Wild Wes Busy Earning His Stripes
How could Wes Johnson not let doubt slip into his mind?
As this, his third season in the NBA and first with the Suns, was about to begin, the former No. 4 overall draft pick of the Minnesota Timberwolves hadn’t yet solidified himself in the league and remained burdened with the expectations of being a high lottery pick.
Add in that the Suns roster was in flux with nine newcomers introduced to the Valley, and it’s easy to see why Johnson was excited for the opportunity but unsure of what was about to ensue.
Even though the Suns were tempted to play Johnson right out of training camp, the swingman’s athletic prowess, three-point touch and defensive potential weren’t enough to lock down a spot in the rotation when more proven players like Jared Dudley and Shannon Brown remained options at his position.
In fact, more than 60 percent of the season went by before he got his shot.
For a thoughtful player like Johnson, the uncertainty of his situation started to work its way into his mindset.
“It’s very frustrating, especially after you go from playing in your first two years in the league to not playing,” Johnson said. “It weighs on you a whole lot. Even when you think it’s not, it still does weigh on you.
“I just had a lot of positive people in my corner, helping me when I was going down that road. I’ve definitely been seeing the light at the end of that tunnel through the second half of the season.”
One person that kept Johnson ready was Lindsey Hunter, first as a player development coach for the Suns and then after taking over as the team’s interim head coach. For perhaps the first time in his professional career, Johnson had a consistent presence in his ear forcing him to work hard and promising that the hard work would pay off.
“I knew, even during the times that I wasn’t playing, that I had to be ready, because it could happen at any moment,” Johnson said. “(Hunter) was there with me. He knew that I was going through the grind, that I was putting in the work and he knew what I was going through.”
A renowned gym rat throughout his playing days in the league, Hunter preaches to his players that the time spent working on their craft will pay off in the end. For Johnson, he became the coach that never stopped chirping at him to shoot often, shoot more and then shoot again. His message to the player has been consistent the entire season.
Johnson is now witnessing first-hand that those words of encouragement can live up to their meaning, which is why Hunter calls the 6-foot-7 swingman, without hesitation, the one Sun who has made the most of his opportunity this season.
One day after cracking Hunter’s rotation on Feb. 26, Johnson hit a game-tying, buzzer beating three-pointer to force overtime in an eventual Suns victory over the rival San Antonio Spurs. Three games later Johnson forced his way into the starting lineup, and in 16 starts has racked up six games in which he scored at least 18 points.
“To see him come out of his shell the way that he has is gratifying, and I’ll keep pushing him,” Hunter said. “He’ll tell you. I’m tough on him, but it’s tough love because I’m going to keep trying to pull that out of him.”
And that is the approach Hunter has taken with every player since becoming the head coach. In terms of development and progress, the former 17-year NBA veteran hopes to remain as consistent as possible with each player, because he believes every member of the Suns has the same opportunity in front of them right now.
“Lindsey is very straight forward and honest, and I think that just reflects who he is as a coach,” Johnson said. “So I really do think he treats everybody the same, and he does that because he’s honest with everyone and straight-forward with everyone.
“He expects everybody to come in and work hard, he expects everybody to play defense and he’s done that himself. He was a defensive player, so he demands that out of everybody.”