It seems only right that Martell Webster (231, 4.06) and Wesley Johnson (245, 3.91) are paired so closely together on #NBARank. They are, after all, the two Wolves left standing from David Kahn’s Summer 2010 swingman shopping spree. One irony of this fact is that of the three fellas vying last season to be the Wolves’ regular two–all of whom were young, curiously incomplete (as players) and most likely playing out of position–only Corey Brewer, with his dilated, edge-of-panic defense, had that single upper-echelon skill that separated him from the pack. But Wes Johnson and Martell Webster can shoot and Corey Brewer cannot, not even a little. And for this reason, Corey gets to wear a terribly beautiful, diamond-encrusted, bullet-proof SUV on his ring finger while Wes and Martell will still be logging off-guard minutes for the Wolves next year. Yeah, that part is a little confusing.
On the face of things, Webster and Johnson have a pretty similar profile. Both are 24 years old and vibrantly athletic in the way that only young NBA players and extinct carnivorous birds could possibly be. Both are solid three-point shooters (Webster is a career 37.7% shooter and Johnson hit 35.6% of his in his rookie season) and last season took a large portion of their shots from deep (38.8% for Webster and 42.4% for Johnson, which is kind of high).
But this is pretty superficial. During last preseason, Webster looked like he might become the dynamic scoring two the Wolves craved. He shot threes, but he also attacked the basket and showed off his interior finishing. But then came his back surgery, which left him hobbling around like an old timer, seriously limited his mobility and explosiveness and consigned him to the perimeter for the duration of the year. Most alarming, though, was the injury’s effect on Webster’s defense. The Wolves’ defense was 5.9 points/100 possessions worse when Webster was on the floor, by far the worst differential on the team. According to 82games, when playing the two Webster’s opponent averaged a PER of 21.7 . That means that whenever Martell was at shooting guard, his opposite number was the equivalent, in terms of production, of Manu Ginobili. That hurts. (Major caveat here: with Portland in ’09/’10, Webster played only 1% of his teams shooting guard minutes, spending almost the entire rest of his floor time at three–and his defensive production was significantly better. And Martell also fared considerably better with the Wolves on the rare occasions last year when he played the three.)
Wes Johnson faced problems of an entirely different order. Defensively, he seemed only slightly less wayward than Martell. His physical fitness and defensive energy were almost always beyond reproach, which allowed him some success as an on-ball defender (his late-game swallowing of Monte Ellis was a particular highlight), but when it came to the nuances of team NBA defense–rotations, help, opponent tendencies, pick-and-roll coverage–he was a lost soul. One could certainly blame Jim Boeheim, Johnson’s college coach, whose 2-3 zone seems to serve Syracuse pretty well but sure doesn’t have a knack for turning out great NBA defenders. But in any event, Johnson still has, well, almost everything to learn.
Johnson’s offense was also a cause for a little worry. Maybe because of his wobbly ballhandling, maybe because he, like Webster, is a natural three, Wes seems afflicted with a deep reticence on the offensive end. Yes, he shot three-pointers reasonably well, but that was about all he did; the lingering image of Johnson’s rookie year is him just kind of hanging out past the three point line, threatening nobody. He attempted only 1.9 shots per 40 minutes from inside of 16 feet. He did take 1.1 shots per 40 at the rim, but the bulk of those were in transition. In other words, Johnson’s offensive game was incredibly stagnant and predictable, not to mention inefficient. Thanks largely to his distinct inability to get to the line (he took more than three times as many threes as he did free throws, which is pretty remarkable), his True Shooting percentage was a pretty abysmal 49.1%.
But amazingly, despite that tepid production, the Wolves’ offense was 3.3 points better/100 with Wes on the floor, a number bested only by KLove himself. I have a provisional explanation for this weird phenomenon. First, despite his inexperience in most phases of the game, Johnson moves the ball willingly and with some vision. Second, Johnson was second-to-last on the Wolves in usage last season, ahead of only Anthony Tolliver. He didn’t shoot well, but he also didn’t shoot too much or turn the ball over too prodigiously. On a team with Michael Beasley, Anthony Randolph and Jonny Flynn contributing a full portion of heedlessness each, such judicious self-awareness counts as a genuine skill.