Timberwolves rookie Wes Johnson's newfound confidence will get a test Tuesday night at Target Center against the Lakers' Kobe Bryant. But it won't be their first go-round.
Johnson met Bryant during last spring's playoffs, when the former Syracuse star was in Los Angeles for a predraft workout. The two players share an agent, Rob Pelinka, who helped put Johnson in touch with Bryant. The two swapped phone numbers, and when Johnson decided to train last summer in L.A., the two worked out a couple of times before Bryant had offseason surgery.
It started one day when Bryant phoned Johnson with instructions to meet him. Johnson got there at 8 a.m. and Bryant already had finished lifting weights. The two went out on the court, where Bryant gave Johnson some pointers on the triangle offense.
"Ever since then, I've looked to him for advice," Johnson said.
That advice might not help Johnson slow down one of the league's best players Tuesday night, but ... "I'll do my best to make all his shots tough, make every catch tough for him," he said. "Really, I'll just try to slow him down."
Even during the season, Johnson said, Bryant has watched some Wolves games. He has called and given Johnson advice, things to work on. For a young man who grew up idolizing Bryant's game, this is pretty big stuff.
"It's a great blessing," Johnson said. "I can't put into words what it says about him, just looking out for me, giving me words of advice, his opinion on things I need to work on. I appreciate it."
The Lakers coming to town coincides with Johnson playing as well as he has all season. Johnson struggled badly heading into the All-Star break. But a weekend in L.A. for the Rookie Challenge (and the rest of the All-Star festivities) was the perfect tonic. Not only did Johnson play well in the Rookie Challenge, he also got a first-hand view of how the game's best players handled themselves.
"The whole atmosphere and energy and excitement of All-Star weekend, in general, it really just opened my eyes," Johnson said. "I came back from there fresh. You come back to your team and you bring a different vibe."
And a different role. Corey Brewer, who had spent much of the season starting at guard, was traded to New York. Martell Webster, a veteran coming off the bench, was hurting because of a bad back. That left Johnson to play big minutes. He has responded, scoring 39 points in the past two games, his highest total in back-to-back games this season.
Even better, Johnson has begun to show some potential on defense. He picked up 17 points with seven rebounds, three assists and four steals against Golden State on Sunday. He also had two blocks, including a game-sealing one on Monta Ellis late in the game.
"I think he has started to see what he has the potential to become as a player," Wolves coach Kurt Rambis said. "We're asking him to do more things, in terms of handling the ball, attacking the basket, being a passer off his driving opportunities."
Johnson's defense has improved, in starts and stops, as well. There have been times when defensive lapses have forced Johnson to the bench. But there he was Sunday with the game on the line, stopping Ellis, one of the league's most accomplished scorers.
Next up: Bryant. One thing he learned from his summer workouts with the Lakers star was don't talk trash.
"He was trying to get the ball and I stole it," Johnson said. "And he yelled out to the ref, and I was laughing. He came up and shook his head, threw the ball at me. Just a little fun. But you don't want to wake him up, just keep him controlled."
The mentor/student relationship temporarily ends during the game. Johnson said he is most impressed with the killer instinct Bryant shows on the court. It's an attitude he's trying to mimic. Johnson said even his mother has been on him about that.
"She wants me to get back to my old ways of being out there, yelling," Johnson said. "It will happen soon enough."
Johnson said he plans to work out with Bryant next summer. But first, he will try to slow down Bryant on Tuesday night.
"I plan on him coming out aggressive from the start," Johnson said. "Soon as the tip, I expect him to come out full-speed."