Wings and prayers: Johnson and Webster scuffle

Benjamin Polk —  January 23, 2011 — 1 Comment

Photo by Terry Bain

Here’s an interesting thing David Kahn said in his FSN live chat on Wednesday:

I think we have too many wing players and it may be something we have to address, if not before the deadline then certainly next summer. The concept was we would create a lot of competition for playing time in practices but I don’t think it works as well. It works more theoretically than practically.

Of course, the Wolves’ wing bounty was one of the primary criticisms leveled at Kahn and Rambis this offseason. And as recently as last month, Kahn and Tony Ronzone were still defending those moves on the aforementioned grounds: that competition would raise everybody’s level of play and allow the Wolves to identify the best players of the bunch.

So it’s pretty striking for Kahn to now admit that this little experiment hasn’t worked as the team had hoped. My guess is that it has to do with the recent struggles of Martell Webster and Wes Johnson.

Almost exactly one month ago, I had this to say about Johnson’s play: “Perhaps his one-dimensionality is actually a sign of a self-awareness uncommon to rookies; perhaps, unlike many of his teammates, his ambitions don’t wildly overreach his abilities.”

This may still be the case, but the fact is that in recent weeks Johnson’s conservative one-dimensionality has become so pronounced as to make him almost invisible on the court. Johnson has begun spending even more time meandering the perimeter–and less time creating action in the paint–than he was earlier in the year.

Believe this if you can: although he’s averaged almost 22 minutes per game over the past 10 games, Johnson has attempted only seven free throws during that time. And it’s not because he isn’t getting calls. His two dynamic drives to the hoop against San Antonio (neither of which ended in points) were remarkable mostly for their contrast with the norm.

Johnson actually looks less comfortable and confident in the offense than he did early in the season. Earlier in the year, Johnson moved the ball creatively and intuitively, often setting up teammates with savvy passes that belied his experience. But Johnson’s reticence, his willingness to fade into the background, seems to have swallowed up even this facet of his game.

All of this would be easier to take if he were improving defensively orĀ  hitting his outside shot. But he isn’t. Wes has hit only 31.1% of his field goals and 32.3% of his threes over the past ten games. And although Johnson is a willing and energetic defender, his defensive court awareness and remains firmly in “rookie out of Syracuse” territory.

Webster hasn’t fared much better. He still appears stiff and somewhat awkward on the court, particularly on defense–exactly like someone who has recently had back surgery. And although he was shooting the ball well in the first few games after his return, Webster has hit just 37% of his FG’s and 29.4% of his threes in the last 10.

Even more damagingly, despite his poor shooting and apparent discomfort, Webster has been a bit of an offensive black hole; and this ball-stopping has had a visibly negative effect on the Wolves’ ball movement. Webster is using 20.7% of the team’s possessions (just two points behind Kevin Love fyi)–and friends, this is not because he’s racking up rebounds and assists.

In the NBA, confidence is a fragile, tenuous asset. It’s hard to know what combinations of physical or psychological factors cause players to struggle, to become tentative and ineffective. But I think it’s well worth considering the possibility that the rationing of minutes made necessary by the Wolves surplus of wing players has had a significant negative impact on both Johnson’s and Webster’s games.

Benjamin Polk

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One response to Wings and prayers: Johnson and Webster scuffle

  1. Dump Webster, try to rebuild Johnson’s confidence. Webster is inconsistent and had the same problem in Portland. He can get hot and stay there for a few games, but then he has games where he can’t buy a bucket. He’s never been much of driver, and his injuries robbed him even more of the urge. Johnson is going through what most rookies go through as they deal with the difficulty of dominating on the NBA level the same way they have at every other level. But, he still has way more potential than Webster. Webster is already who he will be for the remainder of his career most likely.

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