Of the many by turns illuminating and inscrutable tidbits I dug up in the past few weeks while doing research for the Truehoop post, this was among the most glaring: the Wolves’ situation on the wing is a true riddle, a strange machine, filled with moving parts and missing pieces.
Let’s start with what we’ve recently learned. Michael Beasley is the team’s most gifted scorer, but hurts the team defensively (though we’ve seen improvement in the past week), especially when partnered with his young mates in the starting lineup, Darko Milicic and Kevin Love. Wesley Johnson and Corey Brewer both have severely limited offensive games, but come with a desperately needed energy and athleticism that complements Love’s and Darko’s special talents. And although it’s too soon to know for certain how Martell Webster affects the team–and he seems to be still very much inhibited by his stiff back, particularly on defense–it’s clear that Webster brings a reliable shooting touch and what passes on this team for veteran savvy (i.e. he’s, like, played in a playoff game before). How do we figure this out?
The Wolves ended the first half on a 14-5 run against the Hawks only to relinquish the ground they gained in a 11-21 run to open the 3rd quarter. Then in a fervent scramble to prevent another blowout, our pups scored nine unanswered, cutting Atlanta’s lead to just 7 points with enough time to pull out a win, only to be buried for good after a Jamal Crawford four point play.Final score: Hawks 113-Wolves 103.
But hey, it’s progress.
It’s doubtful anyone besides our friends from the ATL came into Target Center anticipating a W, however the home faithful must have been pleased they didn’t bear witness to another shellacking. Kurt Rambis was content with his team’s effort and is looking to build on last night’s showing. “Our team is getting frustrated by losing, obviously. But I really liked the way we practiced on Thursday and we did a good job of carrying it over to the game. We had an awful lot of bright moments tonight both offensively and on defense.”
Indeed they did. On a night where both Kevin Love and Michael Beasley struggled, shooting a combined 12-36 from the field, one of the Wolves true strengths began to show itself: depth.
Corey Brewer has shown several concerning signs of regression early into this season; a lack of confidence in his shot, uncertainty in attacking the basket and uncharacteristic defensive miscues. But on Friday night he was possibly the team’s star performer with an impressive corralling of Iso Joe Johnson alongside 18 much needed points and five timely steals. He was aggressive, decisive, and most importantly, judicious in his shot selection. Brewer still provides his own special brand of unintentional comedy, specifically on his loose limbed forays into the paint, but it was refreshing nonetheless to see him find a comfort zone. Even if only for an evening.
Minnesota’s newfound swingmen coupled with Corey’s recent lapses resulted in a refusal to offer an extension on this year’s contract, so it will be interesting to see if he can find a way to redeem himself without pressing the issue. More performances like Friday’s would certainly be a step in the right direction.
Of course the other star of the evening for the home team was Corey’s new competition, Wesley Johnson, who coincidentally is strong in practically every area his colleague is not. Wes exhibits range, comfort and consistency in his jump shot, nimbleness in attacking the basket and awareness in distributing the ball all while providing the same quick feet and long armed defensive presence. Wes was 4-6 from three point range on the evening, matching Brewer’s 18 points and took a few efficient turns spelling his partner’s defense of Iso Joe.
If there’s any glaring weakness in Johnson’s game, it’s his ball handling. His footwork and athleticism make him quite the threat to YouTube practically anyone, but an apparent inability to put the ball on the floor is a real hindrance to what could be an awesome offensive arsenal. If defenders had to respect his first step, it would not only open his game, it could make him the dependable scorer Wolves are clearly lacking. (Dependent on how you feel about one Michael Beasley.)
Regardless, the two make an impressive tandem. Given the absence of both Jonny Flynn and Martell Webster, they will have time to establish themselves and even upon their compatriots return, could make significant contributions to the second team.
As Rambis noted postgame, “We still don’t know what our team is or who we are until we’re healthy. Even then there will be more experimenting.”
Ben and Myles seemed to perfectly sum up all of the areas, possibilities, good and bad of the draft night; However, the most important aspect of it could end up being the trade of Luke Babbitt and Ryan Gomes to the Portland Trailblazers for Martell Webster.
