Selected well beyond his originally anticipated draft value, rookie Keldon Johnson provides the San Antonio Spurs with versatility and a winning mentality.
At only 19 years old, San Antonio Spurs guard/forward Keldon Johnson already approaches the game like a veteran. His demeanor is distinguished – providing his teammates with a positive attitude stemming from a charming personality and distinctive team-first play style on the hardwood.
No matter how you shake it, Johnson’s fits perfectly into franchise architect Gregg Popovich’s ever-changing puzzle of rising talent in the Alamo City. Johnson provides some backbone to the system, adding a layer of infectious intensity that translates to both ends of the floor. Even in his lone college season in Lexington, Johnson’s individualism glistened amongst some of the best prospects in the country.
Rookies traditionally work their way up the ladder in San Antonio, either earning Pop’s respect or falling out of the fray. There are no guarantees for Johnson’s preliminary campaign as a professional, although the promise of hard work and a studious approach to the sport are anticipated.
It’s not impossible to suggest that Johnson sees some playing time this season – his layered and physical play style should, on paper, transfer over to NBA play. However, Johnson needs to get his legs under him after playing 37 games for the Wildcats a year ago.
With a regular season schedule spanning roughly six months followed by a hopeful playoff push, Johnson’s conditioning needs to accelerate sharply in order for him to sustain himself. Regardless of his role to start the year, Johnson is going to be a breath of fresh air for this unit.
Next: No. 1 - Applying grittiness to perimeter defense
1. Applying grittiness to perimeter defense
As I recently discussed, San Antonio took a step back defensively in the 2018-19 season with the absences of Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green peering through the team’s core. Although the players replacing them in the lineup, DeMar DeRozan and Jakob Poeltl, put forth their best efforts on that end, it wasn’t enough to make up for what was lost.
This resulted in a cataclysmic defensive season for the Spurs, posting lackluster counting stats and a middle of the pack defensive rating. This is one area where Johnson can help the team, especially from a standpoint of mobility. It takes a player of a certain vigor to earn the title of being a“dog,” and Johnson has done just that.
By hounding opposing ball handlers, closing out with swiftness and keeping his shoulders squared when keeping with his assignment, Johnson disrupts the flow of offense and causes headaches for his adversaries.
This pairs nicely with All-Defensive point guard Dejounte Murray, whose triumphant return signals hope for the silver and black headed into next season. As Johnson bulks up and learns how to keep up with NBA competition, he’ll assert himself on the hardwood and force his matchups to learn his name.
It’s hard to expect immediate defensive results from a rookie, especially one within the Spurs’ distinctive system that favors veterans and returners. With that in mind, the time will come for Johnson to step in and defend against elite NBA competition and from everything that he’s shown thus far, Johnson will welcome the challenge with open arms.
Next: No. 2 - Three-level scoring
2. Three-level scoring
It’s hard to peg Johnson’s strongest individual offensive skill because he’s displayed proficiency in just about every level of offense. Even at a ripe, young age, the rookie proved himself as an effective floor spacer through the Summer League after making 38.1 percent of his threes and 70.3 percent of his free throws in college.
Adjusting to NBA range will take some time – Johnson cashed in on only a third of his limited attempts through five Summer League games – but that’s nothing that practice under the tutelage of legendary shooting coach Chip Engelland won’t take care of.
What’s even more exciting about Johnson is his ability to take defenders off the dribble and attack the rack. Johnson is an elusive off-ball player with a knack for cutting to the basket and elevating with an array of explosive finishes.
His body control is impressive for a player with his physical profile at 6-foot-6 with a 6-foot-9 wingspan, allowing him to finish through contact or around the presence of rim protecting bigs.
Furthermore, Johnson is a consistent shooter from the charity stripe and thrives when physical defenders overextend themselves, opening the chance to draw fouls. He made 16-of-20 attempts from the free throw line through the 2019 Summer League.
Johnson has a soft touch on his jumper and is confident in his stroke, allowing him to open up offense for others or create a shot on his own. As a result, the rising guard keeps opponents on their toes which opens up additional passing lanes and scoring opportunities for his teammates.
At this point in his development, Johnson isn’t expected to be “the guy” for this young core. With that in mind, the young stud will be groomed to realize his serious scoring potential. Keep an eye on his fearless scoring as he finds himself and settles into professional competition.
Next: No. 3 - Natural winning aura
3. Natural winning aura
To be part of a winning culture, one must buy into their system and commit to an unselfish brand of basketball. The Gregg Popovich-constructed machine in San Antonio has run with relative ease for 22 seasons by constantly adding and replacing gears within the theoretical apparatus. It’d be easy to say that Johnson’s time at Kentucky taught him to be a graceful leader, but that’d be giving too much credit to Calipari – Johnson is a winner because of his innate mentality.
From the moment he was drafted, Johnson’s outlook was evident to all who paid attention: he was to commit to his new organization and rise to the occasion.
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Like many great Spurs before him, this young man is a sponge, engrossing the knowledge of those who came before him. Having veterans like LaMarcus Aldridge, Rudy Gay, Patty Mills and DeRozan in the locker room will pay off in dividends for the rising talent looking to make his mark on this organization.
Throughout the Summer League, Johnson could be found with a tremendous smile on his face while playing the game he loves. He’s as dedicated as players come nowadays and leaves everything he has to offer on the court when his number is called. For a team like the Spurs that emphasizes culture and the human element over all else, Johnson is already exceeding expectations.
San Antonio drafts for talent and fit, like all other organizations, but also draft based on character. Their interviews with young players tend to lean away from technical basketball discussion and more about abstract concepts in the realm of sports like worldview, education and personal life.
Watching Johnson develop from an eager and raw young man into a bonafide Spur is going to be an absolute joy for the fans in San Antonio. Whether he ends up as a starting-caliber player or a helpful role player off the bench, Johnson has a chance to be one of the echoing voices of the franchise in years to come.