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Los Angeles Lakers Offer Wesley Johnson Chance to Get NBA Career Back on Track

Dan Favale@@danfavaleFeatured ColumnistOctober 7, 2014

SACRAMENTO, CA - APRIL 2: Wesley Johnson #11 of the Los Angeles Lakers in a game against the Sacramento Kings on April 2, 2014 at Sleep Train Arena in Sacramento, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2014 NBAE (Photo by Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images)
Rocky Widner/Getty Images

Second chances are what you make of them, and Wesley Johnson has the opportunity to make his second go-round with the Los Angeles Lakers engender something other than disappointment and squandered expectations.

Four years removed from being a top-four pick with the Minnesota Timberwolves, Johnson enters 2014-15 enjoying unfamiliar stability.

Thrust into a starting role he clearly wasn't ready for as a rookie, Johnson soon went bust. The Timberwolves looked at him as a star, as a cornerstone, yet displayed little patience in bringing him along. Two years after joining them, he was gone in a haze of mislaid pressure, poor coaching and scant opportunity. 

Little changed with the Phoenix Suns. Faith was scant and Johnson was stashed on the bench, his greatest fault being an inability to meet standards that never should have been in place. 

On a Lakers team headlined by Kobe Bryant, there is no role confusion or risk of overwhelming responsibility. There is only clarity—constancy Johnson has not yet experienced.

And with that continuity comes the chance to right a career defined mostly by its list of wrongs.

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Unmistakable Role

March 19, 2014; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Los Angeles Lakers forward Wesley Johnson (11) shoots a basket against the San Antonio Spurs during the first half at Staples Center. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports
USA TODAY Sports

Under head coach Byron Scott, Johnson will be a small forward.

That's an important distinction, because it's one he's never truly received. He's been a shooting guard. He's been a small forward. Last year, under Mike D'Antoni, he was often a power forward.

Like the Los Angeles Daily News' Mark Medina explains, Johnson's place in Los Angeles—and the league—has been a mystery:

The Lakers never knew what they would get from Wesley Johnson. Johnson never knew what he would get from the Lakers, either.

The Lakers would marvel at his athleticism. They would fret at his inconsistent play. They would scratch their heads how Johnson could defend the ClippersBlake Griffin one night and not stop an unknown player the next. Johnson would relish his opportunities. He would downplay his up-and-down performances. Johnson would occasionally point out the multiple responsibilities that often entail defending someone far much bigger than his listed 6-7, 210-pound frame.

This season comes bearing no mysteries; Johnson will be a small forward through and through—a starting small forward.

Scott has already hinted that Johnson will start at the 3, according to Medina. It's where he played during the Lakers' first preseason game against the Denver Nuggets, and it's where he'll likely stay.

Injuries have depleted the Lakers' already-thin wing depth. Nick Young (thumb), Ryan Kelly (hamstring) and Xavier Henry (back) are all battling ailments that will prevent them from contributing right away. 

Johnson himself briefly fell victim to the injury bug against Denver, but Lakers.com's Mike Trudell delivered some encouraging news:

Mike Trudell @LakersReporter

Wesley Johnson told me he’s completely fine. No issue with the knee strain. He could have finished the game if need be.

Good thing he's expected to be fine. The Lakers need him.

Starting Bryant at small forward—a move yours truly strongly advocated—isn't an option in the interim. The Lakers have neither the wingmen nor point guards to supplement his backcourt absence. Shifting him over to the 3 only becomes possible once guys like Young and Henry get healthy, or if the Lakers acquire added depth on the perimeter.

All that uncertainty and personnel loss benefits Johnson. Not only should he start, but he should also see consistent playing time where he starts.

Last year saw him waffle between the starting lineup and reserve duty. His playing time, like it's always been, remained fluid. Though he averaged a career high in minutes per game (28.4), his string of sub-30-minute seasons continued despite playing for a team that desperately needed the defense he's supposed to bring.

It was also the first time Johnson's minutes crept above 25 since his rookie season. His playing time steadily declined from 2010 on during stints with the Timberwolves and Suns. This year, they could increase or decrease. It doesn't really matter.

Whatever direction his playing time travels, it won't be a drastic change from last season. Unlike years past, Johnson plays for a team able to offer him some semblance of rotational security.

“I know what to expect. I know what I’m coming into,” Johnson said, via Medina. “I know I’m going to play the wing now. That’s what I’m going to do on the offensive and defensive end. I’m ready for it.”

Most of Johnson's career has existed within an awkward flux. That he finally has a grasp on what lies ahead is valuable on its own.

Realistic Responsibilities

Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

Perhaps more important than figuring out what Johnson will be expected to do is acknowledging which responsibilities won't fall on his shoulders.

The Lakers don't need Johnson to be a primary scorer. They have Bryant for that. They don't need him to be a second, third or fourth option either. They have Jeremy Lin, Carlos Boozer, Steve Nash, Julius Randle and, eventually, Young for that.

