Keldon Johnson: Analyzing His Development and Future with the Spurs

Prior to to the last game the San Antonio Spurs played, rookie Keldon Johnson had logged just 12 minutes in the NBA. Against the Oklahoma City Thunder, Johnson played 13 minutes and took advantage of the opportunity. The first round draft pick finished the game with nine points, three rebounds and three assists, while exhibiting an exciting amount of potential.

While Johnson hasn’t done much in San Antonio, he’s quietly having a good season in Austin. In the G League, Johnson is averaging 20.3 points on 53.1% shooting, along with 5.6 rebounds and 2.2 assists in 30.2 minutes per game.

After being taken with the 29th pick in the 2019 NBA Draft, it didn’t take long for Johnson to grab the attention of the Spurs coaching staff. Following an impressive summer league performance, head coach Becky Hammon lavished him with praise. According to Hammon, she believes that Johnson could be the steal of the draft.

The G League allows players the chance to work on underdeveloped aspects of their games. With regard to Johnson, he has been able to play with the ball in his hands more than he did in college and the results have been encouraging.

Keldon Johnson’s Expanding Game

Johnson is a solid athlete who possesses good straight-line speed, which he has used to consistently get to the rim and finish at the G League level. His size and strength has allowed him to finish through contact. Johnson plays with a consistently high energy level, even getting a number of baskets via the offensive glass. He has shown the most growth attacking closeouts and navigating around screens with the ball in his hands.

While Johnson has taken steps to expand his game, one aspect has seemingly regressed. Last season at Kentucky, Johnson shot an impressive 38.1% on 3.2 three-point attempts per game. This season in Austin, he has shot just 21.3% on 3.1 attempts per game.

Some of Johnson’s shooting struggles can perhaps be attributed to having the ball more. At Kentucky, he played primarily off the ball, spotting up and moving around screens to get open. He has a much more demanding role in Austin, as evidenced by his 26.5% usage rate.

Should Johnson’s shooting not return to form, it would obviously hamper his effectiveness as NBA player. If it does, however, Johnson could prove to be a solid two-way player.

Offensively, it’s unlikely the Johnson will handle the ball in the NBA nearly as much as he does in the G League. That said, getting him comfortable with the ball in his hands can only be beneficial to his development. San Antonio took a similar approach with Kawhi Leonard during the summer league of 2012. While it’s unrealistic to expect Johnson to follow the same trajectory, they were drafted to play similar roles. If Johnson’s shooting returns to form, he could potentially outgrow his projected 3-and-D role — much like Leonard did.

On defense, Johnson has the tools to be very effective at the next level. Standing at 6-foot-5 with a 6-foot-9 wingspan, he has a natural tenacity that should allow him to be a downright irritating defender.

In today’s positionless NBA, Johnson appears capable of harassing assignments at any wing position with his strength, length and physicality. For a player who is only 20 years old, he is surprisingly competitive on that end. It isn’t too difficult to imagine him becoming an above average defensive player.

When Will Keldon Johnson Crack The Rotation?

Given San Antonio’s lack of traditional wings, Johnson has a chance to be the closest thing the Spurs have to a true small forward. He could enter the rotation as soon as next season. However, the size of his role depends on what the Spurs do in the offseason.

San Antonio could have significant roster turnover, including the likes of Bryn Forbes, Marco Belinelli and even DeMar DeRozan. If Forbes and Belinelli leave, Lonnie Walker IV could vacate his current backup small forward role and move into a starting role.

In the above scenario, Johnson could backup DeRozan next season and play a small but consistent role. That said, if DeRozan leaves in the summer as well, Johnson would have a chance to play a substantial role next season.

In the meantime, with the Spurs unlikely to make the playoffs, Johnson could see more playing time in the season’s final 26 games. If his three-point shooting accuracy returns and if what he’s doing in Austin translates to San Antonio, the Spurs could have another draft steal on their hands.