LAS VEGAS – At Las Vegas Summer League, the standard-issue basketballs have a different pattern of black rubber lines running across their orange surfaces than the ones used in the season. To a basketball neophyte, these changes would barely register, but the strange feel of the grooves in a finicky shooter’s hands could mean a major adjustment.
Not for Wes Johnson. Of the 96 times that the Timberwolves’ shooting guard released that oh-so-different ball, it clattered through the rim in 53. That was good for an overall shooting percentage of 55.2 percent; Johnson shot 48.3 percent from the field, 45.0 percent from 3 and 93.8 percent at the line. A finicky shooter he was not.
When asked about the ball, Johnson admited that it felt no different.
Asked again, and he thought a bit. A smile spread over his face.
“It actually felt better,” Johnson said, “It was going.”
Johnson laughs. He’s joking, deferring the praise for his summer league performance, one of the best of any player there. Credit the infinitesimal changes to the ball if you’re a skeptic. Chalk up Johnson’s success to luck if you’re a cynic. But if you’re a realist, accept it for what it was: a good perfromance in a venue that’s not at the caliber of the NBA regular season, the perfect showing in an offseason that seems to be playing out in Johnson’s favor.
In 2011-12, his second season in the NBA, Johnson’s numbers fell off, though his playing time remained nearly constant. He went from averaging 9.0 points per game in his rookie year to 6.0 last season. His rebounding average dropped from 3.0 per game to 2.7, his 3-point shooting from 35.6 percent to 31.4 percent. Instead of building off a decent rookie season, Johnson regressed, and that’s how he found himself at summer league as a third-year player.
For Johnson, this offseason was imperative. Numbers like last year’s won’t earn him playing time for much longer, and they even warranted speculation that he might be dealt during free agency. With the team targeting wing players, Johnson’s role was threatened, but instead of panicking, the 25-year-old focused only on himself.
“I was watching all of it go down, so I really couldn’t get caught up into it,” Johnson said. “There was a lot going on. I really just have to take matters into my own hands and worry about myself and really just make sure I work on my game so when we go back into the season, I will be able to produce.”
If summer league is any evidence, Johnson is doing something right. In Las Vegas, his shot wasn’t radically altered. He played more aggressively, but really, the biggest difference was that the shots were going in. Not only was his scoring up, but so was his efficiency. It wasn’t a new, remodeled Wes Johnson who took the court in Las Vegas; instead, it was the first signs of the Wes Johnson that the Timberwolves have been expecting to emerge for months.
In fact, the most radical changes to Johnson came off the court in Las Vegas. For one, he was relaxed, smiling. He joked. He was a leader rather than a quiet follower. And though a mental adjustment and a new attitude do not a comeback make, Johnson’s new, more relaxed approach can only help.
Johnson’s struggles last season began on the court, but they grew in the locker room. Physical issues became mental ones, and they weighed on Johnson constantly. Couple those worries with his anxiety over the lockout and the lack of training camp, and the young player’s mind became a tangled mess.
Johnson also said that he struggled to find his place in the Timberwolves’ locker room and that the offseason changes the team has made will improve team chemistry. It’s a similar sentiment to the one Kevin Love conveyed to the St. Paul Pioneer Press when he said that the team got rid of “bad blood” this offseason, and the two players might have a point. Locker room rapport isn’t going to radically alter shooting percentages, but it does make the game just that much easier.
Johnson, who played on a tight-knit Syracuse team in 2009-10, had his best college season that year, averaging 16.5 points and 8.5 rebounds per game. He, Kris Joseph and Scoop Jardine were the backbone of a locker room and on-campus personalities. They played well, they had fun, and Johnson became accustomed to success on the court being coupled with a great locker room atmosphere.
“I’m a big chemistry guy for the team, just (because of) how I played in college,” Johnson said. “I think we had a good feel for the team back when I was in college, and translating over, I wanted to be one of the guys that helped glue it together.”
That hasn’t been the case for him in Minnesota, due to his age, struggles and even toxic players in the locker room. But now, with Anthony Randolph, Michael Beasley, Martell Webster and Darko Milicic all gone from the team, things might change. Now, with more opportunities for wing players after the Nicolas Batum deal fell through, Johnson can capitalize. Now, halfway through an offseason that’s delivering results, Johnson can hope that he’s finally found his groove.
“I’m relaxed a lot more knowing that it’s going to be a regular season, knowing that it’s going to be a regular training camp,” Johnson said. “This summer, it’s been a good summer so far for me. I think coming into the summer I just knew I had to get back to the basics of the stuff I had to do.”
The schedule has returned to its usual pace. The anxiety is abating, as are the rumored acquisitions. Now, it’s up to Wes Johnson to prove that it wasn’t just that summer league ball. It wasn’t just luck. It wasn’t a fluke, either. It’s time for Wes Johnson to prove that he’s finally found his rhythm.