These Lakers don't even need Johnson to think about creating his own shot. While emaciated at point guard, they have enough playmakers in Lin, Nash and Bryant. Heck, Randle's distributional chops from the block will count for something.

At most, Johnson will be expected to be a three-and-D guy—a specialist.

No more trying to live up to his draft status like he did with the Timberwolves and Suns. No more trying to lug unwieldy standards set before him by default, courtesy of a 2013-14 Lakers roster that bore no identity.

Apparent shortcomings aside, the Lakers have all the star power they need. That can be said of any team employing the mutinous and relentless Bryant. They're also above treating Johnson as a top-four pick, since they're not looking for a savior.

Free to assume a role fit for what he's already shown, Johnson is set up to succeed rather than disappoint. 

Operating almost exclusively as a catch-and-shoot assassin requires no transition at all. Most of Johnson's made baskets have come off assists during his career, per Basketball-Reference. He also ranked in the top half of spot-up three-point percentage among players who appeared in at least 25 games and attempted two or more standstill threes a night.

Although there's still room for growth—Johson's three-point splits look like a numerical jigsaw puzzle missing most of its pieces—he's a serviceable shooter, and that's enough. Besides, it's performance on the other end that Los Angeles will care about more.

Scott and Johnson make sense as a player-coach tandem.
Scott and Johnson make sense as a player-coach tandem.USA TODAY Sports

Coach Scott fancies himself a defensive expert, so Johnson's perimeter tools hold instant value. The Lakers aren't built for consistent point-prevention. Johnson will be called upon to help lock up opposing wings, especially with Bryant lacking lift and lateral explosion.

Opponents torched Johnson last year—shooting guards, small forwards and power forwards combined for a 17.7 player efficiency rating against him, per 82games.com—but there was no rhyme or reason to D'Antoni's defensive direction. The Lakers were lost on defense, picked apart by ball movement and penetration, unable to field more than one, maybe two defensive presences at once. LeBron James himself couldn't have treated that infectious disease.

Byron Scott's Defensive Wisdom
TeamDef. Rtg. in First YearDef. Rtg. in Last Year
Nets234
Hornets229
Cavaliers2927
Basketball-Reference

Playing under Scott—who typically pilots defenses to greener pastures upon arrival, even if only slightly—helps the Lakers as a unit. Assignments should be clearer, and there should be a real, live, functioning system in place. Even if the Lakers bomb atomically on that end of the floor, there should be traces of structure.

Reporting to a coach who, at the very least, understands defense should also help Johnson correct any bad habits—like being picked off by screens and failing to use his length in conjunction with his quickness—he picked up last season.

A change in culture is actually already underway, per Bleacher Report's Kevin Ding:

KEVIN DING @KevinDing

Kobe on Byron Scott's first practice as Lakers coach: "The most running I've ever done in an NBA practice."

Seems more like culture shock. 

Heightened discipline is more Johnson's speed. He's played for the unimpressive Kurt Rambis and impatient Rick Adelman in Minnesota, been buried by Alvin Gentry and Lindsey Hunter in Phoenix and been tasked with integrating his unpolished skill set into D'Antoni's free-flowing system. 

Five coaches in four years doesn't portend success. Not when none of them caters or plays to the strengths of young, developing prospects like Johnson. Scott, admittedly, isn't revered for his work with unfinished projects, but his defensive ideals intersect with Johnson's skill set.

Better days for the enigmatic 27-year-old never seemed so close.

Actual Opportunity

LOS ANGELES, CA - APRIL 13: Wesley Johnson #11 of the Los Angeles Lakers poses for a photograph with a fan before a game against the Memphis Grizzlies at Staples Center on April 13, 2014 in Los Angeles, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledge
Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

For the first time since entering the NBA, Johnson will be given a chance to contribute as the player he is rather than who he's supposed to be.

Rise or fall, sink or swim, crash or burn, Johnson's 2014-15 campaign will provide legitimate insight into his future. It will give him the chance he hasn't had to redeem himself—all because the Lakers don't view him through a prism clouded by past expectations, a process that began last season as blogger TheGreatMambino observed for Silver Screen & Roll:

The biggest problem with Wesley Johnson these days is that there really isn't an excuse to criticize the guy anymore. He plays extremely hard and is paid the minimum, which means that the Lakers are getting exactly the type of production (or more!) that they're paying for. He is, by all accounts, a solid teammate and certainly not a guy who is overextending himself to the detriment of the team. As I said, he's merely just 'there' as a guy who can certainly play basketball professionally, but couldn't be asked to excel beyond that.

Until recently, Johnson was expected to excel beyond his means. But there's no mistaking him for someone else in Los Angeles. Not after working out with Bryant over the summer (per Medina), not after training camp, not in preseason's infancy.

“I expect a lot from Wesley Johnson,” Scott said, via Medina.

Not too much, though. That's the key to all this. That's what the Lakers promise Johnson—the chance to put his career on the track it always should have been on but never actually was.

*Stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference and NBA.com unless otherwise cited.

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