excellent balance even when on the move, showing good shot selection and the ability to hit shots in a variety of situations.
To this extent, Johnson has certainly quickly found himself a reason for his team to keep him on the floor, as his contributions in this area will continue to secure him a place in the league, but it appears the over-utilization of this area of his game is holding him back from being something more.
Part Three: Attacking the Basket
Still not what you would call a great shot-creator, Johnson continues to struggle to get to the free throw line at a high rate. His ball-handling skills are average at best, as his left hand is weak, he has a difficult time changing directions with the ball in tight spaces, and he's not very effective if he's unable to beat his matchup with his pure first step.
That's not as much of an issue with the way he's being used at the moment for Syracuse, but there are legitimate concerns about whether he can be the type of player that can take over (or finish off) an NBA game as a one on one scorer, particularly when being matched up with similarly sized NBA small forwards. To his credit, Johnson appears to understand his limitations and isn't very turnover prone.
-NCAA Weekly Performers, January 15, 2010
While Johnson's dribble-drive game wasn't what you would call a significant strength at the college level, his ability to get to the rim was at least respectable when you also considered his cuts off the ball, with nearly half of his shots in the half-court coming around the basket according to Synergy and him finishing well there by utilizing his length and athleticism. On the contrary, thus far in the NBA, his ability to get to the rim has been virtually non-existent, as he's barely shown anything in this regard.
From an isolation standpoint, Johnson has performed about as well as expected, not having the advanced ball-handling to break his man down and showing even less of the go-to scoring instinct than he did in college. His move from power forward to the shooting guard position has exasperated these problems further, as now he's going against quicker defenders with lower centers of gravity, making it even more difficult for him to get the first step and tempting him further to shooting over his now shorter opposition. Most of Johnson's isolations have indeed resulted in pull-up jumpers, and while he's done an adequate job in that regard, it limits him as a player overall.
The biggest reason Johnson's decline in attacking hurts him is how rarely he's now getting to the free-throw line, as he's averaging an abysmal 1.1 free-throw attempts per game in 28.8 minutes per game, amongst the ten worst players in that league on a per-minute basis. His ability to get to the line was already considered a weakness in college, and amazingly his pace-adjusted free-throw attempts in the pros are just a third of what they were in college, illustrating how insignificant this part of his game has truly been.
The most interesting thing about Johnson's decline is not his struggles in isolations, which was to be expected at least initially, but how little the Timberwolves have utilized him cutting off the ball, something he excelled with at the collegiate level. Off-ball cuts comprised 16.1% of his offensive possession at Syracuse according to Synergy (the highest rate among all small forwards in the draft last year), and that number has dropped to just 4.4% in the pros.
Further, on the rare occasions when Johnson is attacking the rim, he's doing so with a tentative finesse game that doesn't make use of his physical tools, rarely trying to power up over the opposition or draw contact, and struggling mightily especially when contested by weak-side help.
While much of the blame for this decline can be attributed to a lack of aggressiveness on Johnson's part, it's impossible to ignore how his positional change and the offensive play-calling of the Timberwolves has affected him, as there is just no sense of urgency to utilize Johnson in this regard.
Never known as a great shot-creator, there's no doubt that Johnson needs to play with a dynamic point guard who can get him the ball effectively in a position to score. With Jonny Flynn injured for most of the season, the Timberwolves have been forced to play with Luke Ridnour and Sebastian Telfair at the point for a majority of their minutes, which surely hasn't done Johnson any favors.
Part Four: Post-Up Offense, Offensive Rebounding, and Passing
While Johnson's post-up offense was not among his strengths in college, his ability to take advantage of mismatches on the block was at least occasionally utilized, with him scoring a solid 47 points on 48 possessions in the post last season. In the pros, he's been posted up just six times the entire season even though he's being guarded by players 1-3 inches shorter than him every night playing the two-guard position.
Further, Johnson's offensive placement spending almost all of his time behind the three-point line has significantly hurt his offensive rebounding opportunities, with his pace adjusted offensive rebounds per 40 minutes dropping from 2.3 to 1.0, taking away one of his best strengths as a player.
The one small area where Johnson hasn't seem to fallen off with his secondary skill set is passing, as he's dishing out a respectable 2.2 assists per game in 28.8 minutes, a good number if you still consider him a combo forward, but less impressive relative to other players in the league who see their minutes at the shooting guard position. Johnson's unselfishness helps him in this area, and he's even shown some versatility making passes on the move out of simple pick-and-rolls, but he's still just a solid cog in this area and not much more.
Part Five: Defense
Defensively, we run into the same issue we always do with Syracuse playershis team plays zone pretty much exclusively. Considering Johnson's phenomenal physical tools, thoughsize, length, athleticism, and his high activity level, it's not difficult to project him as a versatile and very effective defender at the NBA level. He already contributes nearly two steals and two blocks per game, and is able to switch seamlessly onto a variety of different styles of opponents without much of an issue.
-NCAA Weekly Performers, January 15, 2010
Contrary to his disappointing and more publicly spoken about offensive performance, Johnson has actually been quite impressive on the defensive end for a rookie, showing little signs of the fact that he played exclusively in a zone his final year in college.
Despite dealing with quicker opponents in isolation than he's ever faced before now playing the shooting guard position, Johnson has done pretty good work in isolations, showing good lateral quickness, making great use of his length and athleticism, and having enough to get by fundamentally against all but the elite offensive players in the league.
His sense of urgency can fall off at times and he definitely shows some struggles chasing smaller players around screens, but for the most part he's done a good job on this end of the floor in spite of not having the best defensive help behind him and playing a position where his strengths are perhaps not best suited.
His pick-and-roll defense had been a bit of a mixed bag thus far, however, as on one hand his length certainly helps close down passing lanes and makes him uniquely qualified to defend switches, but on the other hand he is prone to being beat severely when his man gets an opening to drive to the rim, as Johnson's higher center of gravity makes it very difficult to stay in front of his man laterally when he also had the advantage of using a screen to get the first step.
As a team defender, Johnson does a good job closing out on open shooters on the perimeter and is adequate making rotations and keeping his head up, but his ability to make impact help-side plays has drastically fallen off from what he did at Syracuse, with his pace adjusted blocks, steals, and defensive rebounds all being more than cut in half thus far. This, once again, is a combination of his positional change and a decreased display of aggressiveness, and his inability to thrive in these ways is seriously holding him back from reaching his potential, and may be impossible for him to do if he remains at the shooting guard position.
While it's still just 33 games into his career and it's unfair to just dismiss his above average contributions as a perimeter shooter, the fact still remains that Johnson is already 23 years old and was taken fourth overall in the draft, meaning expectations were significantly higher for him initially. The way Johnson is being utilized is certainly peculiar given his versatile skill set, but it is worth noting that he showed similar problems settling into a one-dimensional role his sophomore year at Iowa State. This makes it difficult to separate whether his current problems are primarily his own or a result of coaching decisions, but it's most likely a good amount of both.
Regardless, it is still quite possible that Johnson expands his game as he grows more comfortable in the NBA and his coaching and teammate situation evolves, as playing on one of the worst teams in the league certainly can't be helping any. The fact that all of the lottery players drafted after him this year have likewise struggled initially also makes his performance less disappointing, but at his age and given what he showed at Syracuse, he is certainly leaving many observers expecting more.