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2016 Clippers Player Preview: Wesley Johnson

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The Clippers player preview series continues with potential starting small forward Wesley Johnson.

Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

Wesley Johnson Key Stats

MPG PPG P/36 RPG APG BPG PF
FG% FT%
2014-2015 29.5 9.9 12.1 4.2 1.6 0.6 2.1
41.4
80.4
Career 25.7 8.5 11.9 3.5 1.4 0.7 2.0 40.9 76

If predetermination is real, then it is absolutely certain Wesley JaMarr Johnson was created to play basketball. Johnson measures 6 foot 7 inches, 216 pounds with a 7-foot 1-inch wingspan. He tested for the highest no-step vertical in his draft class, and ran the 3/4th floor sprint in the same time as John Wall. Johnson is bustling with athleticism. If Gumby worked out, he would look and move like Wes - long limbs with striking force. YouTube has a few Wesley Johnson fire mix-tapes. Man, oh man, Johnson does special things on the floor.

In college, Johnson was phenomenal his final year at Syracuse, becoming First Team AP All American, with season averages of 16 points and 8 rebounds per-game. Johnson's draft perception was sizzling with potential. Drafted fourth by the Minnesota Timberwolves, Wesley Johnson faced high expectations to perform throughout his career. Fourth overall picks aren't drafted to be role players, but stars. The bust paradigm fogs his career, but Wes possesses the opportunity and ability to alter the perspective of his career with the 2015-16 season as a Clipper.

The Clippers eternal search for consistent production from small forward continued this past offseason. Matt Barnes, Jared Dudley, Caron Butler and many others have been given chance to be the Clippers starting small forward in recent years. Some have been better than others, but yearly this position has been the biggest weakness. Granted, it's hard to best two potential Hall-of-Famers, one Defensive Player of the Year candidate, and a sniper of a shooter, but the Clippers keep tinkering with the small forward position, looking for the ideal fit. Two players were signed to strengthen the Clippers weakest position: Paul Pierce and Wesley Johnson. Pierce is a proven commodity, but what about Wes?

With five years logged in his NBA career, Johnson has played for three teams: Minnesota, Phoenix and the other LA team. In five years, Wes's teams compiled a total 116 wins compared to 278 losses. The best players Wes shared the court with was a young Kevin Love and an old Kobe Bryant. Excuse me for believing that doesn't exactly scream "leadership!!" A total of five different coaches for Wes in five seasons, with none exactly known for top-tier coaching, except maybe Alvin Gentry, but Gentry is an unproven head-coach with success as an assistant. Instability would be a buzzword around Johnson's career. He's started on teams, he's come off the bench and also not been apart of the rotation. The Clippers give Johnson something he's never had in his career, a clear role with a winning organization. The Clippers don't need him to be a star, they need to make a few plays a game and be a positive defender.

