Don’t let the lanky arms and intransient smile fool you.
Wesley Johnson has carved himself a role on the Lakers’ bench by defending bulkier power forwards, compensating for his lanky 6-foot-7, 215-pound frame with a wide wingspan, athleticism and a whole lot of hustle.
With Johnson averaging 8.7 points on 34.3 percent shooting, his defense on larger power forwards has propelled him into the rotation, including holding Clippers forward Blake Griffin scoreless in fourth quarter two weeks ago of the Lakers’ season-opening win.
“Until he gets his shot down and can get the ball on the floor better,” Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni said, “playing the 4 is not a bad spot for him.”
Johnson played small forward in three uneventful seasons with Minnesota (2010-2012) and Phoenix (2012-13) where he averaged 7.7 points and 2.8 rebounds in 23.1 minutes. Such numbers propelled Johnson as nothing more than a bust after the Timberwolves selected him with the fourth pick in the 2010 NBA Draft.
“It just didn’t fit me,” Johnson said of his stints in Minnesota and Phoenix. “It didn’t suit my style of play as far as the offense that I was a part of. It wasn’t going my way. I wouldn’t say it was bad luck, but it wasn’t my time.”
The Lakers are cautiously optimistic that it is now.
D’Antoni believes Johnson could follow a similar path as Shawn Marion, a 6-foot-7 forward who became a four-time All-Star and thrived as an undersized power forward for D’Antoni with the Phoenix Suns.
“I actually think it’s not that far-fetched,” said Lakers guard Steve Nash, who also played with Marion on the Suns. “Wesley is an incredible athlete. He has a chance to be very versatile for our team.”
D’Antoni also consulted with Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim, who worked with D’Antoni as an assistant for the U.S. Olympic team and coached Johnson his senior season four years ago when he won the Big East Player of the Year.
“Just that he’s a great guy and great person,” D’Antoni said of his conversations with Boeheim. “You will get everything that he has. On that, yes, I talked to [Boeheim] about that. But how you play him? No. You have to kind of figure that out for yourself.”
Follow L.A. Daily News Lakers beat writer Mark Medina on Twitter. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org