While the salary cap aspect seems to be a mystery to people it shouldn’t be a mystery to, the talent aspect is very clear. The Wolves are getting rid of a very incredible role player in Ryan Gomes. Gomes is one of those San Antonio Spurs-type of guys off the bench that is very understated but always seems to make the right play. He’s also an incredibly likable person who seems to get what being a professional athlete is all about. He’s one of the good guys that doesn’t force anything with his fame and physical prowess. He just lets everything come to him in life and with a young team it’s hard to imagine you’d want to get rid of veterans like that.
What the Wolves give up in goodguyness (made it up) and basketball talent, they definitely get back with the acquisition of Martell Webster. Martell’s career has been a bit of a struggle so far. After feeling his way from high school to the highest level of basketball competition for two seasons, he broke through during the Blazers breakthrough season as a franchise. The Blazers went 41-41 as their young team (almost exemplified by Martell Webster in a way) started to put the potential into progress.
But after Martell and the Blazers broke out into being taken seriously in the league, he played just five minutes in the 2008-09 season. He was sidelined with a stress fracture in his foot in the pre-season before the season started and then only made a brief appearance in a December game against Raptors before sitting out the rest of the season while trying to heal.
When Martell returned to the Blazers rotation last season (82 games, 49 started, 24.5 minute per game) with a fully healed foot, a lot of the promise he showed before the injury returned. His skill set reads like a GMs ultimate fantasy. He can knock down the three, play lockdown defense against good perimeter defenders and has the athleticism to wow the crowd. And he’ll bring a lot of that to the Wolves.
However, figuring out where Martell is going to play next season might be the key to whether he is successful or not in his time with Minnesota. In case you haven’t paid attention to the Wolves David Kahn five-year plan of forming a full team by drafting just one position each season, year two was the small forward year. Even with acquiring Martell Webster, the Wolves pulled in four small forwards on draft night and a Brazilian center to be forgotten later. And of the four small forwards acquired, Martell is the most likely to be able to play the shooting guard position.
The problem is the idea of him playing shooting guard is sort of a foreign concept. According to 82games.com, Martell Webster played 11% of the allotted shooting guard minutes in Portland during his rookie season, while logging 14% of the minutes at small forward. Unfortunately, that was four years ago and he’s never played more than 4% of the shooting guard minutes in any given season since. In fact, in 2006-07 and 2009-10 he played just 1% of the shooting guard minutes. While it’s really fun to imagine him as a shooting guard because he’s athletic, can shoot and sort of looks like one, the evidence shows that he really doesn’t play there.
And when he does play there, it’s just a small sample size that is all over the board that it’s hard to know if this pipedream of him being a legit 2-guard is… well… legit. Check out the performances at shooting guard and small forward over the past couple of seasons:
It seems nearly impossible to predict that Martell Webster can be the shooting guard on this team based on these sample sizes. Appearance makes him fit the part of the shooting guard role but history says he doesn’t fit the bill. Of course, playing on the same team as Brandon Roy over the past few years makes playing time at the shooting guard position kind of scarce. Roy played 33% of the shooting guard minutes in 09-10, 59% in 07-08 and 42% in 06-07. For Webster to receive a lot of minutes at the shooting guard would have caused the Blazers to put their best player out of position.
But if Roy wasn’t around, would Webster have been the right call as the shooting guard anyway? Last season, he shot 37.3% from three-point range, which is right in line with his 37.2% career rate. According to Synergy Sports, Webster was a 38.3% shooter on spot-up jumpers and a 39.8% shooter on spot-up threes. These spot-up jumpers accounted for 41.6% of his offensive plays that ended in a shot attempt, turnover or trip to the free throw line. While those aren’t terrible percentages, they also don’t make you want to lump him in with the Steve Kerr’s, Reggie Miller’s and Jason Kapono’s of the league. Webster isn’t strong taking the ball to the hole and he’s not a deadeye shooter. So throwing him into the shooting guard position doesn’t scream of guaranteed success.
