I remember at the end of my freshman year at Syracuse, everyone was pretty down on the basketball team’s making any noise in the 2009-2010 season. Jonny Flynn, the point guard who should have worn a cape and put an ‘S’ on his chest, was leaving for the NBA. So were starters Eric Devendorf and Paul Harris.
No one was really sure why Harris and Devendorf were going. Some speculated that it was problems with coach Jim Boeheim, others thought it was because they actually believed they were NBA players (laughable now, Devendorf will be with the Melbourne Tigers in the Australian Basketball League next year and Harris plays for the storied Maine Red Claws in the NBDL).
People thought another reason Harris might have left is that Boeheim told him he would be coming off the bench the following season because of a transfer from Iowa State named Wesley Johnson. According to some managers on the team who I am friendly with, Wes was the best player in practice and he was going to replace Harris in the starting lineup.
Replace Harris? There was no way. Harris may have been a bit erratic, but he had didn’t belong on the bench; there was no way Johnson could take Harris’ spot in the lineup if he stayed.
Or so I thought.
When the season started this was what I knew about Johnson: He seemed like a pretty nice guy and he always had a huge smile whenever I saw him on campus.
Johnson was Syracuse’s ace in the hole. The core rotation of Guards Andy Rautins, Scoop Jardine, and Brandon Triche and Forwards Kris Joseph, Arinze Onuaku, and Rick Jackson was solid. No one had the skill set to shine. Joseph was a year away, and the rest of the team were fringe second round players at best. Overall, we were a bubble team, unless Johnson was as good as advertised.
My friend, SU Junior Cayden Feifer kept telling me about how good he was. He had “played” with Johnson and some other players on the SU basketball team in the Rec Center the fall before.
“I easily recognized Mookie and Kris Joseph, two four star recruits, and Sean Williams, an easily recognizable player at 6’11”. But there was one player I didn’t recognize, and he was the one putting on the best show. 360’s, windmills, reverse slams; he was doing it all, and from high up in the air.” Feifer told me, “He looked really athletic, but I had no idea who he was. He was always smooth, and when he leaped with his long legs, he would just glide to the rim. After every time he threw it down, he wouldn’t show off or celebrate, but rather just smile, almost embarrassed of the attention he was getting.”
Feifer was talking about Johnson. What he knew in the fall of 2008, we would all find out a year later: this cat could ball.
Our ace in the hole wasn’t just good, he was one of the best player’s in the country. We embraced him and he embraced us. The relationship between the fans and Johnson was different than any of the superstars that had come through Syracuse before. He wasn’t just someone you admired, he was someone who made you feel comfortable; he was like your buddy next door. You know, if your buddy next door pinned other team’s shots against the backboard like LeBron James and soared in for dunks like Shawn Marion. Johnson quickly became the face of Syracuse basketball and it was a face that you couldn’t walk more than two blocks without seeing in Syracuse.
That charisma will be one of his major assets in the NBA. He will quickly take on the role as the face of a team for a franchise down on its luck. His effervescent smile and highlight reel ability will re-invigorate the fan base of whatever team picks. Just like it did for a city that was lukewarm about the Orange heading into the season.
Johnson doesn’t just put on a show for the public. He is loved by everyone he plays with too. From Flynn, who made a public plea for the Timberwolves to pick Johnson, to SU Sophomore bench warmer Griffin Hoffman.
“Wes is a great players and an even better teammate. He was always the player with the smile on his face and the guy that was there as a leader,” Hoffman told Hoops Addict, “It was an amazing experience playing with him in practice everyday.”
It wasn’t just Johnson’s blocked shots that were reminiscent of LeBron James. The way he led the Orange was very similar, too. Johnson didn’t lead by acting high and mighty over lesser players. He kept everyone loose, always flashing those pearly whites. He was just as likely to be joking around right before tip-off with National 6th man of the year Kris Joseph as he was with a manager on the team or Hoffman.
I’ve seen every other player projected to go in the top 10 play this past season. I saw John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins play in the Sweet 16 at the Carrier Dome in Syracuse. Wall is supposed to be the most exciting player in the draft, but against Cornell, I walked away disappointed. Wall scored eight point against a team with the collective athleticism of a high school jayvee team. He failed to get the crowd out of their seats, and looked listless. Johnson on the other hand, put up 15 points, 10 rebounds, and was a presence inside with three blocks when the Orange faced the Big Red.
I’ve been to a lot of basketball games, and no one got the crowd more excited on offense and defense than Johnson. There was always this anticipation that we were going to see something we had never seen before every time he was near the ball.
Johnson is different from everyone else in the draft class because he’s basketball’s version of a five-tool player. He’s like a Gerald Wallace or an Andre Kirilenko. He’s one of the few players capable of having a stat line in a game of 5 points, 5 assists, 5 rebounds, 5 blocks, and 5 steals. There is a major difference between Johnson and those other two all-around guys; he can spread the floor with his shooting, the other two can’t.
Because of his ability to pick up the slack for his team when they struggle in any aspect of the game, Johnson will make a great second fiddle on a team with an established superstar. His contribution to his team could be like Scottie Pippen’s for the Bulls in the ’90’s.
Obviously, I’m not saying that he’s going to be Pippen, but he has the tools to be a Robin to a superstar’s Batman on the way to an NBA title.
As for where he’ll go, the consensus among the people I spoke to from Syracuse is at the four spot to the Minnesota Timberwolves and I’m sure Flynn and the rest of Minnesota will embrace Johnson as one of its own. The thought of pairing Johnson with Big man Al Jefferson in the front court should have fans in Minnesota excited.
The energy Wes brings might create the high octane offense Ricky Rubio would want to play and convince him that the Timberwolves are the right team for his skillset. Rubio, Flynn, Johnson, and Jefferson. That would be a fun team to watch.
And no matter where Johnson goes, he’ll be flashing that smile and captivating the crowd with his out of the gym athleticism that Feifer saw on that memorable Fall afternoon two years ago.