San Antonio Spurs: Making the case for Keldon Johnson’s accelerated ascension
By Dylan Carter
Now that the San Antonio Spurs are officially closer to the 13th seed than the playoff picture, it’s time to let rookie Keldon Johnson have a chance.
Historically, the modern-era San Antonio Spurs don’t let their young guys get much of a chance until they’ve paid their dues. With one of the strongest development regimens in the league and an uber-competitive G-League team, the Spurs always seem to find diamonds in the rough and prepare their prospects for top-level competition before actually inserting them to the lineup.
With that said, times have changed and a playoff bid is no longer a lock, let alone even a strong possibility at this point. According to FiveThirtyEight.com, the Spurs have less than a one percent chance of making the playoffs at this point at 22-31, nearly a double-digit differential between wins and losses.
This grim outlook has some silver and black lining though, as the Spurs drafted three quality rookies in the 2019 NBA Draft including one player whose potential to crack the rotation and make a difference early in his career stands out amongst the pack.
Originally projected to go in the lottery, Kentucky wing Keldon Johnson was just selected to the Western Conference Mid-Season All-G-League team for his stellar play through the first portion of this season. At only 20-years-old, Johnson is averaging a team-high 20.1 points, 5.7 rebounds and 2.7 assists on 52.3 percent shooting from the field.
Johnson is one of the grittiest players in his class, attacking each opportunity like it’s his last in pursuit of what projects to be a superb career as a pro. His all-around skill set and high motor made him one of storied head coach John Calipari’s favorite players, which led to a nod from Spurs dynasty architect Gregg Popovich and Spurs CEO R.C. Buford this past summer.
San Antonio is playing for pride at this point, and while Pop remains stuck in his ways for the moment, soon it’ll be undeniable that the Spurs are playing for development in the main league instead of relegating that to the Austin Spurs during the regular season.
Next: An undeniable repertoire for the young gun
An undeniable repertoire for the young gun
Even though he’s come up in an era of small-ball and floor spacing, Johnson performs like a player well beyond his years. There aren’t many players who hound the ball defensively like he does, flocking to opposing ball handlers and smothering them into poor shots or forced passes. His hands are agile and his feet are swift, but not at the expense of his general awareness.
Johnson is stocky and stands at 6-foot-5, just as sophomore Lonnie Walker IV is at the three-spot for the Spurs, so he’s considered a genuine wing. Although Johnson’s physique and athleticism afford him that flexibility, he makes the most sense as an NBA two-guard because of his skillset and wingspan. He doesn’t possess that same length that Lonnie does, but makes up for it by being a dog.
That effort translates to the backboards as well – a trait that the Spurs continuously look for from their backcourt players. He uses expert timing and positioning to rise up for rebounds over players with height advantages by asserting himself and using what seems to be an advanced basketball IQ for a player of his age.
Though his three-point percentage is in the gutter, he showed an exemplary stroke in college and will continue to grow as a floor spacer as time goes on. Johnson gets the majority of his buckets by bullying defenders on his way to the rim and finishing with an array of dunks, layups, hook shots and floaters in addition to a soft mid-range jumper.
Johnson shoots 60.5 percent on two-point field goal attempts for Austin and averages four free throw attempts in 30 minutes per game. He’s a physical interior presence that moves opposing guards around with brute force and patient timing.
The best way to describe Keldon’s game is that he’s a jack of all trades because there’s no one category that he works on harder than the other. He’s an all-around talent with the ability to fill any role that’s asked of him, which is exactly what the Spurs could use right now.
Next: Making room for Keldon in the rotation
Making room for Keldon in the rotation
Considering the way Spurs fans have reacted to the play of veteran wing Marco Belinelli this year, there’s a strong case to be made that his place in Popovich’s rotation should be sacrificed in order to pave way for Keldon Johnson. Belinelli remains a skilled shot-maker with a knack for the unconventional, but his defense is absolutely horrid at this point of his career and he’s not good for much else besides an occasional triple.
Belinelli plays 15 minutes per game for the Spurs this year between the shooting guard and small forward positions, which are the exact fit for Johnson. He can enter the main-squad alongside the likes of Derrick White, Lonnie Walker IV and Jakob Poeltl as the energetic, young trio off the bench that’s getting acclimated to a future playing next to each other.
Though Belinelli brings veteran experience and championship pedigree, that’s not quite so valuable for a team tied for the 10th seed in a heated Western Conference, and implementing Johnson in place of a rickety veteran injects the team with a newfound energy that’s direly needed.
