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Is “Can’t Miss” Wes Johnson a Timberwolves Draft Bust?

Perhaps Wes Johnson wishes he’d stayed at Syracuse and played out his senior season. Not that he thought twice about leaving in the first place – why risk injury or a drop in your draft stock by waiting a year, when you can guarantee yourself millions now?

But almost 11 months after his decision to take his talents away from Central New York, the biggest problem with that choice turned out to be that Wes couldn’t control where his talents landed.

It’s largely unknown how Wes’ professional career will turn out. His rookie year has been underwhelming, if not extremely disappointing. Take a closer look though, and you’ll see that it could be going a lot better if his team knew how to properly utilize his skills.

The Timberwolves have a long history of mismanagement. Their current GM, David Kahn, and head coach Kurt Rambis, haven’t been in town for long, but they already seem to be doing a nice job of adding to that history.

Selecting three point guards in the first round of the same draft and trading away the one that actually panned out (Ty Lawson); dealing a promising young power forward in Al Jefferson to Utah for not nearly enough value in return (Kosta Koufos and lottery-protected picks); Stubbornly trying to install a complicated offensive system that’s clearly preventing a young team from developing properly; Constantly misjudging the strengths and weaknesses of their own players. These are all crimes that the Kahn/Rambis regime has committed against the Timberwolves franchise and its fans.

Johnson, who Minnesota fans seem to think is just another failed Kahn draft pick, may simply be a victim of his coach’s cluelessness.

A T-Wolves columnist for Bleacher Report wrote: “Wesley Johnson has been so sub-par that it is baffling. Scouts were raving about this do it all small forward, some saying he would challenge for rookie of the year.”

Yeah, well, it’s kind of tough to be a quality small forward when your coach has played you atshooting guard more than 80 percent of the time (82games.com). Imagine that, a 6-7 rookie who played primarily power forward in college (SU’s preferred lineup last year: AO/Rick—Wes—Kris—Andy—Scoop), asked to slide all the way down to shooting guard. One year Wes is playing on one of the wings of Boeheim’s zone, the next he’s chasing the likes of Ray Allen around an endless supply of picks. That’s just not what he’s built to do.

On offense, the lengthy Johnson has been relegated to the role of spot up shooter, and nothing else. DraftExpress takes an in-depth look at how terribly Kurt Rambis is misusing the former ‘Cuse star.

“Last season Johnson attempted 170 jump shots compared to 140 shots around the basket for the Orange, whereas this year he’s already taken 184 jump shots compared to just 35 shots around the basket, being transformed into essentially a one-dimensional role player.”

“From an isolation standpoint, Johnson has performed about as well as expected, not having the advanced ball-handling to break his man down and showing even less of the go-to scoring instinct than he did in college. His move from power forward to the shooting guard position has exasperated these problems further, as now he’s going against quicker defenders with lower centers of gravity, making it even more difficult for him to get the first step and tempting him further to shooting over his now shorter opposition.”

Like most players, Wes has his flaws. While his balance and leaping ability allow him to finish effectively once he’s able to penetrate, he’s not a great driver. Why Rambis thinks the solution to that problem is dragging Wes farther away from the paint and making him drive by quicker players is beyond me. Hopefully Wes will get to play for another coach soon, and the new coach will realize that feeding Wes the ball in more opportune situations is key. Let him use his athleticism as a slasher, making off-ball cuts to get open and catch the ball one dribble or less away from the basket.

“The most interesting thing about Johnson’s decline is not his struggles in isolations, which was to be expected at least initially, but how little the Timberwolves have utilized him cutting off the ball, something he excelled with at the collegiate level. Off-ball cuts comprised 16.1% of his offensive possession at Syracuse according to Synergy (the highest rate among all small forwards in the draft last year), and that number has dropped to just 4.4% in the pros.”

There are so many things that Wes can do well. Not necessarily great at any one skill (besides percentage shooting), it’s vital that he makes good use of his many strengths. It’s not surprising then that camping out beyond the three-point line has killed his game, as it completely destroys his versatility.

“While Johnson’s post-up offense was not among his strengths in college, his ability to take advantage of mismatches on the block was at least occasionally utilized, with him scoring a solid 47 points on 48 possessions in the post last season. In the pros, he’s been posted up just six times the entire season even though he’s being guarded by players 1-3 inches shorter than him every night playing the two-guard position.

Further, Johnson’s offensive placement spending almost all of his time behind the three-point line has significantly hurt his offensive rebounding opportunities, with his pace adjusted offensive rebounds per 40 minutes dropping from 2.3 to 1.0, taking away one of his best strengths as a player.”

We’ve established that Wes as a shooting guard = bad thing. But even if Rambis must play him at the 2 spot, you’d think the coach would at least take advantage of Johnson’s superior height for the position. Why else play a 6-7 guy at guard in the first place?

It would be unfair to make it through this article without pinning some of the blame on Johnson himself. To a certain extent, he controls his own fate – he’s the one actually out there playing. But it’s clear that Rambis and Kahn don’t see a problem with the lanky swingman spending game after game parked 22 feet from the hoop, and they should.

Both front office and player have to be wondering what’s gone wrong. The answer is simple: poor player usage by Minnesota has highlighted Johnson’s weaknesses and buried his strengths. It’s time for both sides to think back on the skills that made him worthy of the fourth overall pick in the 2010 draft, and to start taking advantage of them.

Posted: Andrew Kanell

The Fizz is owned, edited and operated by Damon Amendolara. D.A. is an ’01 Syracuse graduate from the Newhouse School with a degree in Broadcast Journalism.

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