Johnson playing better than numbers suggest

  • Article by: KENT YOUNGBLOODKYOUNGBLOOD@STARTRIBUNE.COM
  • Updated: April 4, 2011 - 4:07 PM

The athletic rookie has struggled with his shot but shows glimpses of being a fine, all-around player.

The Wolves’ Wes Johnson drew a foul from Orlando’s Dwight Howard in the first half.

Photo: David Joles, Star Tribune

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At first glance, rookie Wes Johnson's numbers in Saturday's loss to Memphis were unimpressive.

Once again, he struggled with his shot. Johnson played almost 25 minutes, took seven shots and made one. He was 0-for-3 on three pointers.

But, at this point in the season -- and at this point in Johnson's development -- Wolves coach Kurt Rambis sometimes looks at other things.

With injuries forcing Johnson to move from big guard to small forward Saturday, Johnson had to guard a more physical player, and he held his own. He had a team high three steals and he tied for the team lead with four assists. He blocked two shots and had just one turnover on a night when six of the 10 Wolves who played had at least three turnovers.

As Johnson's first season winds down, he has had ups and downs. Recently, he has struggled to score, especially after setting a career high with 29 points against the Lakers March 18. He hasn't scored in double figures in four games, including being shut out against Chicago on Wednesday. He still isn't getting to the line enough. Johnson hasn't attempted a free throw in four of his past five games and in 45 games overall.

But Rambis sees potential.

"You're right, he's been inconsistent," Rambis said Saturday. "But I think he feels, in a lot of ways, overwhelmed with all the things he was trying to absorb and learn this year."

Yes, this is a familiar theme coming from Rambis, who has been talking about the inexperience of his team all season, even as the Wolves' losing streak reached 10 games after losing to the Grizzlies. But, even on nights when Johnson's shots aren't falling, Rambis sees glimpses he likes.

"You see the potential in him," Rambis said. "We see much more versatility than just being a spot-up shooter. So I think we're trying to encourage him this year to see those things and broaden his game. Not limit it to what he did in college."

At Syracuse Johnson played a lot of zone defense and spotted up for a lot of jump shots. With the Wolves he has had to learn to defend one-on-one, and to do it within a team defensive scheme. On offense the Wolves are asking him to learn to handle the ball better, to create his shot rather than float around the perimeter waiting for an open chance. In short, the Wolves have thrown a rather large playbook his his direction. At times that has meant some pretty heavy reading.

"It has gone pretty good, at times," Johnson said. "I've been learning a whole lot. I mean, they've been throwing a whole lot of stuff at me. So there have been ups and downs. But it's just a matter of trying to get concepts down and be prepared mentally, getting all the schemes and stuff down for the games.

"On offense you're supposed to go out there and just play, not think so much," Johnson continued. "But you can't help but think. All the plays we have, all the different stuff he tells us to do? I'm just trying hard to learn it so I can go out there without thinking so much."

That's a big reason why Rambis has kept Johnson in the starting lineup as the season has wound down, even when his rookie has struggled.

There is an option. Veteran Martell Webster, slowed by injury much of the season, is healthy and playing efficiently. In his past two games Webster has scored 34 points off the bench, hitting 12 of 20 shots overall and six of 10 three-pointers. As Rambis also pointed out Saturday, Webster's defense has also been very good of late.

Might it be time to let Johnson watch, then come off the bench -- something he did earlier in the season, when Corey Brewer replaced him in the starting lineup -- in favor of Webster? After Saturday's game Webster said it didn't matter to him.

"I don't care about no starts," Webster said. "I care about winning."

Rambis, meanwhile, said it's something he might consider. But he sounded reluctant to make a change with five games left in the season.

"We'll see," Rambis said. "I'm trying to encourage Wes as much as possible. We'll see what happens with who ends up playing."

That was a reference to the injury-plagued Wolves, who Saturday played without forward Kevin Love and center Darko Milicic. "We never know, from game to game, who will be out there," Rambis said.

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