San Antonio Spurs: Areas of focus for Keldon Johnson in his rookie year
By Dylan Carter
With yet another advantageous selection in the draft, the San Antonio Spurs snagged a multidimensional talent in wing Keldon Johnson.
Breaking down Keldon Johnson’s many attributes and discovering his full potential will be an exciting process for the San Antonio Spurs’ development staff. For as many various capabilities the 19-year-old showcased in his lone season in Lexington, the Wildcat seems to be skilled in many categories without truly keying in on one aspect of his game.
On the flip side, hustle and grit aren’t basketball skills – they’re a testament to the competitive spirit of the player once the ball is tossed for a jump ball and the action begins. Maybe it’s hard to pinpoint which aspect of the game Johnson is going to effect on a given play, but he’ll assuredly work to provide whatever his team needs from him on each possession.
Many projected Johnson to go late in the lottery or shortly thereafter, but general manager R.C. Buford managed to pick who he called “the top-rated player at his position” with the 29th pick. With a loaded draft class in terms of front court depth, this means that Buford had Johnson ranked above other highly-touted prospects like Matisse Thybulle and Nassir Little.
Garnering praise like this from one of the league’s best talent evaluators is meaningful and sends a clear message that the Spurs are confident in their selection. It’s a testament to the organization’s trust in Johnson’s talent and will to work himself into Gregg Popovich’s brewing core of up-and-comers.
Johnson’s head coach John Calipari was surprised to see one of his most promising prospects slip as far as he did but felt that the Spurs’ selection validated his legitimacy as an elite draft selection.
“San Antonio is about a culture, about good kids who will compete and fight and be coached. By them taking him, it confirms who he (Keldon) is. But 29, I had no idea what went on and I was on the phone the whole time.”
The hope is that Johnson continues to find consistency in the array of skills he showcased at UK while finding new ways to impose his will on the court. Bursts of speed and athleticism are common for the 6-foot-6 wing and his physicality makes him a pesky matchup for most competition. Certain aspects of his game will benefit the roster as currently constructed, but his potential and obvious determination can guide him from draft-night faller to a long and prosperous career.
Regardless of how his first season turns out, he’ll need to work on translating his basic attributes to the pros.
Next: Using a 3-and-D playstyle as a baseline
Using a 3-and-D playstyle as a baseline
To shift forward with the trends of the ever-changing NBA landscape, which I recently discussed in relation to R.C. Buford’s draft selections, the Spurs need to put some emphasis on the 3-and-D playstyle once again. Many great Spurs have used the 3-and-D player model as a baseline for their well-rounded skill sets: Bruce Bowen, Sean Elliot, Danny Green, etc.
Floor spacing and defensive versatility on the perimeter are majorly importance to a team’s ceiling, as shown by the Toronto Raptors’ recent title run.
Entering the league, Keldon Johnson has natural defensive instincts with the frame and hustle necessary to guard multiple positions. As Gregg Popovich analyzes his newest prospect’s playstyle to pinpoint points of focus in his training, Johnson’s defensive potential and shooting stroke should be emphasized.
The 19-year-old finished in the 83rd percentile of jump shooters, 79th percentile in catch-and-shoot and the 81st percentile in spot-up shooting (h/t Spencer Pearlman, The Stepien) as a freshman. Although his jumper wasn’t noted as his forte before the season, he’s shown potential as a perimeter threat by pulling up when he sees fit and utilizing the promise of his jumper to pump fake and drive to the cup.
On the opposite end of the floor, Johnson is a brave wing defender with an ideal physical profile – his wingspan measures just below 6-foot-9 with an 8-foot-8 standing reach. His listed weight is 215 lbs. with plenty of time to tone and bulk his body once he begins training at a professional level.
Using his natural vigor to his advantage, Johnson does a great job of using his strong body to wear down his matchup with enthusiasm. Similarly to P.J. Tucker and Patrick Beverley, two key contributors to winning teams, Johnson shows excitement when playing defense which translates to important stops and forced turnovers.
