Anytime you can poach a player from a division rival, you tend to want to be able to do it; even a player that has some issues and hasn’t developed into the type of player that people had hoped he’d be when he was drafted. Wesley Johnson isn’t a great player and hasn’t lived up to the lofty potential certain people believed he had. Instead, he’s developed into a rotational NBA player that is slightly above the level of a replacement player. When it was announced that the Los Angeles Clippers were going to sign him, there was some apprehension about what he’d bring. Johnson does have some ability to make a positive contribution despite his shortcomings. In this edition of the Film Room, let’s take a gander at the ways he can help.
Over the course of his career, Wesley Johnson hasn’t been much of an impact player outside of the occasional play or two per game when he steals the ball and goes for a dunk, hits a random corner three, or showcases his athleticism with an insane block. Interestingly enough, those are also the plays – those one or two per game – that the Clippers actually need out of him. They don’t need him to be the starting small forward; that’ll be Paul Pierce’s job. They don’t need him to be a dynamic bench scorer or playmaker; that’ll be the job of Lance Stephenson, Josh Smith, Austin Rivers, and, for now, Jamal Crawford. The only things they need out of Johnson are for him to be himself, not do things he knows he can’t do, and try his best to not overly dribble the basketball.
Last season with the Los Angeles Lakers, the brethren in that nice room across the hall, Johnson attempted 689 shots. He made 41.4 percent of them. He attempted 258 threes; making 34.9 percent of those. However, on any shot in which he didn’t dribble, Johnson shot 45.6 percent from the field and 38.2 percent from three. Johnson’s issues stem from him overdribbling. Now, while there are proper times to overdribble – i.e. making a steal then dribbling down the court for a breakaway dunk – there are also times in which dribbling is very, very bad. Johnson’s continued problem with making proper reads about when to and when not to dribble are something that could be a cause for concern. However, with the way the bench is constructed this season, there might not be much time for him to even worry about dribbling in the first place.
In its construction, the bench of the Los Angeles Clippers is designed to be something of the disrupt-and-dash ideal. They’re going to attempt to swarm you defensively to force you into (a) tough shots or (b) turning the ball over. Either one will lead to runouts and easy buckets at the other end. At least, theoretically. The plan has still yet to be put into action on the court. Until then, we are all left to our own imaginations as far as that is concerned. With Johnson, though, his role is quite defined. He’s the occasional backup small forward who has jaw-dropping athleticism, an on-again off-again capability to nail threes, and can make some defensive plays from time to time. With Wesley, you accept his faults but hope for his strengths. And that’s what we’re going to be taking a look at; his strengths.
This is one of those plays that fortunately goes the way of your team and not the other team every so often. The Lakers are at home playing against the Memphis Grizzlies. The set is designed to have Marc Gasol, who is standing at the left elbow, throw a pass to Courtney Lee, who is running off of a lazily set double screen by Zach Randolph and Tony Allen. At least, it looks like it’s supposed to be a double screen. Instead of setting a screen, Allen just bails into the paint and never makes contact with Wesley Johnson on this play. Randolph touches Johnson but doesn’t actually deter him at all. Gasol makes the pass to where he thinks Lee is going to be rather than where he is going and the ball gets stolen by Johnson, who then proceeds to race down and dunk the basketball. Had Gasol’s pass been better or Lee not rounded off his curl so much, this isn’t a steal. Instead, it is. But you have to credit Johnson here for actually staying close enough to Lee to even make this play possible. He could have died on the Randolph hip check and just given up entirely. However, he did not. He was then rewarded with a steal and dunk.
Right place at the right time is a byproduct of a guy who is hustling or understands what is actually transpiring. While Johnson’s career has definitely not gone the way he has planned, plays like the one above show that, if he doesn’t give up on said play, he can be an instrumental player. He’s being asked to guard the best perimeter threat for Memphis and does so quite well despite being ran through a screen. If he plays with this level of hustle, only good things can happen for him during the upcoming season with the other Los Angeles squad.
It’s hard to say a certain play might be the highlight of a guy’s season but this one has to be up there for Wesley Johnson. Shortly after Johnson made two free throws to cut it to a one point game, the Houston Rockets inbounded the ball to James Harden and he did what James Harden is wont to do; he tries to go one-on-one. After a quick trip into the hands of Trevor Ariza and into the corner, the ball finds its way back to Harden with nine on the shot clock. The Lakers try to counteract what Harden might be trying to do by bringing up Jordan Hill not once but twice in an effort to trap the bearded superstar. This leads to Harden bringing the ball down low and trying to skirt by Johnson with a quick move to his left. Johnson plays this exceptionally well, though. He sticks his hand in as Harden brings the ball through and pokes it loose. Johnson snags the ball up and races down the court for an and-one layup. It put the Lakers up by two after he sank the free throw and they went on to win this game.
