The result was intriguing, if not somewhat of a mixed bag.
That’s due in part to the role he was often asked to fill—that of a power forward. At 6’7” and 205 pounds, Johnson, who usually swings between shooting guard and small forward, doesn’t have the size to handle post assignments against most traditional big men.
Yet that’s what exactly what Mike D’Antoni was interested in—looking for Johnson to replicate an experiment from the past. For those who remember the coach’s glory days with the Phoenix Suns, Shawn “The Matrix” Marion gave fits to larger opposing power forwards through speed and athleticism.
In a Los Angeles Times article by Eric Pincus at the start of the season, D’Antoni explained his rationale:
What coaches have to coach Shawn Marion? That was the experience I had and I told Wesley and that's a lofty goal, no doubt about it, because Shawn is obviously one of the better players in the league—but [Johnson] has a lot of those qualities. He can do that. He can disrupt at the four.
There were certainly times when Johnson's speed and leaping ability caused mismatches.
Not everybody was impressed with the concept, however. In late February, Mike Bresnahan of the Los Angeles Times relayed Pau Gasol’s misgivings when asked how the slender Johnson would fare against beefy Zach Randolph of the Memphis Grizzlies: "Good luck, right? Let's see what happens [Wednesday] if Wes continues to start or if we actually try to match up and utilize our size because we do have guys with size that can do well."
Trying to live up to improbable expectations is something Johnson has plenty of experience with. He was selected as the fourth overall pick out of Syracuse in the 2010 draft by the Minnesota Timberwolves, who were banking on his athleticism, not to mention a supersized 7’1” wingspan.
Johnson started 63 of 79 games during his rookie season, averaging nine points as a shooting guard and looking somewhat lost in Kurt Rambis’ triangle system.
Johnson wasn’t alone—the team went 17-65 for the worst record in the league, and Rambis was soon on his way out, replaced by Rick Adelman.
During Johnson’s sophomore year he was switched to small forward, starting 64 out of 65 games and averaging just six points. By now his fate had been sealed as a lottery bust—he was dealt that summer to the Phoenix Suns, where he was sparingly used among a glut of other wing players.
Here’s the part where we come to a possible redemption story.
The Lakers had a test tube plan going into this season, snatching up young reclamation projects on the cheap. Nobody could have foreseen the mind-numbing parade of injuries that lasted from start to finish.
And certainly, nobody would have bet on the team racking up 55 losses—the most in its storied history.
But there were some positive takeaways if you sift carefully through the ashes, and Johnson’s season was one of them.
His 9.1 points, 4.4 rebounds, 1.6 assists, 1.1 steals and one block per game were a bit better than his career averages but still not the kind of numbers that validate being a No. 4 pick.
What did stand out, however, was the fact that he was finally able to showcase his speed and pure athletic ability. Johnson had some tremendous finishes at the rim this season and also improved his shooting percentages from the field and long distance.
The power forward experiment felt wanting at times, although one could make the argument that the position is something of a misnomer in D’Antoni’s small-ball system.
Still, a lack of consistent team defense was one of the many issues that plagued the Lakers this season, and at 205 pounds, Johnson sometimes looked like a sapling among the trees.
The Lakers are once again tasked with putting together a roster over the summer and doing so within the confines of a stringent collective bargaining agreement.
There are plenty of uncertainties in Laker Land at the moment, but Johnson showed something over the course of 79 games—that he still has an upside and a willingness to work hard on both ends of the court.
He may never live up to the hype from just four years ago, but he has a place in the league, and hopefully, with the Lakers.
It’s now up to management to extend him a repeat invitation.