For Wesley Johnson, success means doing the least


There’s value in knowing your role and sticking to it.

In a league filled with players who all believe they’re more than capable to score 30 points a game, it’s the guys who do the little things while not needing the ball that succeed as role players — think Tony Allen or someone like that, a player whose value is more in his ability to impact without the ball rather than a Jordan Crawford who NEEDS the ball to make an impact. In that last two seasons, Matt Barnes was the Clippers’ “know your role” guy, or what is commonly referred to as the 3-and-D role, which is defend at a high level and shoot shots when open. Playing alongside Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, and J.J. Redick, Barnes was well aware he wasn’t going to fill up the field-goal attempt column, all while knowing throughout the game he’d get his fair share of attempts. Not because he wasn’t capable of a bigger role (though it played a factor), but because in order for the Clippers to reach their peak, the team didn’t need poor shot selection bogging up their offensive flow. Now with Barnes in Memphis, the guy best suited to fill his shoes and role is none of other than Wesley Johnson.

Except sometimes Wesley Johnson can get a bit beside himself.

“…what Johnson desperately needs in his career is a season where he proves capable of being a positive niche player”

In two seasons as a starter, Barnes played his role to near perfection, when judging the ‘what’ instead of the ‘how well’ (and even then, did well until injuries killed his shooting in the playoffs) — in 2014-15, when Barnes replaced Jared Dudley as starting small forward, 480 of Barnes’ 527 attempts (or 91%) came from within the paint or three; in ’15-16, as the full-time starter outside of injury, 596 of Barnes’ 624 attempts (or 96%) came from the same areas.

Johnson in ’14-15? 274 attempts from mid-range, which is nearly three times more than what Barnes attempted as a Clipper in the past two seasons combined.

The context tells us the situations are very different — where the Clippers had a clear pecking order, Johnson was kind of in a do-whatever situation as the Lakers saw a steep decline in talent since the Dwight HowardSteve Nash season and was allowed to shoot from pretty much wherever under Byron Scott — but history tells us it’s just a shot Johnson has fallen in love with while not being any good at it, as he’s attempted at least 141 mid-range attempts in every season of his career while clearing the 40 percent benchmark only once — 41.5% on 164 attempts in ’12-13 as a Phoenix Sun.

In the opening game of the preseason against Denver, some of the bad showed even though the majority of Johnson’s shot attempts came from the three — it’s the very typical falling into bad habits behavior many NBA players are victim too.

Oct 4, 2015; Vancouver, British Columbia, CAN; Toronto Raptors guard

Kyle Lowry

(7) dribbles the ball around Los Angeles Clippers guard Wesley Johnson (33) during the third quarter at Rogers Arena. The Raptors won 94-73. Mandatory Credit: Anne-Marie Sorvin-USA TODAY Sports

Instead of the bad shots, what Johnson will receive in abundance are high quality shots. According to statistics, corner threes and in-the-paint attempts are the easiest percentage wise. Easy shots — in some, not all, instances — equates to the better percentages. Around the likes of Paul, Griffin, Jordan, and Redick, those easy shots will also be open ones, which, again, increases the likelihood of improved shot percentages; it may be no coincidence that Barnes’ last two seasons i.e. three-point percentage fit are both in the top-5 best percentages of career — and three if you include his season in LAC as a member of “A Tribe Called Bench”, and it may be no coincidence 34.8% of Barnes’ attempts were classified as “wide open” in comparison to Johnson’s 19.3% as a Laker last season (this is a matter of displaying who the situation puts Johnson is an improved situation for his career).

The need for Johnson to box in his game in order to be a productive NBA player is also why I’ve personally leaned on including him in the starting lineup. Because Doc Rivers job as head coach, or at least one of many? Putting players in the best position to succeed when on the floor. Rivers has already acknowledged Pierce’s ability to fit in whatever role placed in, a trait that’s helped the future Hall of Famer gracefully transition into his post-superstardom days (and for an opposite example, see Bryant, Kobe). Until the bench figures out how it’ll play and Doc implements his offense, the cast of characters will only entice Johnson to shoot bad shots, whether it be a mid-range jumper in transition, a pull-up jumper, two things that aren’t staples in his offense. With the starters, he’s the fifth option and the fear of stepping on the toes of better players — Paul, Redick, Jordan, Griffin — could keep him in said box. It’s attempting to keep Johnson safe, hoping he reels in as the season progresses.

Because what Johnson desperately needs in his career is a season where he proves capable of being a positive niche player. Putting up sound numbers on bad teams is one thing; players have gotten by in their careers just by doing such. But doing it on good, great, or elite teams? We’ve seen many a times the talent doesn’t always translate when forced to be boxed into a role.

Summing things up, the days of Wes trying to prove he’s a multi-dimensional star worthy of a top-five pick are long gone. Odds are he never ends up that player. But if he continues to shoot toward that instead of adapting to the role best suited to fit the few NBA skills he has? The next step Johnson’s basketball career will be when he places two feet out of the NBA’s door and two into whatever international league will take him.

Hopefully that doesn’t happen.

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