It's not clear if Johnson will start or come off the bench, but with Pierce on a per-game minute plan, Johnson has the chance to play around 25 minutes-per-game. In my opinion, Johnson will be starting over Pierce. Pierce would seem to be more effective with the second unit, where the ball could be in his hands more. Therefor, it's fitting to compare Johnson to his predecessor, Matt Barnes. Playing with either the starters or the bench, his simplified offensive role will be the same - play off the ball, space the floor and pass it to the open man or make the open shot. In a recent interview with Fred Roggin on The Beast 980 Wes says teams wanted him to be a "stand still spot up shooter, but that wasn't me." He also mentions how he will do what needs to be done. Matt Barnes wasn't simply a 3-and-D player, which Wes seems to be alluding to. Barnes would set a ton of screens within the Clippers system and would get the occasional post-up when teams placed their better defenders on Paul or Reddick. But if Johnson wants to see the floor for extended stretches, he'll need to knock down the open three. Shot tracking stats provided by NBA.com indicate that Wesley Johnson might be a better shooter for the Clippers than Matt Barnes was. Last season, with the Lakers, Johnson shot 35 percent from behind the arc. Barnes shot 36 percent from deep, but the quality of shots Barnes took were much better than Johnson's. 22 percent of Barnes shots were "open," with a defender 4-6 feet away, while Johnson took "open" shots 16 percent of the time. Johnson shot a smidge better on "open" three point shots, making 35 percent compared to Barnes' 34 percent. On "wide open" shots Wes separates himself. Barnes had an incredible 31% of his three point attempts "wide open," meaning a defender was 6 feet or more away. Barnes made 37 percent of such shots. Only 13 percent of Johnson's three point shots were "wide open," but he made a blazing 43 percent. Maybe a "WARNING: SMALL SAMPLE SIZE" disclaimer should be included, but isn't that promising? His jump shot has a lot of motion to it and elevates very well, but the release is quick and won't be bothered by defenders about his size or smaller. Johnson had better numbers than Barnes on open shots, and comes to a system where he will see the rim like never before. Johnson does get himself into trouble when he starts dribbling too much. His shooting percentage decreases from 46 percent to 38 percent with just one extra dribble, and then decreases a little more with each dribble. A lot of these stats are without context and just viewed in a vacuum, but 75 percent of Matt Barnes shot came without a dribble, and that's a trend that should continue for Johnson.

Wes has an adept backdoor cutting ability. With Johnson on the floor, this is a sequence Clippers fans should see often. The dunk over new teammate Pierce featured a small-ball Lakers lineup, surrounded by shooters. Even with Blake and DJ in the game, this cut will be open. Defenders are hesitant to leave two of the most dynamic dunkers in the league, so if Johnson theoretically beats his man, the lane should be open. From less than 8 feet, Johnson shot 64 percent. It's hard not to be a decent finisher with those rangy arms and high vertical. If defenders respect his finishing ability, he could dump it to a big or kick the ball out to a shooter in the corner. Johnson doesn't have the rep of a good passer or bad passer, but posts a respectable 1.43 assist to turnover ratio. Johnson just won't be in situations where he needs to be dynamic with the ball. His passes will be reactionary to defensive alignments rather than putting pressure on the defense.

The Clippers play fast, and Wesley Johnson thrives in the fast break. His length and speed will give Chris Paul another strong option to dish it to. Analytical numbers don't necessarily back up this claim, but the eye test sure does. There's no way Chris Paul and Wes don't recreate this play a few times throughout the season. Wes fills the lane strongly and quickly and he'll soar like few can in the association.

Defensively, like Johnson's career, is brimming with potential, potential he hasn't quite lived up to. He sure looks the part of elite defender. His length really allows him to get in passing lanes, jump the pass and create easy transition buckets. Wes coincidentally also has one of my favorite blocks of all time - a flat footed, two armed Mister Fantastic rejection of Damian Lilliard. He averages just a block every other game, but his blocks ignite the team.  One weakness as an individual defender, Wes isn't consistently aggressive enough, and the numbers reflect that. Offensive players less than 10 feet away from the basket shot 6 percent better with Wes guarding them compared to their normal percentages. Offensive players shot 3 percent better from deep with Wes as their matchup. When engaged with a sense of urgency, he is solid in isolation, once forcing the game-winning steal to an and-one from James Harden. Wes is a below average rebounder for his position, another sign of unaggressiveness. As whole, it is hard to fairly evaluate such a quality when individual success is team driven. A quality defense has five cogs bought in, thinking together, and rotating on an axis. Wes's previous teams were never strong defensive teams and never had an interior defender near the skill level of DJ.

Wesley Johnson's career has been very inconsistent. One game he'll erupt for 20 points and the next score 5. He's dealt with missed expectations his whole career, but the Clippers don't need him to be a main performer, he just needs to compliment the stars and make a few key plays per game. With reports surfacing that the Clippers are considering starting him, he'll undoubtedly get his chances. Signed for the vet minimum, the Clippers financially didn't risk much to sign him, but Johnson's risking not staying in the NBA if he doesn't find his niche with the Clippers.