[stag_dropcap font_size=”75px” style=”squared”]W[/stag_dropcap]hen the conversation comes up as to what a premier defensive wing should look like, building one that has all the physical attributes of Wesley Johnson might be one of the ways to go. The other way to go being, of course, Kawhi Leonard. But there’s a lot of similarities there from a physical standpoint. They both are listed at six feet seven inches tall with an eight foot ten inch standing reach, and they both possess a wingspan that measures over seven feet – Johnson’s is seven-one while Leonard’s is seven-three. The main difference between both, at least physically, is their weight. Leonard is a chiseled 230 pounds while Johnson weighs about 215, but their body structures hold the weight differently. Johnson is lankier, Leonard is stouter. And that’s where a lot of the comparisons between both end. At least in theory.
This season, the Los Angeles Clippers have found a great deal of defensive success with Wesley Johnson on the court for them. That’s what made Doc Rivers’ comments from a week ago so peculiar. Particularly when he said it was “more of a defensive decision” to take Johnson out of the rotation in favor of 19-year veteran Paul Pierce. The results came back, and they were not good for Pierce.
In an albeit small sample size of 81 minutes this season, the Clippers have a 111.1 Defensive Rating with Paul Pierce on the court. In the 253 minutes with Wesley Johnson, the team has a 96.4 Defensive Rating. The main four bench lineup of Raymond Felton, Austin Rivers, Jamal Crawford, and Marreese Speights is also affected by this. In the 37 minutes those four have spent with Pierce on the floor, they’ve posted a 110.3 Defensive Rating. That number drops down to a staggeringly low 92.6 Defensive Rating in the 149 minutes that Johnson has been with them.
Among the 260 players to have logged at least 10 minutes per game and played in 20 games this season, Wesley Johnson ranks seventh in individual Defensive Rating in the entire league. He’s posting career-highs in block percentage and rebound rate while, for the first time in his career, playing the vast majority of his minutes as a small-ball power forward. In other words, he’s getting the job done defensively and ending possessions better than he ever has. And it’s time we review some of the tape to see just how he’s affecting games when he’s on the court.
To start us off on this adventure, we see the Oklahoma City Thunder corral a rebound. Jerami Grant grabs the ball and jettisons the ball to Semaj Christon in the open floor. When Christon catches the ball, he’s a good several feet in front of Wesley Johnson, as Johnson is straddling center court. But Johnson doesn’t give up on this. He uses his long stride to eventually get himself closer, and as Christon goes up to slam the ball, Johnson flat out rejects him like a bad habit. It prevented an easy two points for the opposition, and Johnson’s hustle was the main reason as to why.
This was a pivotal moment in the game. It’s still a three point contest here, and an easy basket by the Thunder would have put a tad more pressure on the Clippers. But Johnson was there to deny an easy basket. Not every player would hustle back there, and even fewer would attempt to actually deter the shot out of fear of fouling Christon on the dunk attempt. Yet, here, Johnson didn’t give up. That never-say-die spirit has been one of the main reasons he’s helped the team this season.
In a close game against the Portland Trail Blazers on Monday night, every possession ultimately mattered, and this one was no exception. Late in the first quarter, Damian Lillard is running a pick-and-roll with Ed Davis. To Lillard’s credit, he beautifully probes on the dribble here and hits Davis on the roll right as Jamal Crawford vacates the area to help back onto his own man on the left wing. When the pass is made, Johnson digs down and swats the living hell out of Davis’ shot attempt. Davis grabs the ball while falling out of bounds and heaves it over everyone’s head for a turnover. Another two points saved by the Clippers’ lanky forward.
On this play, we see Wesley Johnson’s ability to read and react to what’s unfolding in front of him. When the pick-and-roll starts, Johnson is on the baseline defending his own man. With just one glance over his shoulder, Johnson notices his man moving across the baseline and into the left corner. But, to his credit, Johnson doesn’t do anything above his means here. He simply straddles the edge of the paint to help on the roll, and when the pass comes he’s in perfect position to help. It’s this level of intelligence that he’s shown all season long.
Late in the first half of the team’s most recent game against the Orlando Magic, we see Wesley Johnson defending Jeff Green on the left wing. When Elfrid Payton and Bismack Biyombo run some action, Johnson begins to dig down on Biyombo’s half-roll. Payton gets his pass off late to Biyombo, and it does get tipped a little bit by DeAndre Jordan. When Biyombo eventually gathers the ball, Johnson and J.J. Redick are smothering him, and that forces the big man to kick out to the corner. Reading the play, Austin Rivers jumps over to the corner to force another pass, and that pass is then made to D.J. Augustin on the left wing. Wesley Johnson recovers, contests without fouling, and gets a piece of the ball to force a miss.
