Former busts are busting out with Lakers
They were four players everybody wanted, and then almost nobody did.
Jordan Hill was considered one of the mightiest power forwards in his draft … only to be nudged to the back of the big-man class in New York and Houston.
Xavier Henry was a brainy, knockdown shooter … who quickly figured he didn’t have much of a future in Memphis or New Orleans.
Wesley Johnson was celebrated for his 7-foot-1 wingspan and 37-inch vertical leap … which produced underwhelming numbers in Minnesota and Phoenix.
Shawne Williams was a versatile talent … who found a variety of spots on the bench in Indiana, Dallas, New York and New Jersey, not to mention jail cells around the country.
All four players were selected in the first round of the draft. All were on at least their second stop by their third seasons. All were labeled busts by disenchanted fans.
Now they’re generating raves as Lakers teammates.
Hill has registered double-doubles in three of five games since moving into the starting lineup. Henry was the star of an upset victory over the Clippers and later threw down what might be the dunk of the Lakers’ season. Johnson and Williams have been important parts of a bench that leads the NBA in scoring.
Sometimes you do get a second, third, fourth or fifth chance to make a first impression after things go astray.
“I’d be lying if I said I didn’t worry,” said Williams, who has had multiple drug arrests and wasn’t even on an NBA roster last season while recovering from foot surgery. “I worried more when I wasn’t playing than when I was in the NBA.
“But now it’s crunch time for all of us. We’re just trying to get somewhere and stick and be a part of a team. I feel like all of us want to be a part of the Lakers because there’s an energy about this Lakers uniform and wearing Lakers across your chest.”
No one has channeled that vitality more than Hill, who has been a force since moving into the starting lineup against New Orleans on Nov. 12. In the five games since, he’s averaged 17 points and 11.4 rebounds while shooting 59.6%.
It’s quite a leap in production for someone who had previously been known primarily for his hustle.
“Normally, an energy guy, you’re saying he’s only getting six points but he adds energy,” Lakers Coach Mike D’Antoni said. “Well, this guy is playing at an All-Star level. What he’s doing is remarkable right now and there’s no reason he can’t keep that up.”
D’Antoni has not always offered such kind words for a player he briefly coached after the New York Knicks drafted Hill No. 8 overall in 2009.
After falling out of D’Antoni’s rotation and being traded to Houston midway through his first season, Hill told reporters D’Antoni didn’t like playing rookies.
“I don’t like to play bad rookies,” the coach said.
Hill hasn’t given D’Antoni any pause since they were reunited last November. He had already experienced a breakthrough with the Lakers late in the 2011-12 season before suffering a hip injury that sidelined him for much of last season.
Injuries also derailed Henry, the No. 12 pick in the 2010 draft, during his rookie season with Memphis. Then he struggled with his shooting and failed to make much of an impact the next two seasons with New Orleans.
It didn’t take Henry long to dazzle after the Lakers signed him as a free agent in September. In his first game, he looked like the best player on the court, his 22 points helping the Lakers reserves roll up 76 points and rattle the Clippers starters in an upset of a team expected to contend for the Western Conference title.
Henry has brought more than occasional scoring outbursts, collecting hundreds of thousands of YouTube views on his flying left-handed dunk on New Orleans’ Jeff Withey.
The highlights have been less glitzy for Johnson (the No. 4 pick in the 2010 draft) and Williams (No. 17 in 2006), but their impact has been no less meaningful for a team whose depth and cohesiveness have kept it within one game of .500 with Kobe Bryant sidelined. Johnson leads the team with 1.5 blocks a game and Williams made two three-pointers to help the Lakers hold off Golden State on Friday.
“Every one of these guys, somewhere in their career kicked somebody’s rear,” said D’Antoni, who also coached Williams during Williams’ one season with the Knicks in 2010-11, forging the trust needed to give the player another chance after his latest drug arrest in 2012. “Can we get them back in that mental state? Can we get them back in that position where they do it? Because they don’t get here by being bad.”
They could stay by continuing to be good.
Williams has only a partially guaranteed contract for this season, which is actually preferable to the non-guaranteed contract held by Henry. The guaranteed contracts of Hill and Johnson expire after this season.
Of course, they’re not overly concerned about the future when they’re enjoying the moment so much.
“I’m just having fun, man,” Hill said. “I’m just going out there and getting more confidence every time I’m on the floor and being part of a great team and being a leader.”
The onetime castoffs have shown they can handle the forefront, the latest flip-flop of their careers bringing them back to prominence once more.
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