Getting to Know: Wesley Johnson
In mid July, Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak announced the signing of Wesley Johnson, the fourth overall pick in the 2010 NBA draft who's averaged 7.7 points and 2.8 boards as a member of the Wolves and Suns.
“Wesley is a young, athletic player who runs the floor well and is an excellent defender,” said Kupchak. “He’s a developing player who we think could become a good NBA player for years to come. He’s also a great kid and we’re happy to add him to our team.”
As Johnson reveals in an extended conversation at his new team's practice facility, his first three seasons certainly didn't go as he, or the teams for whom he played, had hoped. His goal, of course, is to turn his personal NBA narrative around here in Los Angeles.
Below is a transcription of our conversation:
MT: What's your state-of-the-union feeling as we sit here a week before training camp starts, a new opportunity in front of you?
Johnson: I know coming here, this whole system fits my style of play and it plays to all my strengths – getting up and down the floor, everything is spaced, everything is wide open for me. It’s all reads and playing off one another. This whole summer, I’ve been working on my complete game and getting back my confidence level – feeling natural and feeling like I belong out there, basically. The past two years have been kind of rocky, but part of me was just (looking to) get into the right fit, and this is the right fit. I was talking to (Lakers coach Mike) D’Antoni and he’s expecting to use me from the two, the three, the four and the wing. He just wants me out there on the floor, and it felt pretty good to hear that.
MT: If you’re drafted as high as you were, and if you don’t live up to whatever the expectations are for that position, you're going to hear the word "bust" thrown around more than "hello." How have you come to terms with that and how can that change this year?:
Johnson: As far as that label of a bust, I don’t really care what they say. They can say whatever. It’s really just trying to get to the right fit. It was difficult in Minnesota trying to get the feel of everything. They wanted me to be a different player than what I was, so it was hard for me to adjust and it was different from what I was used to. I was really trying to change my game, and then there was a coaching change and I had to adapt to a whole new style of play. It was difficult for me to bounce around because they weren’t specific on one thing they wanted, and it was hard for me to try to adapt.
MT: How did Minnesota want you to play, and how does that differ from what coach D'Antoni has told you?
Johnson: They wanted me to be mainly a spot up, corner shooter, and I was never that in my whole career. There’s nothing wrong with it, but it just wasn’t me. I tried to adapt to it. But coach D’Antoni was telling me that he doesn’t want me to do that. His idea is that if (a teammate) swings it and you’re open, shoot it. It doesn’t matter where you are – just shoot the ball. Just play basketball. Make reads; play off the next person. If he passes to you and you can drive, then drive it. If not, kick it (out). (Coach D'Antoni) doesn’t care what type of shots you shoot, as long as it stays within the offense. I’ve never heard that before. The only time I heard that was with (Syracuse) coach (Jim) Boeheim. He told me: ‘Just be Wes. Go out there and play basketball.’ That’s how I was used to having that feel. So when coach D'Antoni told me that, it was a relief to hear. I thought it was going to be a system where I’d have to try and fit in and make reads off the different people’s style of play. But if I have the ball, they’re reading me.
MT: How much of that difficulty in adapting to what was asked of you and what suited you best was on you? What's the balance between a coach or team adjusting to a player and vice versa?
Johnson: It’s on me, too. I won’t put any blame on the team. It’s on me. I always got labeled as a good guy. They wanted me to be mean. That’s one of my flaws, they always say. They wanted me to be overaggressive, but they wanted me to be a spot-up shooter.
MT: Being aggressive while being a spot-up guy does seem to conflict.
Johnson: When I finally started to get an understanding of it, there was a coaching change and then another coaching change happened. The offense works if you have the right personnel, but if you don’t swing it over (to one side), you’re dead in the water. More often than not, I was caught on the other side and my numbers were going down. They were so statistical with everything going on. Everybody always says it’s the situation you get drafted in and a situation you get into. Here (in Los Angeles) is one of those situations where it’s up and down basketball and making reads. It’s going to be fun. When (coach D’Antoni) was with the Knicks, I watched Landry Fields and Raymond Felton and all those guys flourish. It wasn’t like they had a big man superstar; they were just playing off each other. Everybody was doing well. This is an offense where everybody is on the same page and everybody plays team basketball.
MT: League Pass addicts know some of the players who won't swing the ball, but we won't get into the name game right now. So … thus far, what have you seen from D’Antoni’s offense and how it is structured:
Johnson: They have the X’s on the court, and you run to the X’s. It doesn’t matter who is there. It can be Steve (Nash) in this corner, and I can bring the ball down. Chris Kaman or Pau (Gasol) can be at the top of the key. As long as these spaces are filled, that’s where you are. Anybody can bring it down. It’s more freelance flowing – just get to the spots.
MT: D'Antoni and Mitch Kupchak have both praised your shot from mid range out to three, praising your release. Is your shot better than your percentages have been*?
