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Film Room: Wesley Johnson shines in season debut as a starter

In his first start of the season, Wesley Johnson did an above-average job and showcased the type of stuff that the Los Angeles Clippers need out of their small forward.

In what seems like a never-ending game of musical chairs at the small forward position, offseason acquisition Wesley Johnson got the start against the Denver Nuggets as the Los Angeles Clippers looked for any serviceable play out of that spot in the lineup. It’s a move quite a few fans have been calling for over the last several games, but it wasn’t one that was made by head coach Doc Rivers until just before the game tipped off. Based on how he played, it seems like the move paid off in a pretty big way. That’s what this Film Room will examine.

There has been a sad reality of Wesley Johnson’s career through his first five years in the league – not only has he never played on a team that made the playoffs, but he has never been on a team that even won 30 games in a season. When you’re rotting away as a member of the Minnesota Timberwolves, Phoenix Suns, or Los Angeles Lakers, it’s hard to remember what makes you a worthwhile player. Johnson has his warts, we are all certain of that. However, he does have some things he does well. His best year, by all accounts, came with Mike D’Antoni at the helm of the Lakers in 2013-14. Maybe all he needs is someone to just believe in him.

The Clippers are searching for a starting small forward. When they signed Johnson, it looked like he might be battling Paul Pierce for that job. In the end, Lance Stephenson won the job away from both of them. After the team underwent struggles, Doc Rivers switched things around and went to Pierce. After that didn’t work, he finally went to Johnson for the first time all year. Having that first start come in Denver’s high altitude isn’t easy, but Johnson did his best to show why he deserves to stay the starter. Roll the film!

This play that kicks off this session might seem a tad familiar. It’s something the team has employed for a while. The main part of this is a screen handoff between Blake Griffin and one of the wings. The team ran this quite a bit with Matt Barnes in years past, but now that the starting small forward position is wide open it means that shots like these go to guys like Wesley Johnson. It’s one of the major play types the team likes to run for their wings so that it can initiate the offense without the need of a real ball-handler.

To start it off, Blake Griffin has the ball in a semi-transition state. He slows down and lets Wesley Johnson overlap him to the corner. Griffin waits for Johnson to recognize the situation, which Johnson does, and then Johnson sprints up the right side to receive the handoff from Griffin. As he receives it, Johnson squares straight up to the rim and fires a three. Nothing but net. The reason this works is because Griffin occupies both defenders in front of him, and also because Johnson’s defender goes under the screen without the other defender hedging on it. Open space, open shot, open basket.

A minute later, we get another screen handoff between Blake Griffin and a wing. However, this is an entirely different set that the team runs. It’s a semi-transition set featuring J.J. Redick getting the ball before shot faking from the right wing. Blake Griffin runs up to receive a pass before giving the screen handoff. Redick comes off of Griffin’s screen along the baseline, and throws a bounce pass directly into Wesley Johnson’s shooting pocket. Johnson releases the shot before his defender can retreat back. Another beautiful make.

One of the redeeming qualities of Johnson on this play is that he’s ready to shoot the entire time, and he also pays attention. The biggest thing a small forward has to do with this unit is just pay attention and keep their wits about them. Johnson raises his hand at the left arc to signal that he’s open, but he doesn’t get the ball – and for good reason. The team then hunts a better shot. When Redick starts to tightrope the baseline, Johnson slides down even more into the corner as his defender cheats onto Redick. This creates a passing lane. The hard sprint by DeAndre Jordan also creates a problem for defenders, which is another reason Johnson is so open. The play is perfect, the shot is perfect, and the result is perfect. It’s harmonious.

Another aspect that Johnson can bring on occasion is defense. While he’s not a great defender, or even an above-average one really, he can show flashes of good to great defensive prowess. Much like his entire career, there are flashes but not much substance. On this play, Johnson is matched up with Mike Miller. As the bunched set breaks, Miller receives a pindown screen from Nikola Jokic. Johnson fights over the screen to get back and contest a possible Miller three-point attempt. Due to that, Miller drives. As he does so, Johnson is right with him. DeAndre Jordan jumps to attempt a block, but Miller feathers a pass down to Jokic. Reacting perfectly, Johnson dives down and swats Jokic’s shot attempt before gathering the rebound.