A lot happened on this play, especially from a scrambling perspective, but Johnson’s court presence and knowhow came into play here. He properly diagnosed the roll action from Biyombo, helped, and then recovered onto a shooter without getting crossed up with what Rivers was doing. He then swatted the shot and effectively nullified an Orlando possession. This was great team defense all-around, but an even better job by Johnson to help, recover, and reject. That length can really come in handy sometimes, and we’re about to see more of it.
Earlier in that very same second quarter, we got a glimpse of Johnson’s active hands in a different way. The Magic appear have a fast break opportunity here. Aaron Gordon is dribbling up the court like a man possessed, and defenders are trying to prepare themselves for whatever he decides to do. When the play starts, Johnson is bodied against Jeff Green near midcourt. Johnson pushes Green off and passes him off to another defender. When Gordon hits center court, it’s a 2-on-3 break for Orlando. Green flares to the corner to give Gordon room, and Johnson reads this as a passing lane. When Gordon gathers the ball to pass, Johnson is right there with him and gets his hand in the way to deflect the pass. The ball goes into the air, Raymond Felton leaps for it, and Gordon fouls him to end the possession.
Even if the pass is not deflected by Johnson here, he’d have still been in position to defend Green’s possible three-point attempt from the corner. That’s the level of positioning he had on this play while defending a fast break. His ability to read what was unfolding in real time and deflect the pass from Gordon was otherworldly, and it’s something he’s worked a lot on all year. He knows his main value is as a defensive player, and plays like this prove that value to the world. He’s become damn good at using his length and intelligence on that end of the floor.
In the fourth quarter of that same Orlando game, the Magic are running action on the right side of the floor. Serge Ibaka passes the ball to Jeff Green and runs over to set him a screen. As the screen from Ibaka comes, Marreese Speights and Wesley Johnson switch. Johnson fronts on Ibaka, and Green attempts to pass over the top, but he miscalculates just how high Johnson can jump. Johnson reads the pass attempt, leaps, and deflects the pass for another steal.
This was another one of those game-altering type plays. It’s a three-point contest at this juncture, and if the pass is completed to Ibaka then the only rim deterrent is Jamal Crawford since he rotated over. The steal likely saved a couple points for Los Angeles, and they ultimately went on to win this game. Johnson did well here to front the post and force a pass over the top. By doing so, it made the passing lane that much more difficult for Green to squeeze the pass through. Johnson was just so good here.
Tim Frazier of the New Orleans Pelicans is dribbling against Austin Rivers, and as he turns the corner we see Omer Asik running down the lane for a possible pass attempt. Wesley Johnson recognizes Asik’s rim run, and he digs down to protect against it while Rivers and Speights help on Frazier. When Frazier goes to pass out, Johnson darts back out to the perimeter to defend against Cheick Diallo. As Diallo dribbles into a move, Johnson bodies into him and then swipes straight down on the ball with his left hand. It’s ripped clean, and the Clippers get a turnover.
Exquisite work from Johnson on this play as he helped onto a rolling Asik, rotated back, and then got his hand onto the ball to force a turnover. It’s these types of plays that have helped the Los Angeles bench maintain a fantastic Defensive Rating this season. Johnson has allowed them to play a more attacking style of defense, and because of his ability to be seemingly everywhere at once, he’s given them more opportunities at forcing turnovers.
Say hello to what just sheer length can do. The Brooklyn Nets have the ball here, and it’s thrown to Joe Harris on the right wing. Wesley Johnson jumps out to greet him, and Harris tries to go into some stutter-step dribble move. It doesn’t work at all. Johnson pokes towards the ball with his right hand, and it deflects onto the floor where Johnson and Harris both dive for it. Johnson eventually comes up with the ball and passes it up ahead, thus ending the possession.
In retrospect, Harris should have perhaps pulled up into a three rather than attempting to dribble by Johnson. Instead, he tried his hand at beating Johnson off the dribble and all he got for it was a turnover. Johnson’s quick hands and length to get those hands where he wants them to get to caused Harris all sorts of problems here. There’s no telling just how many steals and blocks Johnson could rack up as a full-time starter or heavy minutes getter, but the consistent work he’s given on that end of the floor, as shown in plays like this, speaks volumes about his skill.