Some would argue that Belinelli’s floor spacing and jump shooting make him a better fit for the second-unit than Johnson, but the spacing provided by veterans Patty Mills and Rudy Gay in addition to Walker (39.3 3P%) and White (35.6 3P%) would enable him to play his game offensively while offering a huge boost on defense.
I’d go as far as to say that this opens the door for San Antonio to reduce the role of shooting guard Bryn Forbes, whose three-point prowess comes at the cost of almost any positive defensive impact whatsoever. Forbes’ 25 minutes per game could be reduced to something in the 16-22 minute range, allowing for extra playing time for some of the more defensive-minded players.
Next: How does he fit with the main squad?
How does the rook fit with the main squad?
To be quite fair, Johnson’s fit makes much more sense to the future of the Spurs than the present. Pretty much any guard who can keep up to speed can pair in some way or another with seven-time All-Star LaMarcus Aldridge, but the Spurs’ leading scorer, DeMar DeRozan, has a more limited arsenal that requires better floor spacing. This is why he played so well with sharpshooter Davis Bertans last year and performs so well next to Walker and White now.
Still, Johnson’s three-point stroke will come along eventually and his effort more than makes up for it. It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to put him in the game when DeRozan is in, especially when sharing the floor with one of Johnson’s most trusted guides through the Spurs experience in starting point guard Dejounte Murray. While Murray’s three-point stroke is coming along nicely, that’s still not his game, so putting these three on the floor together is a recipe for disaster.
However, Johnson compliments White and Walker well enough that having him as a ninth man off the pine would genuinely bolster the Spurs’ already powerful bench mob. If minutes are staggered so that Mills joins DeRozan and Murray, who’d switch off with White midway through the first quarter like usual, then Johnson enters the game with the floor is spaced out. He’d replace DeRozan in the active line and the Spurs would be prepared to instill high energy for 48 minutes.
It’d take creative maneuvering from Coach Pop, who is the most pivotal X-Factor in all of this. If things keep trending downward, does Popovich break tradition and let his young players get some experience or does he run his veterans into the ground and hope for a miracle?
Nothing is simple anymore in the Alamo City. Popovich’s job is no longer about complimenting three pillars who you knew would give their all day-in and day-out. Now the Spurs need to figure out who they are, and more importantly given the trajectory of this season, who they want to be.
DeRozan has an opportunity to be the most talented free agent of the 2020 class and could garner a big payout from a team hoping to get over the hump. If he leaves, it’d be nice to know that Johnson already has some chemistry and involvement with the main-squad before being thrust into the limelight.
Next: What would playing in San Antonio do for his growth?
What would playing in San Antonio do for his growth?
It would be unprecedented for a Spurs rookie of the past decade to carve out a consistent role before going through the full motions of a G-League development season. Murray, Walker, White and Forbes each played roughly 7-to-8 minutes in limited action in their first season, only getting their feet wet at the ends of blowouts.
There’s not much that could be said for how much an immediate insertion to the lineup could do for his growth because Popovich simply hasn’t done it besides two very specific cases: Tony Parker played nearly 30 minutes per game as a rookie and Manu Ginobili played about 20 of his own. They were both largely unknowns who were thrust into prominence out of necessity and ended up becoming two of the most pivotal members of Spurs history.
Johnson is already balling out in the G-League in a way that most Spurs before him never did. In 2017, the Spurs picked White 29th overall and he put up a very similar 20-point per game G-League season with solid all-around effort and two-way potential. He made his way up to the main team the next year and was a driving force in a run to and in the postseason.
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Playing in Austin is an invaluable experience for young players looking to find their way in this league, especially when learning from Spurs staffers. With that said, 32 players from Johnson’s class have played at least 200 minutes in the NBA and San Antonio’s young stud has logged a grand total of 12 minutes. These aren’t just bad teams either—Miami, Oklahoma City, Boston, Philadelphia and Indiana are letting their young players learn from experience and they aren’t suffering because of it.
I don’t and never will claim to know more than Gregg Popovich and the Spurs’ coaching staff, but this season clearly isn’t going how they anticipated it would and sooner or later, they’ll have to come to the conclusion themselves that the future is now.
The number of players between the ages of 20 and 25 doubles the number of players older than 30 at this point and the playoffs are a far reach. Inserting Keldon to the lineup gives him a chance to learn from the best while forcing the team to accept that the youth movement is imminent.