Thursday, June 24, 2010

A First Look at Wesley Johnson

The Timberwolves' long-term rebuilding plan is not as long-term as it might have been. By selecting NBA-ready Syracuse swingman Wesley Johnson with the fourth pick in tonight's draft, the Wolves will get instant bang for their buck. The Big East Player of the Year and First Team All-American will undoubtedly be a favorite for Rookie of the Year honors, as his game is more polished than most of the raw lottery talent. He should have an opportunity to immediately contribute for the Wolves at Small Forward, where the ordinary Ryan Gomes started 64 games last season. While some say that Johnson's age (he'll be 23) limits his upside, others merely consider him a late bloomer. Unusually late.

Where blue-chippers like John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins have been destined for stardom since Middle School, Johnson came out of high school in Corsicana, Texas without much fanfare. After stops at two prep schools to improve test scores, followed by two up-and-down seasons at Iowa State, Johnson made the life-changing decision to transfer to Syracuse University. Due to NCAA transfer rules, Johnson was forced to sit out a season, missing a chance to play with Wolves Point Guard Jonny Flynn. In his year off, Johnson continued modeling his game after childhood favorites Scottie Pippen and Penny Hardaway. Said Johnson, "Man, that journey from high school to finally getting to Syracuse, I learned a lot throughout the years from bouncing around. I think it really matured me a lot. I had to be patient and work hard to get where I'm at so I think that helped my work ethic and made me hungrier than anyone." That hunger was on full display last year.

Previously an unknown, Johnson's stock skyrocketed in his only season with the Orangemen. He emerged as an explosive athlete with a silky smooth jumper, scoring from everywhere on the court. At over 6'7", with a 7'1" wingspan, his length allowed him to rack up steals, blocks, and rebounds in the Syracuse 2-3 zone. These skills generally translate well to the NBA, and his intensity and awareness should make for a smooth transition on the defensive end. "I grew up playing [man-to-man]. It all comes down to want-to," said Johnson. But it was his offensive versatility that had scouts on the edge of their seats. They noted his deep NBA range, quick release, fluid body control, and explosive finishes in transition. Johnson scored within the flow of the game. He made teammates better, and rarely took bad shots. In short, he was lethally efficient. Comparisons started to flow. Shawn Marion. Rudy Gay. Rashard Lewis. In pre-draft workouts, Johnson continued to gain momentum, as he stood out against unrefined teenagers. In a period of seven months, Wesley Johnson had catapulted from anonymity to early lottery.

Like any draft pick, Johnson comes with question marks. He's just 205 lbs., and the dreaded "S" word has been attached to his scouting reports. Whether he plays soft or not, he's going to need to add bulk to survive in the NBA. Scouts wonder if he relies too heavily on his jumper; he has the ability to take it to the hole, but would prefer to avoid contact. Because of this, there are questions about whether he can create his own shot. The good news for Wolves fans is that Johnson's flaws are not fundamental, and seem correctable with an NBA training staff.

So how does Johnson fit in with the Wolves? The team wants to run the ball, and Johnson fills the transition lanes beautifully. He adds sorely needed outside shooting to open up the middle. In the triangle offense, he can play within the flow without having to go one-on-one. And he projects as a good perimeter defender, which should help the Wolves' 29th ranked Points Against average (107.8). On paper, Wesley Johnson appears to be a wonderful fit for the Minnesota Timberwolves. It won't take long to find out.

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