With the third most Defensive Win Shares on Kentucky last season (2.0), Johnson’s two-way impact cannot be understated. As he finds himself and adjusts to pro competition, Johnson’s determination, heart and potential as a 3-and-D player will serve him nicely.
Next: Don’t be complacent – put all skills to the test
Don’t be complacent – put all skills to the test
I harped on Johnson’s potential as a shooter and defender because the Spurs are in need to those attributes on the wing, but there’s a lot more to his game than those basic skills. He’s not considered an elite-athlete, but the incoming-rookie showed a full arsenal of skills in his SEC Freshman of the Year campaign.
Combining strength and good decision-making skills, Johnson bulldozed his way to the rim and finish with a combination of power and finesse in college. When he’s not using his body to manipulate the movement of his defender, Johnson can finish with his soft and reliable floater or pass out to a teammate and defer. He’s not the type of ball handler to force the shot if he doesn’t find something that he’s comfortable with, similarly to many of the even-keeled ball handlers on the Spurs’ roster.
Part of Johnson’s appeal as a prospect is his malleability – a tool that the Spurs covet in their draft selections. While many teams look for prospects with specific skills to fit their needs, San Antonio is more concerned with grooming well-rounded individuals both on and off the court.
"He will be the one that over-delivers. He is in SAN ANTONIO."@UKCoachCalipari says the @spurs are the best organization in the NBA and that fate intervened FOR Keldon Johnson to land there at No. 29. pic.twitter.com/ybnAE5e8dI
— Alex Walker (@AlexWalkerTV) June 21, 2019
When a player buys into the Spurs way, they commit to a regimen of growth on a personal and professional level while understanding that roles aren’t given, they’re earned.
With this in mind, Johnson cannot afford to be complacent and let his range of skills go to waste as a pro. All of his tools need to be put to the test once he hits the hardwood, especially those which have gone unnoticed by the masses. Rebounding, pick-and-roll ball handling and transition play are three underrated areas where Johnson can leave an impact.
Slipping in the draft may have put a chip on the shoulder of a passionate 19-year-old who already played each game like it was his last. While falling out of the lottery to the second-to-last pick in the first round can be demoralizing, Johnson is aware of the opportunity he’s been presented with and can thrive if he’s prepared to put in the work.
Next: Learning from his peers
Learning from his peers
Player development is a key word that folks associate with the San Antonio Spurs through each passing offseason. Between the Summer League, training camps and individual workouts, the Spurs manage to put their players in the best position to succeed by highlighting strengths and helping to cover up weaknesses.
Boasting one of their youngest rosters of the last 20 years, the Spurs have a handful of exciting young players who’ve shown commitment to the franchise in addition to their own personal progress. Starting off in Summer League, Keldon Johnson should be prepared to pick the brain of sophomore swingman Lonnie Walker IV, who is entering his second season in the silver and black.
As someone who spent the last year of his life developing within the Spurs’ system, along with big man Chimezie Metu and potential-returner Drew Eubanks, Walker can attest to the values of learning from the team’s array of coaches and players – both current and former.
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Though he’s outgrown the Summer League and is preparing to return from a major injury, Dejounte Murray is a definitive vocal leader for the Spurs that Johnson should attach himself to. With a positive and steadfast attitude, Murray worked his way up from unproven rookie to one of the most crucial members of the lineup. As someone whose defensive specialty and distinctive motor set him apart from the pack, Murray can help guide Johnson through his transition to the big leagues.
Other veteran leaders to keep in mind are Patty Mills, Rudy Gay, DeMar DeRozan, LaMarcus Aldridge and Bryn Forbes. Coming from all different backgrounds and success stories, these individuals have committed to the organization’s way of doing things and have felt the benefits first hand. Because of that allegiance to San Antonio, they’ve found great success both on and off the court.
One of the most overlooked aspects of a rookie’s journey is the balance they must keep between learning how to be a professional athlete and simply growing up. It’s hard enough to enter the world at 19 years old and try to find your way, but scrutiny is amplified when you’re under a spotlight like Johnson will be.
This is something that every player has to face in some capacity, but the nurturing environment provided by the Spurs will guide Johnson if he’s willing to give back what the team is willing to give to him.