Suffice it to say that this play made a huge difference in the outcome of this game. The Lakers tried to stifle Harden by showing a trap with Hill but Harden gave the ball up initially before eventually getting it back and trying to size up Johnson. Wesley didn’t panic. Instead, he sniffed out Harden’s go-to move and stole the ball before getting a huge and-one layup and foul against Harden. It was the best of both worlds. In essence, Johnson’s length and quick hands made a difference here. Harden thought he’d be able to swing his arms through and bring the ball with him but Johnson taught him otherwise on this play. Ripping Harden outright is impressive. It shows that, when he buys into it, Johnson does have some modicum of defensive potential.
Speaking of Johnson’s defensive potential, a lot of it happens to hinge upon his athleticism and length. To be fair, the term "potential" gets thrown around a lot and it seems a tad disingenuous to throw the word onto someone like Wesley Johnson, who happens to already be 28 years old despite being in the league for just five seasons. However, he does have some potential there to be a useful player on that end of the floor. He showcased it a few times over his career, including blocking shots that few others would be able to get to. For instance, this play from last season against the Phoenix Suns shows some of that ability.
Perennial prodigious paint scorer Goran Dragic gets the ball in a fast break opportunity and does what he’s in the habit of doing; accelerate upcourt looking to score. Wesley Johnson initially has his back turned to Dragic as Goran dribbles but Johnson keeps his eyes located firmly on the ball. The second Dragic tries to cut to his left, Johnson steps over and pushes him back to the right – Dragic’s weaker hand, so to speak. This forces Dragic into a tougher right-handed layup with Johnson bearing down on him. It results in Johnson swatting the shot into the cameras along the baseline and saving the Lakers two points. It’s the athleticism and length that give Johnson a spot on this team as a situational defender.
Later on in the same game, Johnson is tasked with guarding the uber-athletic Gerald Green. The possession begins with Eric Bledsoe bringing the ball up into the frontcourt and being defended by Ronnie Price. The Suns run Green along the baseline to try and show a unique look to the Lakers defense. Green comes around a lazily set double screen by P.J. Tucker and Marcus Morris but then slices through the paint as Tucker curls off towards the left elbow instead. Tucker receives the ball and hits Green underneath the hoop after Green loses Johnson with a simple fake and go. Green goes up for a right handed quick shot but Johnson recovers quickly enough to swat Green’s shot into the stands. Johnson’s abrupt recognition of what was going on helped change this play for the better.
Despite being beaten backdoor on this play on the second cut by Gerald Green, Wesley Johnson still recovered to block his shot. Now, Johnson’s great athleticism and length won’t always save him. He has had defensive lapses from time to time throughout his NBA career and even showcased some of that last season for the Lakers. The greater issue with Johnson is that he just hasn’t improved at all. He’s the same guy as when he came into the league. There’s been talk of him displaying an inability to actually want to improve and he still can’t shake the fact that he’s simply not a difference maker despite being the fourth overall pick a few years ago. He flashes plays like the ones up above but never builds on them to be anything more than, well, the Wesley Johnson we’ve grown accustomed to.
Another one of the possibilities that Johnson brings to this team is that he can be an adequate enough corner three point shooter. According to NBA’s stat tracking website, Johnson shot 36.36 percent on corner threes last season and has shot 36.02 percent over the last two seasons with the Lakers. He’s taken 186 corner threes in 4485 minutes played during his time in Los Angeles; this averages out to 1.49 corner threes per 36 minutes. Johnson obviously isn’t going to receive 36 minutes per game with the Clippers but it does tell you that he can be an option from deep. And that was evidenced on this play this past season.
The Lakers in are in Salt Lake City to take on the Utah Jazz. Wayne Ellington brings the ball into the front court and passes off to Jordan Hill after getting pestered by Elijah Millsap. The entire time on this play, all Wesley Johnson does is stand in the left corner – in this case, the corner at the top of the screen. He does nothing special on this play outside of just not really moving from that one area. The Lakers run a quick little give to Jeremy Lin, who then gets a screen from Hill before turning down the screen and opting to dribble to his right. Lin gets into the lane and the entire defense collapses around him. Due to this, Lin spots Johnson in the corner and hits him with a pass in a perfect shooting position. Johnson nails the three and closes the gap. As noted, Johnson just stood where he needed to stand and awaited a pass. That’s the summation of what he’s going to be doing with the Clippers on some plays. Let the guard penetrate into the lane, just chill out in the corner, and wait for your moment.
