Back in early July, the Los Angeles Clippers inked Wesley Johnson to a veteran minimum contract, and suffice it to say that he has delivered on every penny the team spent on his services. On the year, Johnson is shooting 51.7 percent from the field and 41.5 percent from three. While he’s only averaging 5.7 points and 1.9 rebounds, he’s only playing 15.2 minutes per game. Per 36 minutes, Johnson is averaging 12.1 points, which is the same amount of points per 36 minutes that Matt Barnes averaged last season as the starting small forward. So, Johnson has been an integral part of the squad thus far.
Johnson got his break in the league after the Minnesota Timberwolves spent the fourth overall pick in 2010 on him. He rattled around there for two years, starting 127 games for them, before getting traded to the Phoenix Suns. He only spent one year in Phoenix before the Los Angeles Lakers snagged him up in free agency. Across the hall with the Clippers’ STAPLES Center brethren, Johnson averaged 9.5 points over two seasons on 42.0 percent from the field and 36.0 percent from three. When the Clippers signed him, a lot of people scoffed at the notion that he would help the team, let alone be a difference maker. So far, through 21 games, Johnson has proven he can fill a vital role on the team.
On the season, Johnson is 17-of-29 (58.6 percent) on corner threes, as well as 14-of-16 inside 8 feet. He’s shooting 51.7 percent overall and 41.5 percent from beyond the arc. But it might be Johnson’s defense, hustle, and energy that have been some of the most eye-popping things. The combination of length and athleticism make him a solid candidate on that end of the floor, and Monday’s game against Minnesota showed what he can do when given the opportunity. Johnson was matched up with Minnesota’s dynamic sophomore stud Andrew Wiggins for 15 minutes. In that time, Wiggins went just 2-of-8 from the field, but couldn’t get anything going against Johnson at all. This Film Room session is going to take a look at the various ways that Johnson disrupted Wiggins during their time on the floor together.
We begin the action with two minutes to go in the second quarter. It’s an inbounds play by the Timberwolves, and it goes directly to Karl-Anthony Towns. Johnson is on Wiggins as Wiggins meanders through the paint before making a reverse pivot cut along the baseline so that he can come off of a double screen by Kevin Garnett and Towns. Unfortunately for Minnesota, Johnson is with him the whole way as he darts over the top of the first screen and then shoots the gap on the second screen. By the time the pass hits Wiggins in the hands, Johnson is already back in position to contest whatever it is that Wiggins wants to do.
From there, Wiggins shot fakes lazily before trying to dribble to the right. Johnson reads the move, pokes the ball loose, and Wiggins has to go recover it with 9 on the shot clock. Johnson’s right there up on Wiggins as the second year wingman gathers the ball, so Minnesota sends a screen for him in the form of Gorgui Dieng. Johnson reads the screen, switches onto Dieng, and Blake Griffin then occupies Wiggins. With 5 on the shot clock, Wiggins has to settle for a contested three-pointer that ends up being an airball. The possession ends, and the Clippers defense locks down whatever Minnesota drew up for Wiggins on this play.
While Blake Griffin was the one who contested Andrew Wiggins’ shot, it was ultimately Wesley Johnson who altered the entire possession. He fought through two screens, poked the ball loose as Wiggins attempted a dribble move, bothered Wiggins after he picked up the ball, and then switched perfectly on the screen. Griffin gets the credit for the shot contest, but it was Johnson’s tenacious defense that changed everything. If he’s a half-second late getting around the screens then Wiggins can rise and fire for a mid-range jumper. This is one of those instances where the guy who ended up being the contesting defender didn’t even play the best defense on the possession. Hats off to Griffin for doing the job at the end, but major kudos to Johnson for changing the course of this play.
With 1:10 to go in the second quarter, the Timberwolves attempt to get Wiggins involved in a little pick-and-roll action with Ricky Rubio. Wiggins runs up to set a screen on Chris Paul, but rather than actually set it, he slips it to roll to the basket. Johnson gets wide to try and stop a Rubio pass here, but Rubio still feathers it to Wiggins along the left side. Johnson gets no help from Paul on the play, so Johnson has to hustle back to defend Wiggins himself. DeAndre Jordan rotates over to cut off Wiggins’ driving lane a little bit, and Johnson comes back into the play to deter the Wiggins attempt. The ball falls off the rim, Clippers rebound, and the defense holds Wiggins without a bucket again.
One of the toughest things to watch on this play is how Chris Paul just does nothing to deter Andrew Wiggins when Wiggins rolls to the bucket. It puts all the pressure on Johnson to stop Rubio, get back to Wiggins, and then contest a shot attempt. But, lo and behold, Johnson does it very well. Jordan comes over to help out, which makes a big difference, but Johnson still was in two places in the matter of mere moments. His length and athleticism allowed him to square up to Rubio before then hustling back to contest the Wiggins attempt. Huge play.
A possession later, it appears like the Timberwolves have an easy fast break situation, but Wesley Johnson is there to stifle it. Rubio gets the rebound and kicks it up to Wiggins, who is already running in stride. Wiggins dribbles to his right, gather dribbles with a long stride, and goes up for a shot. The only issue for him is that Wesley Johnson is trailing the play, and Johnson promptly blocks the shot. Wiggins tries to regather the ball, but it falls off of his hands and out of bounds. Clippers get the ball back with zero harm done.
