The tantalizing promise that accompanies draft-lottery picks will often earn them extra redemptive opportunities when greatness fails to materialize. But as successive disappointing seasons pass, those chances become increasingly tenuous, and certainly, more warily observed.
Wesley Johnson finds himself at yet another crossroads as a new season approaches. This will likely be his last best chance to prove himself in the Association.
Selected as the No. 4 pick by the Minnesota Timberwolves in 2010, the swingman out of Iowa State and Syracuse has shown flashes of promise offset by a tendency to blend into the woodwork. After two seasons in Minnesota, one with the Phoenix Suns and one with the Los Angeles Lakers, Johnson just doesn't seem to have progressed all that much.
His 9.1 points and 4.4 rebounds per game in 62 starts out of 79 appearances in purple and gold weren't that distinguishable from his rookie campaign when he averaged nine points and three boards, with 63 starts out of 79 games.
There was one rather noticeable difference last season, however. Coach Mike D'Antoni often used the combo small forward/shooting guard as an undersized power forward. At 6'7” and 215 pounds, Johnson was a sapling amongst the league's taller and sturdier frontcourt trees.
As relayed by Eric Pincus for the Los Angeles Times last season D'Antoni explained his reasoning thusly:
What coaches have to coach Shawn Marion? That was the experience I had and I told Wesley and that's a lofty goal, no doubt about it, because Shawn is obviously one of the better players in the league - - but (Johnson) has a lot of those qualities. He can do that. He can disrupt at the four.
That experiment didn't do much to solidify Johnson's standing with the Lakers. After the season ended, the chronic underachiever found himself unemployed once again, without any apparent suitors. After management failed to land any top-tier small forwards, however, they tossed Johnson another minimum-salary life buoy.
This season, Johnson will be back at his natural small forward position and seems to have some initial support. As new coach Byron Scott said, per Mike Trudell for Lakers.com: “I think the kid is so talented, I'm really hoping it can be a break out year for him. Now obviously, he has to come to camp and win that spot, and that's on him.”
The enthusiasm works both ways. Asked his thoughts on Scott by Dave Miller for TWC SportsNet, Johnson replied; "Actually, I'm excited about it. I think he'll bring that defensive identity that we need."
Johnson has also been working out regularly with Kobe Bryant—a notoriously tough taskmaster.
It is easy to assume that Bryant's mentor relationship with Johnson comes from being teammates last season. But, that is far from the truth. Johnson first met the player he had long idolized, during predraft workouts in Los Angeles in the spring of 2010.
Bryant explained his role as Obi-Wan Kobe with the young Wolves Jedi apprentice during the Lakers' final trip to Target Center this season, 'He's extremely talented. He has the length, he has the athletic ability and the willingness to learn and improve, and when I see that, I mean you can't help but want to try and help them be better basketball players. Now I just have to get him in some Nikes...it would be fun.'
As it turns out, Bryant's protege wound up endorsing Adidas, but kicks are hardly the point. Despite personal mentoring, athleticism and promise, Johnson never became the superstar that many expected. In fact, his reputation has continued to drift toward that of a draft bust.
But Bryant has not given up. Four years after their first meeting, he continues working with Johnson, trying to help him become a more complete basketball player.
And, in fact, the 27-year-old possesses certain tangible skills that could suit Scott's combination of Princeton offense and traditional help defense.
On the scoring end, Johnson's off-ball ability to slash to the basket as well as catch-and-shoot from the perimeter, should be a natural Princeton fit. Additionally, his shot-blocking ability as well as the quickness to help seal gaps, could provide cover for Carlos Boozer and even 36-year-old Bryant himself.
Maybe this could finally be a role that suits Johnson best—an effective sidekick helper to an aging alpha dog legend. It will be one last chance for a former prodigy as he enters his fifth NBA season.
Wesley Johnson will probably never be an All-Star, but he could still fill a useful role for the Lakers.