MINNEAPOLIS (AP) _ In one of the longest and most difficult seasons in franchise history, one thing became painfully obvious to David Kahn and Kurt Rambis above all others, the Minnesota Timberwolves needed a star.
Both acknowledge it is much easier to find a player who can take over games and become the face of a franchise through the draft than in free agency.
So can Wesley Johnson, the long and lean Syracuse forward with the pretty jumper and knack for rebounding, become that player?
The Wolves drafted Johnson fourth overall Thursday night, a move that preceded a series of trades and acquisitions of players who do little to excite the fan base with their names alone. Martell Webster, Lazar Hayward, Nemanja Bjelica and Paulao Prestes all are players who may eventually fit in very well with Minnesota.
But Johnson is the only one of the group who has the name recognition that the team can market, so the Wolves sorely need to have made the right move in taking the soon-to-be 23-year-old over Kentucky center DeMarcus Cousins.
“Over time, that’s where every guy wants to be,” said Johnson, who showed off a bright smile and quick sense of humor during his introductory news conference Friday. “I’m just trying to come in and impact the team and help them win. If that role jumps on me, it jumps on me, but other than that I’m just trying to help the team move in the right direction.”
The Wolves traded the 16th pick to Portland for Webster, an athletic wing player who they think will fit right in with their up-tempo style. But he has averaged just over eight points per game in five seasons with the Blazers.
Hayward, taken 30th overall, was a hard-working senior at Marquette. But even he didn’t expect to be taken in the first round. The Serbian Bjelica and Brazilian Prestes may as well be from Mars and Jupiter as far as most Wolves fans are concerned, and could stay overseas for at least another year.
That leaves Johnson, a first-team All-America selection in his lone season at Syracuse, as the key component to this class. Kahn, the team president, has said numerous times that the Wolves are looking for their version of Brandon Roy or Kevin Durant, highly skilled players with outsized personalities who thrive in the spotlight.
At first blush, Johnson is polite, humble and well-mannered. The Wolves will have to wait and see if he has the makeup to emerge as a go-to player in the NBA.
“It’s going to take a while to develop that characteristic,” Rambis said. “It’ll be interesting to see how he competes at an NBA level. Players have that mindset where they want to be aggressive and feel confident making a shot as well as missing a shot. Certain players can handle it and certain players can’t. At this point in time, I don’t know where he lies.”
Kahn, who heaped praise and high expectations upon Ricky Rubio and Jonny Flynn after drafting them last year, tried to play it a little safer with Johnson.
“I don’t want to put that kind of pressure on these kids, him included,” Kahn said. “I think he has great potential and still a lot of upside. … The adjustment from college to the NBA’s tough enough without some team GM in a suit saying they should become such-and-such or else.”
What sold the Timberwolves on Johnson over Cousins was that he filled the team’s most immediate need on the roster, an athletic, versatile wing player who can shoot the 3.
“I see him being multifaceted, playing a lot of different areas,” Rambis said. “You can just see the confidence and poise that he has. Combine that with his athleticism, his size and his length and he has the capabilities and the potential to be that guy. But a lot of that is in his mindset.”
Another possible reason the Wolves went for Johnson over Cousins was their expectation that free-agent center Darko Milicic will return next season. Labeled a bust for most of his first seven seasons in the league, Milicic blossomed after being acquired by the Wolves at the trading deadline.
Rambis said on Friday that he expects Milicic to be back next season and Kahn said signing him will be one of their first orders of business when the free-agent season opens on July 1.