Below is the eighth in a series previewing the storylines surrounding each player on the Lakers’ roster for the 2013-14 season. This post focuses on Lakers backup shooting guard/small forward Wesley Johnson.
1. Will Wesley Johnson overcome his reputation as a draft bust? It’s a telltale sign that Johnson signed with the Lakers at the veteran’s minimum a mere three years after being selected for the fourth overall pick in the 2010 NBA Draft. But that’s what happens after Johnson had three uneventful seasons with the Minnesota Timberwolves and Phoenix Suns, averaging 7.7 points and 2.8 rebounds in 23.1 minutes. Johnson chalked up those struggles during his introductory press conference as a Laker to a combination of learning the growing pains of the NBA and not playing in the right system. ‘
Johnson won’t have such excuses anymore. Mike D’Antoni’s system seems tailor made for Johnson’s athleticism and mobility. He has veteran-laden talent around him in Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol and Steve Nash to help along the way. The Lakers have specifics needs that Johnson could fulfill, ranging from outside shooting and defending. Accounts suggest he has a very pleasant personality and a great work ethic so it’s possible Johnson will experience success. But he has to prove it first, something he has failed to do in his first three NBA seasons.
2. Johnson must show more assertiveness than in past seasons. He managed to win Big East Player of the Year honors and average 16.5 points, 8.5 rebounds and 2.2 assists in his junior season at Syracuse after spending two uneventful years at Iowa State. Johnson did so because he mixed the right blend of teamwork and clutch shooting. But in the NBA, Johnson has appeared way too tentative for his own good. As a result, Johnson has lacked the necessary aggressiveness both to create his own shot, drive to the basket and establish authority on his respective team.
Plenty of young players encounter this challenge, but Johnson can’t afford to lack aggressiveness with the Lakers. Though the Lakers lost plenty of talent in Dwight Howard and Metta World Peace, they boast plenty of players that will command a strong offensive role, including Bryant, Pau Gasol and Steve Nash. Johnson also will be sharing time at small forward with Nick Young, who has rarely seen a shot he doesn’t like. Because of the team’s offensive versatility, Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni will likely mix and match combinations. Should Johnson’s aggressiveness wane, it’s likely he’ll just get lost in the shuffle.
3. Johnson will need to become a consistent outside shooter Johnson said at his introductory press conference that his game has “catapulted” after working on his shooting, ball handling and conditioning. He also added that averaging 13.4 points in 21 starts last season with Phoenix “boosted my confidence.” Such a skillset will come in handy considering the Lakers need as many capable outside shooters as possible. Sure, the Lakers have such players in Steve Nash, Steve Blake and Jodie Meeks. But Nash will be more needed to run the offense. Blake’s shot comes and goes. And Meeks remains feast or famine.
Johnson showed flashes of such potential, shooting at least 50 percent from three-point range in 15 of his 50 appearances last season with Phoenix. Even if his marksmanship isn’t always there, Johnson has shown he has a decent mid-range jumper. If Johnson builds off of that, the Lakers’ will have much more open looks for Bryant, Gasol and Kaman sine defenses will have to respect the Lakers’ floor spacing.
4. Johnson will be needed as a wing defender It’s unrealistic to expect Young to offer much on defense, since, well he rarely plays it. That’s going to be a problem considering the Lakers don’t have Howard to block shots and World Peace to defend the opposing team’s top players. So if he wants to eat some minutes away from Young and make life easier for Bryant, it’s in Johnson’s best interest to sharpen up on defense.
The Lakers are expecting big things, openly envisioning him as the next Michael Cooper or Trevor Ariza. Tall order indeed. Cooper helped lead the Lakers to five NBA championships in the 1980s Showtime Era by becoming one of the NBA’s best defenders and bench players. Ariza’s outside shooting and defense helped the Lakers win the 2009 NBA title.
Plenty of Phoenix and Minnesota fans laughed at such a claim, believing the Lakers expressed nothing more than wishful thinking. Perhaps so. But Johnson’s length (he’s 6’7″) and athleticism could help the Lakers defensively if he puts focus and energy into that area.
5. Johnson’s relationship with Kobe Bryant will be key.A Laker can never go wrong when Bryant’s in your corner. Even before donning the purple and gold, Johnson has Bryant’s banking stemmed out of sharing the same agent in Rob Pelinka. Because of that, Bryant has taken Johnson on early morning private workouts where he divulged unspecified feedback surrounding all things basketball. Johnson has taken great delight in that feedback and sounds open to such demanding feedback. So it’s likely this friendship will only flourish. Such a bond will also come in hand to ensure Johnson sharpens on the aforementioned keys the Lakers need this season from him.
Follow L.A. Daily News Lakers beat writer Mark Medina on Twitter. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org