On this play, Jordan Clarkson dribbles quickly into the frontcourt before passing off to the often forgotten about Ryan Kelly. Kelly takes a strong dribble into the lane before passing back to Clarkson who then hits Johnson in the corner. Johnson nails the three and pulls the Lakers within three of the Dallas Mavericks just prior to halftime. The thing to notice here is that Johnson fades into the corner rather than pinching down and drawing himself closer to the paint. This creates spacing on the perimeter for both himself and others. If he were closer to the lane on this play, Richard Jefferson – who was Johnson’s primary defender – would have had an easier time closing out. Instead, Jefferson is a tick too late and his team pays the price. This is another play where dribble penetration into the teeth of a defense gives Johnson a free look from a corner. You could definitely see Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, Josh Smith, and Lance Stephenson doing this type of thing next year. Add Austin Rivers, Jamal Crawford, and even J.J. Redick in there, as well, if you’d like.
When discussing Johnson, one of the things to keep in mind that he should only really ever dribble if he’s got a clear fast break dunk or has the opportunity to do what he does on this play here. The Lakers work the ball towards the middle of the floor with a simple pass from Kobe Bryant to Carlos Boozer. The defense of the Detroit Pistons is left scrambling like birds of prey looking for a carcass to pick clean. Boozer gets the ball in the middle of the floor and makes a simple pass to Jeremy Lin on the wing. Because of this pass, Brandon Jennings has to leave the corner – and Wesley Johnson – wide open in an effort to get back to Lin. Seeing this, Lin makes one simple pass to Johnson in the corner. When Andre Drummond attempts to close out on Johnson, Wes shows him a simple ball fake and then takes one power dribble along the baseline before yoking up for a massive and-one dunk over future teammate Josh Smith. It’s a simple method to get buckets but one that’s been effective for a long time in the association. Show and go.
Another instance of Johnson understanding and being aware of how a defense attempts to close out on him occurs on this play against the Brooklyn Nets. Jordan Clarkson of the Lakers brings the ball up into the frontcourt and receives a screen from Tarik Black. Clarkson takes the screen and moves to the right before getting stifled and half-trapped by Deron Williams and Mason Plumlee. As soon as Plumlee retreats, Clarkson throws a simple crossover at Williams to create a passing lane to Johnson on the wing. This is where the fun begins as far as Wesley Johnson is concerned. Joe Johnson – or, as it should read, 7-time All-Star Joe Johnson – closes out too aggressively and turns his hips the wrong way. This paves the way for Wes to take the easy path to the basket. Much like runway lights, Joe showed Wes the landing strip and Wes just took off and dunked without any resistance.
This final play is quintessential Wesley Johnson during his time during the NBA. If there’s something he could do at a well above-average level, it’s run and jump. The guy can get out on the break, get up, and put the ball in with a nice dunk. This play is no different. The Lakers get a deflection and Ryan Kelly slings the ball upcourt to Jordan Clarkson who finishes the transition possession off by tossing an alley-oop to Johnson. This is one of those things that Wes brings to the bench; same as Stephenson and Smith. They’re all athletes that can get out and run off of mistakes. That’s where the bench seems to be heading. It’s a slight nod in the rear view mirror to those who came before them.
As many are aware, before Doc Rivers took over in Los Angeles there was a bench unit that gelled together and became one of the great benches in recent memory. "A Tribe Called Bench" will forever be etched in the minds of Clippers fans everywhere for their furious style of play, backbreaking method of defense, and awesome push-the-pace mentality. They tortured teams nightly during the 2012-13 season and helped the Clippers get a ton of rest for their starters. It appears as if Doc is looking to recreate that magic in a new and improved way. Stephenson is almost an Eric Bledsoe clone while Wesley Johnson can be a spitting image of Matt Barnes and Josh Smith is a little Lamar Odom-ish. The bench suffocated people. If all goes according to plan this season, that could happen again; and Johnson would be apart of that.
No one is expecting Johnson to come across the hall and be a massive cog. He’s unlikely to average anything more than 20 minutes per game. Anything more than that and Doc would be risking his own sanity considering the downside to Johnson – i.e. any dribble move made without any knowledge of his final destination or the sometimes passive way he plays. Johnson can help, though. He can be an acceptable corner three player for the Clippers and deliver some defensive plays here and there. There’s no reason to think he can’t help the team. He’s here as a ninth or tenth man. Mike D’Antoni unlocked some of Johnson’s inner potential by playing him as a stretch four at times. Perhaps that’s an idea for Doc Rivers going forward. Either way, the Clippers have someone who can play multiple positions, do multiple things at a satisfactory level, and is looking for a place that can let him blossom without massive expectations. The team across the hall didn’t work out for him. There’s a chance this one could.