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2016-2017 Clippers Exit Interviews: Wesley Johnson

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A quick take on what Wes Johnson gave the Clippers this season, and how he measured up to the full MLE that he was signed for this summer.

NBA: Los Angeles Clippers at Los Angeles Lakers Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports

Name: Wes Johnson

Age: 29

Key Stats: 2.7/2.7/0.3 (points/rebounds/assists) on 36.5/24.6/64.7 shooting in 11.9 minutes per game, 68 games played

Years in NBA: 7

2016-2017 Salary: $5,628,000

Future Contract Status: Signed through 2020

Summary: Considering the Clippers committed the full mid-level exception contract to Wes Johnson, it has to be said that his contribution to the team is a significant disappointment. Other players on the team have disappointed in a variety of ways, but most of them are on smaller and shorter term contracts, while other players like Raymond Felton earned less and produced more. Considering Johnson earned the full MLE, he was under utilized by Doc Rivers, and in his limited minutes his play was underwhelming. Johnson experienced career lows in starts, points, rebounds, assists, field goal attempts, and a variety of other figures, most of which are a product of averaging a career low 11 minutes per game, down from his previous season low of approximately 20 minutes per game. His minutes were cut in half from the 20 or so minutes per game he averaged through his first 6 seasons with the ‘Wolves, Lakers, and Clippers. What happened?

The collective assessment of Clippers’ enthusiasts would likely suggest that Johnson’s diminished corner three abilities, apprehension at lane penetration, and inability to finish at the rim consistently made him an ineffective offensive tool, and his defensive play---while competent most of the time---was not so strong that it justified committing large minutes to Johnson this year. He had his best season from 2-point range, but his worst season from 3-point range, and unfortunately for Wes, the Clippers’ current offensive system really only created 3-point looks for him.

Being relegated to spot rotation minutes is a huge disappointment for Wes, who at the start of the 2015-2016 season was competing for the starting SF role with Luc and Lance Stephenson. Wes has been criticized for a number of things, but nobody has suggested any physical decline. Wes is possibly the quickest and most limber player on the Clippers, and it would seem natural that his athleticism combined with his length would earn him more minutes --- especially when you consider Doc Rivers’ musings that the Clippers are too small and too short.

In any case, Johnson couldn’t crack a lot of minutes at the wing probably due to not excelling in any specific role --- he couldn’t defend as well as Luc Mbah a Moute (who proved to be a better offensive slasher than Johnson anyway) and he couldn’t generate offense as well as Jamal Crawford, so the 11 minutes per game was about as much as Doc could do to keep Johnson involved. Credit to Doc for getting Johnson in 68 games --- it’s not as if Johnson was completely benched. Blake being out for 18 games didn’t really open up minutes for Johnson, because Luc and Jamal handled the wing minutes depending on whether Doc needed an offensive or defensive focus, and Mo Speights exceeded expectations for the most part at the 4.

Strengths: Johnson is physically gifted with length, speed, leaping ability, and health. He has the potential to be devastating in transition and in finishing at the rim. Wes has shown a lot of potential at the defensive end and has all of the tools necessary to be an elite perimeter defender, and can guard guards and forwards convincingly. He can also generate steals at an above average rate. Wes can go end to end as fast as anyone in the league which gives him the potential to be an elite two-way transition player --- by all means Wes Johnson is, in theory, the kind of player every NBA team wants at least one of.

Weaknesses: Offensively, Johnson doesn’t draw contact enough when driving to the rim, but he also doesn’t finish consistently enough. This negates his awesome ability to actually get to the rim. The fact that he shoots only 64% from the free throw line makes this facet of his game even less effective. If he was more comfortable absorbing contact, and could shoot free throws in the 75% - 78% range, this would open up his offensive possibilities greatly. He’s never shot better than 36% from 3-point range, and his 24% this season meant that he couldn’t score effectively either in the paint or from distance. Wes also is not a plus ball handler, and doesn’t break down defenses in a way that really generates opportunities for his teammates. It’s not that he’s a deficient NBA player, but Wes just doesn’t have that one thing that he does great.

Future With the Clippers: Stars do many things great, while role players do one thing great. Wes is decent at most things, but great at none. Rather than try to develop into a do-a-bit-of-everything type of guy, Wes should focus on getting great at one thing --- defense, corner threes, getting to the line --- it doesn’t matter which it is. If he can do that, he can play himself into more minutes, and an NBA career beyond his current deal with the Clippers. If Wes can’t find that one thing that forces Doc Rivers to give him minutes when that skill is needed, the Clippers will likely seek to move him as part of some trade package. If not next season before the deadline, then next summer. At the moment, Wes is probably viewed as a way to make money work in a transaction rather than a way to help the team win games. In any case, everyone likes Wes, and he’s young enough and capable enough to carve out a niche for himself in the right situation. That situation just might not be with the Clippers as currently constructed.