When this play starts, Johnson is at the base of the free throw circle and Wiggins is at the right wing above the arc. That’s a considerable distance. When Wiggins makes his move at the free throw line extended area, Johnson is just coming into focus underneath the top of the arc. However, when Wiggins slows down and goes to the right with his gather, Johnson makes up the distance and swats him from behind. It says a lot about Wesley that he didn’t give up on this play from the beginning considering the distance between the two when it began. He hustled, ran his tail off, and got back into the play to block the shot. This is a huge deal.
Just beyond the midway point of the third quarter, we see more of Johnson’s defense on Wiggins. For the first several seconds of this play, Johnson is parked on Wiggins in the corner. With 8 seconds to go, Wiggins begins to make his move up the left wing to receive the ball. Gorgui Dieng feeds him the ball with 6 seconds to go, and Dieng then runs up to set a screen. Johnson fights around the screen as hard as he can, and when Wiggins attempts to go up for a mid-range jumper, Johnson smacks the ball straight out of his hands. The ball goes in the air, is eventually recovered by Shabazz Muhammad, and Muhammad heaves it at the rim. Ball clanks off rim, falls to Dieng, and Dieng puts it back in for a bucket.
The end result of this play does not negate what Johnson did during it. While his job was just to stand with Wiggins in the corner and shadow him, he did it pretty well considering there was a screen that attempted to disrupt him. Johnson fought over the screen, got a hand on Wiggins’ attempt, and forced what should have been a turnover. Had Chris Paul come down with the ball, he had a pass to Johnson in the front court for an easy dunk. Johnson did his job on this play, and Minnesota got bailed out by a 50-50 ball that Paul lost before getting a tip-in off of a heave. Not much else you can do here.
On this play, all you have to do is watch Johnson deny Wiggins on two post-ups. Wiggins attempts to post up the first time with 13 seconds on the shot clock, and with the ball in Towns’ hands just below the right wing. Wiggins has to back out of the paint for a moment, but when Dieng gets the ball just below the top of the arc we see Wiggins try to dart back in for another post-up. Wiggins tries to bully Johnson for better position, but Johnson pushes Wiggins way off of that spot. By deterring the second post-up, it forces Dieng into a wild running attempt that misses. The possession ends with a Clippers rebound, and that’s that. The effort Johnson put forth on this play to deny Wiggins the ball changed the course of this entire possession.
Here, we have Ricky Rubio bringing the ball into the front court as Wesley Johnson backpedals just below the right wing arc. Andrew Wiggins spots up directly beyond the arc, and Rubio begins his dribble into the paint after a screen from Garnett. As Rubio begins his downhill drive, Johnson starts to help but then does something incredibly smart – he jumps and throws his hands up in the passing lane to deflect the pass. The ball gets deflected into Chris Paul’s hands, and the Clippers begin their fast break. This is a heck of a play by Johnson to diagnose what’s happening, recognizing where to be, and also knowing exactly what to do. Johnson forced a turnover by being smart, heady, and alert. Huge deal.
Finally, we see what Wesley Johnson can do by playing adept individual and team defense. The play starts with Wiggins attempting to post up on left side against Johnson, but Johnson initially denies the entry pass due to his length and fight. Rubio finally gets the ball to Wiggins, and Wiggins attempts to go to work one-on-one in a post-up. As Wiggins tries to back Johnson down, he has to resort to a spin move. However, notice Johnson’s body. He plays Wiggins into the spin move for a reason. Johnson shuts down the move back to the middle of the floor because he knows that his help is to the baseline. This force by Johnson pushes Wiggins into Jordan when Wiggins comes out of the spin, and Wiggins throws up a wild attempt that is rebounded by Griffin. Possession over, and a mighty defensive effort from Johnson.
While Wiggins was 2-of-8 when Johnson was on the floor in this game, Wiggins only made one basket when Johnson was directly on him – and that basket came on an offensive rebound after Johnson blocked the initial fast break attempt at the rim by Muhammad. So, technically, Wiggins never really scored on Johnson when they were matched up together in a half-court possession. Johnson used his length, athleticism, and quick hands to disrupt everything Wiggins wanted to do. Johnson repeatedly stifled post-up attempts, pushed Wiggins off of spots, and poked the ball loose whenever Wiggins tried to dribble or shoot. It was one of the better defensive efforts by a player on this team all year.
Even though many people laughed at the Clippers for even signing him in the offseason, it might not be such a far-fetched thing to say that Wesley Johnson has been the Clippers’ best offseason acquisition. He’s shooting the ball well, competing at a high level, and hustling his tail off on defense against some quality competition. There’s no telling whether or not this level of play will keep up all year, but there’s also a growing feeling that Johnson is starting to get more and more comfortable with his role. Johnson definitely deserves to be the starter at small forward. However, whether he’s coming off the bench or playing big time minutes with the Core Four, we all know Johnson is going to give it everything he’s got. He’s finally starting to show some glimpses of why teams took a shot on him in the past.