While this all seems to be a negative case for Martell Webster, my thoughts couldn’t be further from that assessment. The strength of Webster isn’t going to be the offensive production he brings; it will be the defense he brings to the table. The Wolves got killed on defense last year. The perimeter defense was terrible. The interior defense was terrible. The pick-and-roll defense was pretty bad too. And while Webster doesn’t solve all of that, he does provide a lockdown presence on the perimeter that makes the best offensive perimeter forces in the league have to work extra hard.
In most normal seasons, Webster would have been lauded for the defensive presence he was on the floor during the 2009-10 campaign. He didn’t exactly reinvent the way to play perimeter defense but he was a solid road barrier in the way of guys scoring efficiently. Unfortunately for him, he played on the same team as Nicolas Batum who received the highest remarks for his defensive efforts all season (and deservedly so too). Webster is strong enough to body-up the bigger players and still athletic enough to stay with the quick players. His quick leaping ability, quick feet and 6’11” wingspan allow him to challenge jumpers on the perimeter. And best of all, he’ll be able to teach Corey Brewer and Wesley Johnson the tricks of the defensive trade.
Overall, I love the idea of Martell Webster being a Wolf next year, especially when it means having to replace Ryan Gomes. You don’t find many 23-year olds as savvy and veteran (I like using it as an adjective too) as Webster.
Let’s just not fall in love with the idea of him at the shooting guard position just yet…
When deciding on whether the Wolves should pass on another big man and try to replenish the much depleted wing position, Wesley Johnson is easily the best the draft has to offer but at the same time is one of the bigger risks.
It’s not so much that Wesley Johnson is going to be a bad player. He’s quite talented and has the potential to be a nice weapon.
Wes brings a ton of athleticism to the table. He had the best no step vertical leap at the draft combine with a 32-inch jump. At Syracuse, he was a bevy of alley-oop opportunities. Just watch here:
But with all of the athleticism comes great responsibility. No wait. That was Spiderman. With Wesley, the athleticism is nice and it’s going to mean he can make a lot of plays in the NBA. On the break, he’ll be a threat for a dunk in nearly every situation. You can run probably one or two backdoor cuts for him each game to get a nice dunk. He moves fairly well without the ball and by being active in the triangle he could definitely find a couple of scoring opportunities in the lane by just cutting through the passing lanes.
One of the two questions I have with Johnson is do his negatives outweigh the athleticism or vice-versa?
I’d list his negatives in the following order of importance:
1. Dribbling ability
2. Is he a star?
3. He’s already 22 years old.
The star question and his age aren’t gigantic deals to me. Even though you’d hope with the fourth pick in a draft you’re getting a star player, as long as he helps the Wolves build to a place of respectability/playoff competitiveness. I’d settle for a more athletic version of Ryan Gomes here and hope players develop from there. Plus the fact that he’s already 22 years old (23 in July) makes me think he doesn’t have a ton of room for growth in his game. Yes, he’ll get better and more efficient at what he does well but he’s unlikely to add significant parts to his game that aren’t there already. And the one that worries me the most is his dribbling ability.
It’s not that he’s a bad dribbler. He can handle the rock a little. The problem is I don’t know that you can give him the ball and do the trendy isolation on the wing thing. He doesn’t seem like a guy that can create a lot for himself. He has the jab step to create room for his jumper, which will help a lot. But if defenders are going to play up on him to crowd his shot, can he make them pay for that? Is he just a direct drive type of offensive player without any backup plan? Can he cross a guy over? Is he just Hakim Warrick in a small forward mold? These are the questions that his dribbling ability raise.
Some of this feels like nitpicking and it probably is. But with a pick this high, you sort of have to nitpick while vetting the possibilities.
Ultimately, the second question I have about Wesley Johnson is the most pressing.
Is Wesley Johnson a good shooter?
This past year at Syracuse makes this look like sort of a no-brainer. He made 41.5% of his three-point attempts and the jumper looks fairly smooth when you watch it in action. He has a good release point and a very solid shooting motion. There isn’t a lot of wasted motion. The thing you have to figure out is whether or not it can translate to NBA range.
