Wesley Johnson Offering Los Angeles Lakers Tantalizing Glimpse of What Could Be

David Murphy@@davem234Featured ColumnistDecember 12, 2014

LOS ANGELES, CA - DECEMBER 09:  Wesley Johnson #11 of the Los Angeles Lakers moves the ball up the court during a game against the Sacramento Kings at Staples Center on December 9, 2014 in Los Angeles, 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 License Agreement.  (Photo by Jonathan Moore/Getty Images)
Jonathan Moore/Getty Images

There is not a more maddening player on the Los Angeles Lakers roster than Wesley Johnson.

Offering teasing glimpses of the productive force he could be, the 27-year-old small forward might aptly be described as the team’s own Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde—mild-mannered and ordinary one night, and a beastly competitor the next.

The Pick and Roll @PickandRollAU

Wesley Johnson with another HUGE jam! https://t.co/220I73vS3h

Handing the former lottery pick a C+ during last season’s report cards, Dave McMenamin of ESPN LA wrote of Johnson: “The problem was his athleticism was just as frustrating as it was breathtaking because of the infrequency in which he implemented it to impact a game.”

There’s a reason Johnson’s past history as the No. 4 draft pick for the Minnesota Timberwolves in 2010 is incessantly recounted. It is because he has so routinely sidestepped his great promise.

Who were some of his lottery classmates that year?

John Wall was the top overall selection, DeMarcus Cousins was picked No. 5, Gordon Hayward was No. 9 and Paul George finished in 10th place.

Johnson’s career trajectory never took off, yet there are moments when he seems to connect the right dots.

Lakers Nation @LakersNation

And of course, it was Wesley Johnson's jumper that gave Kobe Bryant his 6,000 assists.

Unfortunately, those moments are isolated and sporadic. His overall game is like a stock market graph—a never-ending series of dips and spikes that, in his case, always round out to the same basic result.

Now in his fifth NBA season, Johnson is basketball’s equivalent of Groundhog Day.

He’s averaging 8.4 points per game, a slight downtick from last season’s 9.1 points and just a shade up from his career average of 8.1.

In addition, his long-term median is lower than his rookie season, in which he averaged nine points per game.

In other words, Johnson's inconsistency is frustratingly consistent. He’ll give you double figures one night and go fishing the next. And the end result is that each year looks basically the same—not bad on paper, but ultimately fool's gold.

Although sometimes, his mistakes are so bad that they turn out good.

Silver Screen & Roll @LakersSBN

Wesley Johnson with the Greatest Kobe Assist of All Time http://t.co/XosQ7GigZD https://t.co/2X95b7N8Fl

The thing that always earns Johnson another shot is the double-edged sword known as “potential.” And what invariably dooms him is a lack of consistent effort and confidence.

Johnson went through one of his periodic upticks at just the right time during the spring of 2010, blowing up draft boards by propelling Syracuse through wins against Villanova, St. John's and Gonzaga. He hired a sports agent—Rob Pelinka—who also happened to represent a superstar named Kobe Bryant.

Before Johnson’s green room night and his selection by Minnesota, he visited Los Angeles for a workout with the Lakers and was introduced to their cornerstone. At the time, Bryant was well on his way to his fifth NBA title.

As Jonah Ballow for the Timberwolves' NBA.com website later wrote, a professor-student bond was born. Johnson voiced his appreciation, saying of his idol:

It's great, it's a blessing. He really was one of my favorite players to watch growing up and he's the best player, so I can't even put in words how it speaks volume to him just looking after me, just giving me his advice and his own opinion of stuff I need to work on, and just him watching me.

The champion and the rookie worked out together that summer and during years to come. But Johnson’s career never took off. He sputtered out with the Timberwolves, was traded to the Phoenix Suns and signed as a free agent with the Lakers last season for the veteran’s minimum salary.

In L.A., Johnson was played out of position as a power forward under Mike D’Antoni. His numbers were deceptively decent, but a 6'7", 205-pound sapling was out of his comfort zone against the big lugs of the league.

Bryant, meanwhile, watched from the sideline—out with a fractured kneecap after recovering from a torn Achilles—for all but six games.

This summer, the journey began afresh. Johnson was re-signed for another one-year deal, while Bryant rehabbed his knee. The two worked out together in Orange County and at the Lakers facility in El Segundo.

Mike Trudell @LakersReporter

LAL announced W. Johnson's re-signing. Kupchak: "Wesley possesses elite athleticism ... has potential to dev. into an excellent defender.”

And then there was the matter of new guidance with the hiring of Byron Scott—Johnson’s sixth NBA coach in five seasons.

Finally, it seemed as if the former collegiate wunderkind might find a defined role that played to his strengths as an athletic wing defender.

During the summer, Scott offered the chance for a new beginning, per Mike Trudell of Lakers.com: “I think Wesley has not played to his potential at all. He's shown signs, but I think the kid is so talented, I'm really hoping it can be a break out year for him.”

And per Mark Medina for the Los Angeles Daily News, Johnson was relishing the opportunity: “I know what to expect. I know what I’m coming into. 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.”

It was as if a perfect storm had aligned in all the right ways—the gift of playing alongside his mentor in a starting lineup, with a supportive coach, a new contract and a possible future with a rebuilding team.

John Bazemore/Associated Press

But the chameleon was still not able to solidify his appearance.

Johnson’s season high in scoring is 19 points against the Timberwolves—the team where it all began. His season low in scoring is zero in 26 minutes against the Boston Celtics.

He had 12 rebounds in a loss to the Denver Nuggets but has had two or fewer rebounds eight times already this season.

As for rim protection—one of his vaunted athletic specialties—Johnson had four blocks in a win against the Detroit Pistons and zero swats on 11 occasions.

He will swoop in and do something awesomely unexpected—a hyper-athletic wallflower who brings ever-hopeful fans to their feet before retreating back inside his shell.

And on another night, forgetting to put his hands up as a pass sails out of bounds, we'll see that sheepish “my bad” grin.

Wesley Johnson will offer tantalizing glimpses of what could be and then break your heart by forgetting to show up to the dance. 

The Lakers decided to give him another chance this season.

Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.


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