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LA Clippers 2017-18 Player Previews: Wesley Johnson

Can Wesley Johnson perfect his slashing game and increase his minutes in 2017-2018?

NBA: Atlanta Hawks at Los Angeles Clippers Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports

Height: 6’7’’

Weight: 215 pounds

Age: 30

NBA Experience: 7 years

Position: Small Forward

Key Stats: Career averages of 7.5 points, 3.3 rebounds, 1.1 assists, 0.7 steals, and 0.7 blocks in 23 minutes per game.

Contract Status: Signed through 2019 using MLE

Expectations: Wes Johnson recorded career lows in every major statistical category during the 2016-2017 season. Most of this can be explained away by the fact that the 11.9 minutes per game he played last season was an approximate 50% reduction in minutes from the 23 minutes per game he averaged during his first six seasons in the NBA. The story that the numbers don’t necessarily tell to the unfamiliar eye is that Doc was right to cut Johnson’s minutes. The good things that he was doing in his first season with the Clippers — causing problems for offenses, getting into passing lanes, scoring in transition, hitting corner threes — he suddenly was doing less frequently and less effectively.

This was a complete buzzkill for everyone because — after reasonably solid play as a sometimes starter during his first campaign with the Clippers in 2015-2016 — Doc Rivers saw fit to use the MLE to bring Johnson back to the Clippers on a 3-year / 18 million dollar deal (with player option on a fourth year). Part of the thinking there was that Wesley was an athletic wing defender and had some slashing ability on offense, and part of it was an over correction on Doc’s part in reaction to losing out on the Durant deal. Whatever — we overpaid insanely for Crawford and slightly for Rivers within a week of the Johnson deal, making it seem … normal? Still, it’s very unlikely Johnson will play himself into more minutes this season, and he seems like an inefficient use of the MLE.

Johnson will probably see limited time again this year, but could start a few games if Gallinari or Blake are out and Doc doesn’t want to interrupt his second string depth — we saw this a bit last year. The popular expectation is probably that whatever regression was observed in Johnson’s game last year will continue, and we’ll see a lot of DNPs, and probably some weak play while he’s on the court. On the other hand, he’s in great shape, has only just turned 30, and perhaps the new-look Clippers run a system that accentuates what Johnson does better.

It’s super cliche to suggest that athletic midsized wings who aren’t top 50 players should reinvent themselves as “3 and D” guys — a cringe worthy term in my opinion anyway. Yes, the league is trending towards excessive 3 point shooting. But the slashing 6’4” to 6’7” guy who can get to the rim and frustrate defensive schemes always has his place. This was the foundation of prime time Dwayne Wade’s game (and he destroyed defenses with it for 4 years when he was past his prime during the LeBron / Heat era), and it was the primary option for Michael Jordan. Strong slashing to the rim (if the player can finish strong) is simply a maneuver that will never go away. If you’ve seen Johnson’s game, he can get to the rim with an insane combination of smooth cutting and a long+far leap. This is a major reason why he was the #4 pick in the 2010 draft. The problem is that he is too timid when his drives are contested, and he is ineffective at absorbing contact and drawing fouls. Combined with the fact that he’s a below average free throw shooter, and what could be a signature maneuver becomes a frustrating, anti-climatic thing that often results in a turnover and a fast break. That said, Johnson is unlikely to develop the touch needed for the shooting component of the “3 and D” guys. How he can play himself back into the rotation is by working through the weak areas of his slashing game. He can hit the corner 3 enough to force a defense to close out, but he should use it as a loss leading tool get into a slashing lane. If his slashes can start turning into makes, fouls, and free throws often enough to average one point per drive then he’d be in business.

Wesley is 30 this year, but he doesn’t have a lot of miles on his body or any major injuries — he’s only missed significant time during any season once five years ago. This is an important season for him because he could either have a bounce back year, reinvent himself a bit as an off the bench slasher with wing defense skills, and set himself up for a contract past 2019, or if he could have a season like last year, but worse, and maybe be out of the league in two years.

Check out Wesley’s slashing from his Lakers era — let’s hope for that aggressive at-the-rim thing again this season.