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Wes Johnson and the Inevitability of Death’s Icy, Creeping Hand

Ryan O’Hanlon has a terrific piece on the Knicks’ Bill Walker over at The Classical, and it got me thinking about the Wolves’ Wes Johnson. One thing Johnson and Walker have in common is a general inability to dribble the ball. Another is being quite good at dunking. Johnson is supposed to be good from the arc (like Walker), but this clearly hasn’t been the case this season. Specifically, he has shot 89 of them and made 20, good for 23% shooting. Honestly, it’s gotten to the point where Johnson receiving the ball open on the wing feels like the part in “Speed” when they realize they have to jump the bus over a gap in the road. Only this time Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock die in a horrible fiery crash.

What really got me thinking about Johnson, though, was his assessment of what the average NBA swingman over the last ten years looks like:

You have: a gifted athlete with intermittently dazzling but generally under-developed on-court skills; a player who shows flashes of brilliance, but who also can’t help but play outside his ability when on the court for too long. This is a player who clearly spent much of his pre-NBA life being far better than most everyone else on the floor.

It made me think about what seem like the qualities that make for a good NBA basketball player and then what actually are the qualities that do. If you’ve played any amount of pickup basketball, you’re probably familiar with the guys who show up and are just flat out better than everyone else because of some combination of height, hops, and shooting. Maybe they’re not great shooters, but they’re good enough, and taller than everybody else so they get rebounds. They’re athletic enough to make everyone else look bad without really having to play smart. It strikes me that many, many shooting guards and small forwards in the NBA fall into this category of player.

The smallest guys—the point guards, the combo guards—need to be marksmen or savvy playmakers to get as far as the NBA. The biggest guys—power forwards and centers—have to be, well, bigger than everyone else. But those 6’6” or 6’7” guys with seven-foot wingspans have spent their whole lives being better than everyone else because of a chance collision between what passes for freakish size in the regular world and sheer athletic skill.

Coming into the draft, the upside on Johnson was that his game would translate easily into the pros. He was older than other players in the draft, having bounced around a bit before landing at Syracuse, and scouts liked his shot, his length, his finishing. But somehow, in his second season, he’s stalled completely. There’s reason to hope this is just a bump, but what if it’s not?

When I went to the Minneapolis College of Art & Design for a year to get a post-baccalaureate certificate in graphic design, I thought I knew something about what I was doing. I’d designed album artwork, posters, T-shirts, websites—all kinds of stuff. And everyone liked it. I thought I just needed to learn a bunch of technical things and then I’d be fine. But when I got there at the age of 27, I saw kids who were 19, 20, 21 doing amazing, incredible work. And I knew. I knew right then that although I might be a competent designer, capable of clean, well-laid out pages and the occasionally inspired poster, but that’s all. It was maybe the first time I so clearly saw and understood my limitations, but far from being dispiriting, it was freeing. It was, in essence, a recognition of mortality, a realization that you can’t do everything, and it gives what you can do, weirdly, greater meaning.

Oklahoma City Thunder power forward Nick Collison wrote a pretty incredibly great blog post for GQ about coming to terms with your limitations as an NBA player, and he put just the right spin what it takes to be successful as a contributor—not a star—in the NBA:

A lot of guys can’t or won’t do these things because they don’t see the value in it. Some people look at it as sacrificing your own game for the greater good. This is true to an extent, but you don’t just play this way because you are a nice guy and you are willing to let other guys shine. You do it because you want to win, to be a part of a championship team, and you do it because you want to create value for yourself (emphasis mine).

Collison is essentially saying that being that guy who does the little things—who hustles on defense, who goes after rebounds, who scraps for it in limited minutes—doesn’t mean being unselfish, it means being the right kind of selfish. It’s a mindset exemplified by role players like Bruce Bowen, Robert Horry, Derek Fisher—all those guys you can’t stand because they look so unbalanced, so incomplete and yet keep contributing in just the ways their team needs. A player like Wes Johnson has spent most of his comparatively brief basketball career as an all-around good player, as one of the longest, most athletic guys on the team. Now if he can just forget all that and do whatever he can to make himself indispensable on the court, he might just turn out all right.

Steve McPherson

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