Waiting Game or End of Game, Wes Johnson is Ready

Posted: March 1, 2013

As Tom Petty said, “The waiting is the hardest part.”

There is no better example of that this season for the Suns than swingman Wesley Johnson.

The former No. 4 pick grabbed the imagination of fans and the attention of the media and coaches during training camp and the preseason. He emerged as a possible explosive offensive option off the bench. In his first four preseason games he averaged 14 points, 3.5 rebounds and a steal in 24 minutes on the floor.

Despite positive momentum and growing confidence, Johnson fell victim to one of sports most dangerous afflictions, the numbers game. With six players that could play either shooting guard or small forward on the roster, three of which were returning members of the team, he simply fell out of the rotation by no real wrongdoing of his own.

In a time when many athletes would pout, demand more touches or flat out ask to leave, Johnson kept his signature smile on his face while working hard to be prepared. It’s a mentality that he developed in college after he transferred from Iowa State to Syracuse his Junior season.

“It was very difficult,” Johnson said of his time on the bench. “I can compare it to my redshirt season I sat out [at Syracuse]. Just waiting, anxious to get out there and play. Just working out and working hard through the entire time. Then whenever it presented itself to go out and play, just go out there and compete.”

That opportunity presented itself in the 54th game of the season in Portland. After having only played roughly 29 minutes in his previous four appearances, Johnson cracked interim Head Coach Lindsey Hunter’s rotation and played 29 minutes on February 19. He answered the call to the tune of 14 points and eight rebounds. He attributes the success to his preparation.

“The opportunity was given to me and I have to go out there and take advantage of it,” he said. “I always stayed ready the whole season, so when my number was called I could go out there and contribute the best I can.”

Thanks to his impressive outing in Portland his number has been called a lot over the last six games for the Suns. It’s a byproduct of coach Hunter’s philosophy that if you play with effort when you’re on the court you’ll earn more minutes. The question is, just how far can Johnson’s talent take him.

“Hope [his play as of late] can continue to catapult him into growing as a player,” Hunter told reporters recently. “So we can see how good he can be. He has all the tools by far. It’s just good to see him contribute.”.

And contribute he has. In the Suns’ last three wins, Johnson has averaged 12 points, 6.3 rebounds and a steal in roughly 29 minutes a game. Numbers similar to what he posted in preseason. The best part is, his confidence has blossomed in the process.

Despite having a bit of an off-night in San Antonio Wednesday, Johnson was on the court in the final seconds. More importantly, he hit an unexpected three-pointer off a halfcourt pass from Jermaine O’neal to force overtime and complete an improbable comeback.

Johnson feels it was the biggest shot of his career so far.

“Yes [it was the biggest shot], because of the whole circumstance,” he said as he looked back on the game. “Them being the number one team, having won all those games at home. Then us fighting back and winning in overtime I’d say it’s the biggest shot of my career.”

His coach seems to think that the one shot, coupled with his recent performances, could help transform the Syracuse swingman.

“He didn’t have much time to think,” Coach Hunter said of the shot. “We think Wes can be an elite shooter. He knocked it down like it was second nature for him. Hopefully that can help his confidence.”

Being on the court in those situations and having an opportunity to step up and contribute has meant the world to Johnson and helped make his time on the bench a little more palatable.

“You want those minutes,” the swingman said with a grin. “Especially at the end of the game. That’s when it matters to try and close out the game. It’s fun being out there. I’ve just been anxious the whole season to get out there and play. If it’s five or ten [minutes] whenever I get out there I just have to do the best that I can.”

If he continues to improve and reach his potential, his best might be more than some ever expected. Then again, like Petty said, “the waiting is the hardest part.”