Johnson: It’s been a lot of rushed shots. You get the ball and it’s an awkward situation. There’s five seconds on the shot clock and I’m in the corner, and there’s nowhere to go. I have to shoot it. My percentage is going to be down because it’s a low percentage shot, even though it’s supposed to be the easiest shot. It’s one of those shots where somebody is dribbling in and they kick it to you with the shot clock’s down. You catch it and you have to launch it.
*Johnson is a career 40 percent shooter overall, hitting 33.6 percent from three.
MT: So if you’re open…
Johnson: It’s going in. (My shot) is a lot better now. No issues now. It’s just me getting the reps up and feeling confident when I shoot it, so there’s no problem with that.
MT: For all of his struggles last season, Dwight Howard was still a major deterrent at the rim. Metta World Peace still had success with certain one-on-one perimeter matchups. The current roster isn't full of known defensive stalwarts, so can a guy with your length and athleticism make a real impact on that end? How much of a focus is that for you? Johnson: A lot of people (in the NBA), they’ll tell you they probably don’t really care to play defense. I like stopping people. I also like scoring as well, but I do like stopping people. To feel like you’re stopping them but you’re still scoring on the opposite end feels good. That will come when everybody on the team is on the same page. If I’m out there busting my (butt) and I know the person behind me has my back, it’s going to make me play that much harder. I feel like I can use my length and speed to interrupt passes, get out and challenge shots and get in the passing lanes a lot. I feel like I can.
MT: What’s your ideal role on this team?
Johnson: Wait to see what comes. I’m really not trying to have one role. I just want for myself to just play. Whatever comes with it, just go out there and change the game in any way. As far as getting loose balls, defending, scoring, anything out there. We’re short handed because Kobe is dealing with his injury, and people are counting us out. But I want to be out there doing a little bit of everything.
MT: Is it fair to expect that you'll get better shots in this system than you've gotten in your previous stops?
Johnson: That’s very fair. It’s going to be very fun. We tried to run and implement this system in Phoenix, so I’m used to everything we’re trying to put in now. This offense is fun to play in if everybody is on the same page. I feel like Steve (Nash) – he looks like he's in good shape – is going to conduct it well.
MT: What are you eager to see on a daily basis from Bryant?:
Johnson: Just (seeing) how competitive he is and how he expects his team to really play to a high standard he holds himself to. That’s going to be fun playing with him in the sense that he calls everybody out and is in everybody’s face. You want your teammate to do that for you and you want them to hold you accountable. If he (does) something bad, say it to him. People are probably scared to say something. He respects when people do that to him. He does something wrong, let him know. He’s definitely going to do it to you. Kobe holds you to a high standard. He wants you to be the best. I feel like playing with a person like Kobe, he’s been around forever. He’s seen it all, so you want to learn from him. You want to be the best. You’re definitely going to have targets on your back, and he wants to put you in the best position to succeed. I couldn’t understand why it couldn’t work. You’re going to have to take a step down. Kobe is Kobe. You have to think about that. He’s one of the best to ever play the game. You have to be a student, put your ego aside, just try to learn and take it from there.
MT: Since you have the same agent (Rob Pelinka) as Kobe, you've known him for a few years. What have you learned about him thus far?
Johnson: He’s going to try and tell me to be aggressive. I still remember when we played here. I had 29 in the Staples Center and that was my career high. He told me: ‘You play like this all the time and you’ll be an All-Star.’ During the game he told me that. He’s probably going to tell me to be consistent and be confident. MT: And how are things for you off the court?
Johnson: Everything is good. I have twin boys (Wesley Jr. and Santana). They’re 15 months, so it’s fun to see them grow, and they’re talking more and more every day. My girlfriend (Melissa) and the boys are out here. They’ve been to Phoenix and Minnesota as well, but I moved to Manhattan Beach, and they’re looking forward to it being here.
MT: I imagine that your twins weren't too worried about it if you came home after a bad game …
Johnson: That’s the best part. They don’t even care. They love me regardless. It takes a load off of me. To see them and their faces light up, it’s always good to see them.
MT: How was your support system in the first couple years in the league off the court, when things were difficult on the court?: Johnson: I am blessed to have a very good support system. I talk to my brother a lot, my mother, my father, and my sister. It’s good to hear from (them). I get to talk to (my girlfriend) about certain stuff when I get home, the real explicit version of everything, and that makes me feel good because she knows about basketball, but she doesn’t know what’s going on too specifically.
MT: When did you first think your game could translate to the NBA?:
Johnson: Sophomore year in college. I always thought I could play professionally and get drafted. Then it clicked. I transferred and got to Syracuse, and I had that in my mind and I knew I was going to the NBA. Then I got drafted fourth. It was cool. I wouldn’t change anything in the world as far as my career has gone. Now with the Lakers and to play with Nash, Kobe and Pau, and to learn from them and with the offense we have, it’s going to be fun. I wouldn’t change anything.
Johnson: I am just really, really, really, excited about this whole thing. I want to reinvent myself and really go out there and have a whole different mentality like I had in college. Same feeling, same principles, same things that D’Antoni is expecting of me is what Boeheim asked. That aggression is going to be there. That’s what the offense is – free-flowing, making reads, attacking and knocking down shots.