With C.J. McCollum of the Portland Trail Blazers leading the transition opportunity for his squad, we see Wesley Johnson just sort of jogging back onto defense. It appears that Los Angeles’ defense is all scrambled on this play as nearly all five defenders are sort of figuring out where to be and who to guard. As McCollum dribbles towards the top of the arc, he gathers the ball to pass it. Johnson, the ever-aware player, reads this and jumps into the air to deflect the pass that’s intended for Allen Crabbe in the corner. He ends the defensive possession by securing the ball for yet another steal.
While the scoreboard shows this game as a blowout at this point in time, it’s still also somewhat early enough to think that Portland could perhaps close the gap and make this a game again. Johnson had no intentions of making that the slightest bit possible. Despite what appears to be him meandering back on defense, he knew where the opposition’s players were located. He knew that Crabbe was in the corner, and he kept his focus on McCollum to the point where he could read the eyes of the passer. Beautiful stuff from Wes.
On this play, Jarell Martin of the Memphis Grizzlies gets the ball roughly 35 feet from the hoop. Wesley Johnson jumps out to meet him and immediately starts to make life tough on the big man by using active hands to disrupt possible passing lanes. When Mike Conley tries to get the ball, Raymond Felton denies the pass and forces Martin to hold onto it. That gives Johnson all the window he needs. The instant Martin gets comfortable and brings the ball back down towards his waist, Johnson swipes across with his left hand and pokes the ball loose. Martin is caught off-guard, can’t grab the ball, and Johnson steals it away from him before speeding down the court for a thunderous dunk.
This was a huge play in the game. It’s only a four-point game at this juncture, and any basket by Memphis here would surely have Doc Rivers and the Clippers worried. Instead, Johnson steals the ball and dunks it to increase the lead to a half-dozen. Don’t forget to give some credit to Felton here for making it impossible for Martin to get the pass to Conley. That gave Johnson the ability to pressure Martin even more, and he did. Heck of a play, and just another instance of what Johnson’s lankiness and quick hands can do for Los Angeles. It’s out of this world stuff.
Lastly, we have another play from the same game against Memphis. As Wade Baldwin is attempting to dribble the baseline, Wesley Johnson is guarding near the left wing. When Baldwin’s foray starts to take place, Johnson moves towards the free throw line and faces the baseline to get an accurate gauge on where Baldwin is passing. He wants to read his eyes. Johnson plays the pass to Zach Randolph first, but when Baldwin keeps going through the paint, Johnson darts back to the right and into the passing lane where Baldwin fires the ball towards a cutting Jarell Martin. Johnson deflects the pass, it goes towards the baseline, and Martin tries to pass it back towards midcourt, but Jamal Crawford eventually corrals the ball and ends the defensive possession.
This was yet another defensive play in Wesley Johnson’s cap. He saw the defense pushing Baldwin near the baseline, and rather than just sitting on his man and making sure the pass didn’t go to him, he ventured to the middle of the floor and denied one passing lane before thwarting another passing lane in the next second. Just expert-level defending out of a player here, and it’s definitely the level of defense the team has gotten from Johnson all season long. He’s been forcing a hefty amount of turnovers with his length, hands, aggressiveness, and acumen. He’s been superb.
Going back to the beginning of this piece and the Leonard-Johnson comparison, it is interesting to note that Wesley Johnson is holding players to a lower field goal percentage than Kawhi Leonard has this season. Players are shooting 43.5 percent against Johnson so far, while they’re shooting 47.3 percent against Leonard. This isn’t to say that Johnson is a better defender than Leonard, because he’s not. It’s simply to illustrate how good Johnson has been this season for the Clippers. And he’s been downright great.
In post-up situations this season, Johnson is holding opponents to 0.61 points per possession and 30.8 percent shooting. He’s forced a turnover 22.2 percent of the time on post-ups against him. Johnson’s also giving up 0.70 points per possession on isolations, as well as 0.81 points per possession to spot-up shooters. He’s defended well in space all season, and he’s played passing lanes with a plethora of brainpower. If his shot comes around again, then Johnson might be getting more minutes as the season goes along. After all, his defensive presence might be needed. The team might need more of Wes, not less. And more isn’t a bad thing if the team is getting this defense out of him.