Wesley Johnson was one of the most prominent NBAers to cross the Atlantic this summer. The No.4 of the 2010 NBA Draft, which also featured DeMarcus Cousins, Gordon Hayward, John Wall and Paul George, spent five out of his total nine NBA seasons in Los Angeles.
With the Lakers, he registered his career-best numbers in points, rebounds, steals and blocks, playing alongside Kobe Bryant who soon became his mentor. In 2015, he went to the Clippers, where his numbers and his playing time dropped significantly in a three-year stint. The Pelicans and the Wizards were his next stops, until Panathinaikos OPAP Athens reached out to him with a contract, under the auspices of Rick Pitino who sat on the Green’s bench last year.
Johnson, who had made the NBA All-Rookie Second Team in 2011, is now preparing for his close-up in European basketball and the EuroLeague. TalkBasket.net caught up with him in Athens and the Texas-born forward had the patience to answer all sorts of questions.
Q: What is your first impression from Greece and Panathinaikos OPAP Athens?
A: I’m loving Greece. Everything has been good. Everyone is welcoming me with open arms.
Q: How is it possible for Panathinaikos to find chemistry?
A: I think we are doing good practice, on and off the court. Guys go out to eat and talk to one another. I mean, in new teams you always have to find the chemistry. It’s one of those things that you have to build because in a new team you don’t expect to find the answers right up. So, we’re taking the practice stuff very seriously, learning everybody’s tendencies, and we go from there.
Q: Is it easy for you to figure out your role on the team?
A: For me it’s fine. It’s me just making reads: (coach) wants me to play defence, to be slasher, shoot the ball, go in transition, drive and do what I got to do.
Q: Apart from the different rules, are you noticing any other substantial disparities between Europe and the NBA?
A: No, it’s playing basketball. There’s some little differences, such as being able to knock the ball off the rim when it’s on it; in defence, when you’re in the key, you’re able to stay in the paint for as long as you want. It’s about giving up on those habits that I’m used to doing.
Q: The legendary Audie Norris recently said that playing in Europe gives the NBAers the chance to re-learn how to play the game. Does it apply to you?
A: It applies to everybody. We all grew up playing in a certain way, with different rules, and then went to college and played the same way as they play in Europe. Been in the NBA for so long, the rules are adapted to it because everybody is more athletic and long. So, they try to monitor the game in certain ways.
Q: Is there an explanation as to why so many NBA players came over to Europe this summer, including yourself?
A: No, I just think it was just timing. The opportunity presented itself to different players and people. There’s a different answer for everybody else, but for me it was just the opportunity to come to play in the EuroLeague.
Q: Who’s the player you’re most looking forward to facing in Europe?
A: Probably Greg (Monroe) or Nikola Mirotic, my ex-teammate (last year, with the Pelicans), or Derrick Williams who was on my team as well (the Minnesota Timberwolves)… Pretty much everybody, since I decided to play in the EuroLeague.
Q: How was your overall experience in the NBA? Do you plan on returning there sometime?
A: See whatever the future holds. Right now, I’m pretty much worried about this year and after that we’ll see what happens.
Q: How were things for you with the Lakers?
A: I probably had my best years when I was in LA, but it was with the Clippers because we were winning and we were having a very good team. It was cool. But with the Lakers also it was fine.
Q: Guess you’re being asked about it a lot, but how did you deal with the hype after James Harden crossed you over in that game?
A: It was just a good play. I mean this stuff happens and it happens to everybody who has played long enough.
Q: Harden recently said that you two haven’t spoken since then. Did you use to talk?
A: Yes, we talked a lot, but I haven’t spoken to him. Not since then. Life happens.
Q: Would you say that you have been an underachiever in your career? I’m asking that not only because you were selected No.4 in the NBA Draft, but also because Kobe Bryant, during your probably career-best game vs the Lakers and the 29 points you scored against them, said that if you were to play like that all the time, you would become an All-Star.
A: Circumstances are coming with a stigma. People get drafted high and then they expect you to do certain stuff, but circumstances happen like that. It depends on your role on the team. It doesn’t matter if you get drafted high or not. People expect you to have impact and be a high player, but it depends on the role.
Q: What’s the impact that you expect to have on Panathinaikos?
A: It’s mostly about winning. We’re here to have fun. There’s nothing weighing on my shoulders that I need to do. I just go out and play.
Q: Are you aware of the competition in the EuroLeague?
A: I’m not paying that much attention to it. I’m just worried about our team. I think that if we take care of ourselves, everybody else doesn’t matter. That’s how I feel.
Q: What do you expect, ahead of the new season?
A: I expect us to do big things. As far as achievements, I think sky is the limit for us. I’m expecting us to win. That’s our expectations as a team and as a club.
Q: What piece of advice did Rick Pitino give you before signing with Panathinaikos?
A: He said: “Be yourself. You’ll fit right in and you’ll be fine. You’ve got all the tools and you’re a great player. Don’t you worry about anything”.
Q: Is it true that Scottie Pippen was your role model?
A: Yes, because he did everything on the court: defence, score, steals, rebounds. I definitely look up to him and also to Kobe because of his “killer instinct”. But Scottie was so versatile and capable of doing everything.