Wesley Johnson carving a defensive niche with the Lakers

PHOENIX — Instead of going out and enjoying a town he lived in last year, Wesley Johnson carved out his evening both to watch film and sleep.

Safe to say Johnson has some extra motivation beyond helping the Lakers (13-13) win tonight against the Phoenix Suns (16-10) at U.S. Airways Center.

“It’s going to feel good to come back here and play against them,” Johnson said. “I’m very excited for tonight.”

Johnson spent his first three years in the NBA going through some uneventful seasons with Minnesota (2010-12) and Phoenix (2012-13), averaging 7.7 points and 2.8 rebounds in 23.1 minutes. And while it’s a stretch to say he has lived up to his time with the Lakers as the fourth pick out of the 2010 NBA Draft, Johnson has carved out an effective enough niche to start in 18 games.

That role has mostly involved playing a defensive role both at the small and power forward positions.

“The opportunity is different,” Johnson said. “As far as being a player, it was key for me to just go out there and play. The opportunity presented itself and gave me a lot more minutes and opportunity.”

Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni told Johnson to focus more on using his length and athleticism to become a strong defender and less than worrying about his offensive output that involves averaging eight points on 41.2 percent shooting in 26.6 minutes. D’Antoni also has compared Johnson to 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.

“That’s also high, lofty goals because Shawn is one of the best in the league. But Wes has a similar skillset,” D’Antoni said. “He’s finding himself. He needs to have consistent energy and stuff we’re looking for. We’re learning to go between the 3 and the 4. But I think he’s having a good year.”

That’s because Johnson has showed effectiveness in guarding the opposing team’s top scorers of all shapes and sizes.

Johnson defended Clippers forward Blake Griffin, holding him to zero fourth-quarter points in the Lakers’ season-opening win against their crosstown rival. In the Lakers’ victory Friday against Minnesota, Johnson switched assignments both on speedy point guard Ricky Rubio and former UCLA standout Kevin Love, whose 25 points entailed a scoreless second half. Johnson mostly manned the perimeter in the Lakers’ loss Saturday in Golden State on guard Stephen Curry, who went only 5-of-15 from the field.

“He can guard everybody,” D’Antoni said. “His length and athleticism makes it hard on people.”

It could be hard on Johnson, too.

Johnson boasts a lanky 6-foot-7, 215-pound frame. requiring him to compensate for his diminished physical stature with a wide wingspan and a whole lot of hustle.

“I just irritate them,” Johnson said. “If they have a physical body, they usually just use their body because they’re not as quick. They just try to lay on you, so I just stay moving. Once I’m moving around, its’ hard for them to get position on my length.”

Johnson also has to maintain the mental discipline in keeping up with his defensive assignments, requiring him both to watch endless footage and show strong court awareness.

“It’s just the spur of the moment,” Johnson said on determining his defensive matchups. “If you think about it’s crazy. In the fly of the game, I’m on the 4 and then I’m jumping to a point guard.”

Johnson’s assignment tonight? Could be former Clippers point guard Eric Bledsoe. Or speedy point guard Goran Dragic. Markieef Morris, Marcus Morris or perhaps both of the Morris twins. Maybe more.

Regardless, Johnson’s eager to show the Suns how much he’s changed ever since donning the purple and gold.

“It was rough when I was out here,” Johnson said. “But being a Laker, it’s definitely helped me out.”


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Follow L.A. Daily News Lakers beat writer Mark Medina on Twitter. E-mail him at mark.medina@langnews.com

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