By Zach Berman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 24, 2010; D03
BUFFALO -- Wes Johnson never stopped smiling. He smiled after made shots, and he smiled after missed shots. He smiled when he agreed with a referee's whistle, and he smiled when he disagreed. The Syracuse forward even smiled when asked about smiling.
"This is the first time in his basketball career that he's had fun," said Syracuse assistant coach Rob Murphy, who recruited Johnson as a transfer from Iowa State.
Johnson, the Big East player of the year, scored a career-high 31 points against Gonzaga in the second round of the NCAA basketball tournament and is the primary reason why top-seeded Syracuse has its best chance of advancing to the Final Four since another forward starred in his first year with the Orange -- Carmelo Anthony, who led Syracuse to the national championship in 2003.
"When I first came here, I was smiling," Johnson said. "With the success I've been having and the success the team is having, I've been smiling and you can't take the smile off my face now."
A 6-foot-7 junior swingman, Johnson averages 16.5 points and 8.5 rebounds per game while hitting 50 percent of his field goals and 41.3 percent of his three-pointers heading into Thursday's West Region semifinal against Butler. His talent and athleticism has him among college basketball's elite players -- and among the top NBA draft prospects -- in only his first year at Syracuse.
"Seeing him live right now the way he's able to shoot it. . . . that's what NBA lottery players do," Gonzaga Coach Mark Few said.
Johnson, who grew up in Corsicana, Tex., initially committed to play for Louisiana-Monroe, but he changed his mind after the coach left the school and spent the following year at two different prep schools. He was recruited by Iowa State, where he was named to the Big 12 all-rookie team as a freshman before injuries slowed him as a sophomore. His relationship with the coaching staff deteriorated and he decided to transfer.
Murphy, a Detroit native, heard about Johnson when Johnson lived with his brother in Detroit. After watching film and seeing Johnson's potential, Murphy tried to convince Jim Boeheim, who has taken only five transfers in 34 seasons as head coach at Syracuse, to recruit him.
"Coach, I've done some research on him," Murphy said he told Boeheim. "He's a pretty good kid. I've gotten some great reviews on this kid. He's really talented and he's not a bad kid."
Boeheim independently heard positive testimonies from Johnson's coach at Iowa State, and the Syracuse coaching staff convinced Johnson to commit to the Orange. Because of NCAA rules, he sat out the 2008-09 season while practicing with the team. Although Syracuse had enough talent to reach the regional semifinals, those who observed practice buzzed about Johnson.
"He was dunking the ball, going through his legs and was a freak athletically," said senior guard Andy Rautins, whose father, Leo, was one of Boeheim's other four transfers. "And I was surprised by how well he shot the ball."
Johnson first wowed a national audience in the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic at Madison Square Garden in November. He averaged 21 points and 9.5 rebounds in two games, including 25 points and eight rebounds against North Carolina, the defending national champion.
"It was the coming out party of Wesley Johnson," guard Scoop Jardine said. "We had a whole year to see him. Nobody had seen him yet. He kind of played really great down at the Garden. Once he came out there, we wasn't looking back."
Murphy compared those performances to Johnson's two NCAA tournament games last weekend, when Johnson averaged 24.5 points and 10 rebounds. The bigger the stage, the better the performance from Johnson.
"It's fun, seeing the bright lights," Johnson said. "That's when people rise to the occasions. When I see the bright lights and the atmosphere, it makes me want to step up."
Johnson looked around Syracuse's locker room after the Gonzaga victory. He was bombarded on all sides with television cameras inches from his face. This is his first NCAA tournament -- and if he keeps playing this way, it might be his last. All he could do was smile.