Break this situation down in pieces. First, Johnson doesn’t die on a screen. He fights over the top of it and gets out to contest a Miller shot fake with his length while still giving himself room to recover without leaving his feet. Secondly, Johnson repositions his feet immediately after the closeout and contests Miller’s drive. Thirdly, and lastly, Johnson quickly recognizes the pass by Miller and switches off onto Jokic in time to block the shot. There’s a lot of quality stuff here. The length of Johnson made a lot of this possible, but his sheer willingness to not give up on the play was the real joy.

Another one of Johnson’s fun aspects is his ability to run the floor in transition. Matt Barnes used to do this very well, but Johnson adds an aspect that Barnes didn’t have – the lob finisher. Chris Paul gets the ball on the fast break after a deflection and motors up the court. Filling the middle gap is Blake Griffin, but Wesley Johnson is coming in hot on the left wing. Paul spots him, Johnson continues making the pristine rim run, and Paul fires the lob pass where only Johnson can get to it. Johnson gathers it, and finishes with a layup. It’s another thing Johnson brings.

A little later on in the second quarter, Danilo Gallinari tries to bully Wesley Johnson on the left wing. However, Johnson is having none of it. Gallinari gets into the body of Johnson to push him backwards, but Johnson stays square and keeps Gallinari at bay. This forces Darrell Arthur to set a screen that ultimately forces the Clippers to switch defensively. Johnson is smart here, though. As the Nuggets run their action on the other side of the court now, Johnson lets Arthur wander away from him. When the shot goes up, Johnson digs down to fight for a possible rebound. The shot is missed badly, and Johnson successfully grabs the rebound while boxing out Jokic since no one else could do it.

It’s the little things that make a big difference. In the last several games, possessions like these were ending with the opposition grabbing an offensive rebound and getting a second chance opportunity. Not here. And a huge part of why that didn’t happen is Wesley Johnson. He effectively neutralized an offensive possession by playing fundamental defense on the initial drive, then he switched well before recognizing proper spacing protocols, and lastly he made sure his team came away with the rebound. Everyone else on the team should take note on a play like this. You don’t just assume someone’s going to grab it. You go and get it yourself.

Hustle plays are always a big boon to success. Here, we see what happens when you actually compete hard. Blake Griffin misses a wide-open mid-range jumper, but DeAndre Jordan competes like crazy on the offensive glass before winning the rebound. He immediately gets swarmed by defenders, but he finds a little ray of sunshine in the right corner. That sunshine is Wesley Johnson. After Jordan secures the rebound, Johnson sprints back into the corner so Jordan can hit him with the pass. The pass is made, the shot goes up, and the points go on the board.

There’s absolutely no way of knowing if any of the hustle provided by Johnson in this game makes any of this possible, but it’s a great sign that Johnson knew where to be on this second chance opportunity. He saw what Jordan did, ran to the one spot Jordan could get him the ball, and made the shot once Jordan actually passed it to him. That’s a level of awareness and understanding that you like to see out of a starting unit. Johnson showed that he had that level of play tonight.

Facts need to be stated, though. Wesley Johnson won’t shoot 54.4 percent from the field and 41.9 percent from three all season long. Enjoy it while you can. He’s also not going to shoot 58.8 percent on corner threes all year, either. However, take solace in the fact that there are some things he did in this game that you can take with you going forward. He knew where to be, competed, and gave an effort that the team desperately needed. Wesley Johnson played 21 minutes with the starters last night, and they had a +33.6 Net Rating. If he keeps doing what he did in this game, then he should be in store for far more minutes with them in the future. Only time will tell. From this game, though, there was a whole lot to like.