The reason this matter so much is because the Wolves aren’t exactly a government training facility for snipers. Minnesota was 23rd in three-point percentage (34.1%), 26th in three-pointers made (403) and 28th in the NBA in three-pointers attempted (1181). The Wolves didn’t have a single player shoot 40% from the arc. Wayne Ellington was the team leader with 39.5%.
By taking Wes you’re basically putting all of your long-range hopes on his ability to make it rain. If he can’t shoot it as accurately from a couple feet farther than what he’s used to, the Wolves will be giving up on a very important area of the floor unless Kevin Love can become Dirk Nowitzki (P.S. – he can’t).
I doubt Wes’ consistency shooting the three for a couple of reasons:
1) This past year was unlike any other in his other college career. His freshman year at Iowa State he shot just 29.4% on 109 attempts from three. His sophomore year at Iowa State he improved to 33.3% on 147 attempts from three. Once he transferred to ‘Cuse he became this sharp-shooting deadeye at 41.5% on 123 attempts. Was this because he grew as a player and a shooter? Was this because of tireless work in the lab, perfecting his craft? Or was this because he was playing a system that opened up threes for him he wouldn’t normally have at his disposal?
2) His ball handling could prevent him from getting good looks. His weak dribbling ability makes it unlikely that defenders would have to respect the threat of him driving past strong closeouts. If a defender can rely on just stopping his jumper from being comfortable then that takes away a lot of his offensive attack. He essentially becomes a one-dimensional player and that one-dimension would just be dunking. Ask Gerald Green and James White how that’s worked out for them.
3) Do we even know if he’s a better shooter than Corey Brewer? It’s not that Corey Brewer is a bad shooter. He’s improving his range and consistency and deserves a gold star for doing so. It’s just I wouldn’t exactly trust him with being the consistent long-range threat for defensive schemes to respect. At Florida, Brewer shot 35.6% from three in his three-year career. He had efficient field goal percentages of 57%, 53% and 53% during his time in college. Wesley Johnson’s numbers in his three-year college career are 34.8% three-point shooting with efficient field goal percentages of 50%, 48% and 56%. Corey Brewer had True Shooting percentages of 58%, 57% and 57%. Johnson boasts 53%, 52% and 60% in the same category.
Now, if Wesley Johnson’s year at Syracuse is simply a product of the system he was in and the averages of his three-year career are more indicative of his shooting ability then it’s going to be hard fielding a perimeter of Wesley, Corey and Jonny Flynn. There would be nothing to respect on the outside and defenses could key in on Al Jefferson and Kevin Love in the post. THAT’S a problem.
But maybe he can shoot. If he can shoot a lot of positives can come of this. Selecting Wesley for the starting small forward slot and adding a three-point threat to franchise gives Corey Brewer a big boost to what he can do on the court. Brewer was most effective as a shooting guard last season. According to 82games.com, Corey’s best position was at the 2 in which he posted a PER of 13.8 as opposed to his 11.9 at the small forward position. Defensively, his shooting guard counterpart posted a PER of 18.4 (remember he was guarding really good players) at shooting guard and a whopping 22.9 at small forward. Brewer is much better off playing in the backcourt with Flynn or Sessions (or Rubio?!?!) because his build is much more amicable to the position. He’s not strong enough to maximize his defensive strengths while guarding much bigger players at the 3.
Also, adding Wesley Johnson allows the team to keep up the break-neck pace they employed last year. Johnson can run the floor, fill the lanes and finish with fastbreak dunks of baptizing proportions. He’s also quick enough on defense to play solid transition defense and could be a prime candidate for weak side blocks. He showed great defensive instincts at Syracuse in their 2-3 zone and there’s no reason to believe his defensive strengths won’t translate to the NBA. He’ll need to get stronger but for the most part he’s very quick with his defensive decision-making. His long wingspan (7’1”) means he can make up for any offensive player blowing by him. He should be able to recover quickly and still challenge the shot.
He’s very Batum-ish in many ways.
Overall, Wesley Johnson at the fourth pick is something we should all be able to get behind. There are plenty of questions with just how good he can be and whether or not the shooting outburst seen at Syracuse is smoke and mirrors or dynamite with a quick fuse.
The good seemingly outweighs the bad and with this franchise that’s often the best you can hope for.