Wesley Johnson Takes Advantage Of First Start
DENVER - What everyone saw Tuesday night was the original blueprint.
When the Clippers started training camp, Wesley Johnson ran with the starters at small forward. Now, in the Clippers’ 14th regular season game and with their seventh different starting lineup of the year, Johnson showed why the original vision could end up sticking.
Johnson made his first start of the year and scored 11 points on 4-of-6 shooting, finishing plus-8 in 25 minutes and looking the way the Clippers had envisioned before they changed the rotations late in the preseason and early in the regular season.
“He was great,” said head coach Doc Rivers. “He was really good. I think we threw him in to start the season in training camp, and I thought that probably hurt him. He hadn’t played with that group, so I probably messed him up. Now, I think he’s ready for it.”
Johnson will admit that.
The player who took the floor Tuesday in Denver was not the same one learning the new system months ago. Johnson said he was trying to fit in more than play his game back in September.
“I wasn’t out there playing freely,” Johnson said. “I was thinking too much. As we had more practices and was playing with the second unit and watching film and watching these guys live and watching how they play, I was able to migrate in.”
It takes only a few main talents to thrive as a small forward in the Clippers’ system – take and make open 3-pointers, provide energy, win hustle plays and play defense. Johnson knows the open looks are going to come. Defensively, his role Tuesday meant taking on the taller Danilo Gallinari, who had 20 points but went just 2-of-10 from the floor.
“Gallinari is their go-to guy, and Wes gave him some trouble with his length,” said DeAndre Jordan. “When (Johnson) is open, he’s going to knock down shots. If he can continue to play like that, he’s going to be great for us.”
The assignment on Gallinari got Johnson in foul trouble, which cut his minutes short, but not before a performance Chris Paul called “amazing.” Asked whether or not he wanted to prove he could start for this team Tuesday, the normally reserved small forward left no doubts.
“No question,” Johnson answered bluntly.
It helped the small forward that he got off to a hot start.
Johnson and J.J. Redick both began the night 2-for-2 from 3-point range, bringing back memories of what Matt Barnes provided while he was part of the most efficient starting unit in the league last season. With Johnson on the floor Tuesday, every Clippers starter finished plus-8 or better, but Paul said what Johnson provided went beyond a stat sheet.
“A few deflections, a few helps,” Paul said. “Early in the game, just the way he runs the court, shot the ball well. We needed that.”
Before the game, Johnson said Paul told him to just be himself. The starters didn’t want him to change anything he did from the games leading up to Tuesday.
“I tell him all the time, just play,” Paul said. “Wes is a great player. I think sometimes we have more confidence in him than he has in himself. We just need him to be him, and he was great tonight.”
Jordan complimented Johnson’s ability to handle everything thrown at him – starting, coming off the bench, defending, knocking down open threes. Tuesday provided more of that, and it was a performance the rest of the starters appreciated.
“Loved it,” said Blake Griffin. “He’s been doing great learning the offense and getting into his rhythm. I think we all kind of agreed he’d be a great fit for us.”
Griffin added it’s great to have players who are interchangeable at small forward, but Johnson’s emergence particularly helps knowing Paul Pierce won’t play big minutes every night. The Clippers need another small forward to rely on, and nothing Johnson did Tuesday would suggest he’s incapable.
Whether or not Rivers sticks with that look is still up in the air, and it could change from night-to-night.
“We’ll see,” Rivers said. “That lineup is a lineup I’m going to keep moving depending on guys. I like Wes the most because of his size, ability to shoot...We’re just going to keep moving it around.”