Wesley Johnson has a PER of 10.14. To put that into perspective, there are only two players in the league averaging more than 20 minutes a game with a worse PER. Out of 400+ players in the NBA, there are two. One is Toney Douglas of the Knicks, and he really is that bad. The other is Shane Battier. He gets a pass, not only because he’s 46 years old, but because his contributions cannot be measured in statistical increments, and by default, not measurable with PER.
Player Efficiency Rating (PER) is an imperfect stat. It heavily favors players who tend to score more and puts weight into defensive stats, namely blocks and steals, that can be, but are not necessarily, reflective of good defensive play. Shane Battier is the perfect example of a guy who plays great D but doesn't register a lot of steals or blocks. That being said, I think it’s fair to look at PER when assessing the abysmal play of Wes Johnson. PER favors scorers, and so it should favor a guy like Wes, who was drafted with the intent of being the great shooter and athletic running mate that would benefit so greatly from an open court passer like Ricky Rubio. In ideal terms, Wes would be to Rubio what Shawn Marion was to Steve Nash.
The ideal is not real.
There’s no other way around it: Wes has been terrible. Not even he, I imagine, would deny it. He’s shooting 24% from 3 point range and 37% overall. That’s his apparent specialty. His 6.8 points per game is hardly what you’d like out of a starting shooting guard. At 6’7” you’d assume he’d have a sizable advantage on the boards against smaller competition. His 3.0 rebounds do not support the assumption. In fact, there are 51 combined PGs and SGs who are averaging more than that. His 0.85 assists per game average rank him at 250th in the league. When, as a wing player, there are 22 centers averaging more assists than you there’s a problem.
Some Wes apologists will quickly point out that he has largely been used out of position as a guard, when everyone knows his true position is small forward. In recent games, Wes has in fact been starting at SF with Luke Ridnour starting at SG. That’s another byproduct of the Wes problem - the Wolves start a PG at SG because their other 2-guard option (Wes) is really no option at all. But as to the ‘Wes is a SF’ debate, the positional move hasn’t meant a thing. His points, rebounds, assists, shooting percentages and overall contributions to winning basketball have remained the same, regardless of what position he technically is occupying. His struggles are bigger than that.
Wes, quite simply, is playing with shattered confidence. That’s the overwhelming appearance, anyways. He allegedly worked all offseason on his ball handling and shooting. By the end of the first game of the current season up until the present day it appears that all the practice and rededication didn’t do a thing. It must be incredibly demoralizing for him. You can see it in the way he plays. He doesn’t want to shoot. When he does force himself to pull the trigger it’s like he’s simply trying to hit the rim and not embarrass himself with another air ball. In the January 30th game against Houston he passed up two dunks when he was literally already airborne, uncontested and at the rim for passes to teammates that weren’t there. It was totally inexplicable. He was milliseconds away from dunking the ball and it’s like the demons in his head stepped in and convinced him he would somehow blow the most high percentage of shots. The fact that he did it twice is almost beyond words.
So now the only question that remains is why is he still playing? Michael Beasley and Martell Webster returned from injury recently. JJ Barea should be back soon. Derrick Williams needs development minutes. Why even bother with a guy playing so poorly? Why give him as much as 20 minutes a game?
Some have ripped Rick Adelman and David Kahn for sticking with Wes. I don’t see it as that. To me, this is the on court basketball equivalent of an intervention. I think Adelman and Kahn know that Wes is in a critically fragile state. To bench him and relegate him to mop up minutes would take his shell of an ego and obliterate it completely. To send him to the D-League would be equally as damning. Plus, I think there is a good chance that Wes would continue to struggle even in the D-League, which certainly wouldn’t help restore confidence. Wes has minimal trade value right now so the only option is to stick with him and hope he improves.
The Wolves have managed to win despite Wes Johnson’s negative impact. The team is young and really isn’t expected to compete this year so there isn’t a ton of pressure to replace him. There is also the matter of having invested the 4th overall pick in the draft on him less than two years ago. Impatience isn’t the answer to helping Wes finding his niche. At this point, I’m not sure what that niche is or will someday be. He has the size and athleticism to be a plus defender. But even a great man defender like Bruce Bowen had to be competent enough to keep defenses honest by knocking down open jump shots.
A year ago, Wes Johnson experienced his share of rookie struggles, but he also flashed the ability to make big plays often enough that showed something was there. As someone who followed the team closely, at no point did I think he was someone who didn’t have a future in the NBA. Right now, that’s how it looks. Games like his 29 point explosion against the Lakers, and specifically Kobe, from last season seem like they never really happened or could ever happen again. That’s how far he has fallen. Hopefully, for the Wolves, but more so for Wes, he finds himself in all of this.