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October 7, 2009
Johnson moving forward at Syracuse
SYRACUSE, N.Y. - Most fans outside of Big 12 country probably never have heard of Syracuse forward Wesley Johnson.
That figures to change in a hurry.
Johnson, a 6-foot-7 transfer from Iowa State, still hasn't played a game for Syracuse, but he already is regarded as the Orange's best player. Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim has called Johnson a potential lottery pick who should make an instant impact in the Big East.
"We felt if he could have played with our team [last season], we would have had a great showing," says Rob Murphy, a Syracuse assistant who works with the Orange's forwards. "We went to the Sweet 16, but [with Johnson] we would have had a chance to get to the Final Four with a shot to win it. He's that good. That's the kind of difference he can make."
Johnson can't help but smile in amazement when he hears these rave reviews. After all, this is the same guy who couldn't get Division I programs to look his way before experiencing a growth spurt his senior year in high school. Even then, he was so lightly recruited that he originally signed with Louisiana-Monroe.
"I've been under the radar my whole life,'' Johnson says. "Coming to this program with such high prestige and having someone of Coach Boeheim's caliber saying that about me is really overwhelming. I take it as motivation to work hard and not prove anybody wrong."
Although he remains anonymous to most casual fans, Johnson didn't actually come from nowhere. A look at his background reveals that Johnson actually came from just about everywhere.
Johnson signed with Louisiana-Monroe out of high school in Corsicana, Texas, and later attended three other schools before finally landing at Syracuse.
Why wasn't he at a big-time program in the first place? For most of his teenage years, he didn't seem tall enough to play on the wing at the college level. Johnson was only about 6-2 until he grew 5 inches as a high school senior.
The growth spurt helped him in the long run but hurt him in the short term. His former AAU coach says Johnson endured such growing pains that he struggled to walk before his senior year of high school. If he could barely walk, how was he going to play in front of the college coaches who were attending his AAU events?
"He was great in March, April and June," says Tony Johnson, who isn't related to Wesley but coached him with the AAU's Dallas Mustangs. "Then in July, the growing pains started. He didn't really get a chance to show his athleticism and his jump shot because he was hurting so bad. To me, he's always been a high-major kid."
The former two-star prospect seemed headed to Louisana-Monroe, but the resignation of then-coach Mike Vining caused him to look elsewhere.
Johnson decided to go the prep-school route and signed with The Patterson School in Lenoir, N.C., but he soon grew disenchanted. Johnson believed he wasn't receiving all the recruiting mail that Division I programs were sending to him at Patterson, so he stayed only about a semester before transferring to Eldon Academy in Petoskey, Mich.
But as soon as he arrived at Eldon, he says he got a bad feeling about the place.
"I kind of knew there was going to be something bad happening," Johnson says. "I just prepared myself for the worst. … Just how the school was going, it was kind of wishy-washy."
His fears were justified, as Eldon Academy closed only about a month after he got there.
Even after all that upheaval, Johnson managed to earn a scholarship offer, from Iowa State. He can thank the long memory of well-traveled assistant Jean Prioleau.
Prioleau was working at Wichita State when he first saw Johnson in an AAU event. After joining Tom Crean's staff at Marquette, Prioleau went to Patterson to scout another player when he again spotted Johnson and was impressed by how much he had grown. When Prioleau moved on to Iowa State, he gave Johnson a call.
"He needed to put on some weight," says Prioleau, now an assistant at TCU, "but his skill level was always there."
Johnson averaged 12.3 points with the Cyclones to make the Big 12's all-freshman team in 2006-07. Johnson averaged 12.4 points and earned honorable mention All-Big 12 honors the following year despite missing five games with a stress fracture in his left foot.
Just when it seemed as though Johnson finally had found a home, he decided to pack up once more. Although his decision to transfer caught Iowa State's coaching staff by surprise, Johnson said his frustration had been growing throughout his sophomore season as his dealings with Cyclones coach Greg McDermott grew more and more tenuous.
"It kind of built up my sophomore year," Johnson says. "I really felt the relationship wasn't there. I felt it was the best decision for me to leave."
As he started considering Syracuse as a potential landing spot, Johnson established a rapport with Murphy. He eventually opted for the Orange because he thought their up-tempo approach best suited his style of play.
Syracuse's history of developing quality forwards also played a role in his decision. Notable Syracuse forwards over the past 15 years have included John Wallace, Etan Thomas, Damone Brown, Carmelo Anthony, Hakim Warrick, Demetris Nichols and Donte Greene. Each was drafted, with all but Brown and Nichols going in the first round. Murphy expects Johnson to continue the tradition.
"I'd be shocked if he wasn't a first-round pick," Murphy says. "He has lottery potential."
That possibility represents a stunning turn of events for a guy who seemed a long way from the NBA just a few short years ago. Heck, back then, Johnson seemed a long way from making it in college, let alone the pro ranks.
"It's very surprising," Johnson says. "It's funny how stuff ends up happening when it's all said and done."
Of course, it isn't all said and done just yet. In fact, his Syracuse career hasn't even begun. All those first-round projections will disappear in a hurry if Johnson doesn't reward the faith that Syracuse's coaches have shown in him.
Syracuse must replace the top three scorers from a team that went 28-10 and reached the South Regional semifinals last season. Orange coaches believe Johnson can step in immediately and take over as their leading scorer. Murphy indicated Johnson often was arguably the best player on the floor during the team's practices last season, even with first-round NBA pick Jonny Flynn on the roster.
"We're depending on him," Murphy says. "He has to come in and perform like an All-Big East player.''
Murphy believes that's a realistic goal. Johnson can defend just about every position other than center. He can emerge as a force on the glass because of his long wingspan. He can shoot the 3-pointer. He can make a mid-range jumper. He can run the floor. He can drive to the basket. Murphy struggled to come up with a single weakness in Johnson's game before finally pointing out that his ballhandling needs improvement.
"We look for him to come in and give us 16-20 points, compete at the highest level and probably be our go-to guy," Murphy says. "He's that good. He has those types of skills."
That kind of talk has Iowa State fans wondering what might have been. The Cyclones believe the return of star forward Craig Brackins gives them a legitimate chance of making a move in the Big 12 this season, but their chances of contending for a postseason bid would be much greater if Johnson had stayed.
Johnson continues to keep in touch with Brackins and believes Iowa State could "do some damage in the Big 12" this season. Who knows how much damage Johnson and Brackins could have caused together?
"I think a lot of people want to know that back in Ames," Johnson says. "They want to realize what we could have done, but it's all [a moot point]. It's kind of like when Jonny left. What could we have done together? It goes both ways.
"I just really think I'll get a chance to play with those guys again someday. Hopefully, we'll answer those questions."
Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.