San Antonio Spurs: Three improvements we’d like to see from Keldon Johnson

CLEVELAND, OHIO - MARCH 08: Keldon Johnson #3 of the San Antonio Spurs reacts during overtime against the Cleveland Cavaliers at Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)
CLEVELAND, OHIO - MARCH 08: Keldon Johnson #3 of the San Antonio Spurs reacts during overtime against the Cleveland Cavaliers at Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)
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Keldon Johnson of the Austin Spurs attempts a layup in an NBA G-League game against Marcus Lee of the Sioux Falls Skyforce (Photo by Chris Covatta/NBAE via Getty Images)
Keldon Johnson of the Austin Spurs attempts a layup in an NBA G-League game against Marcus Lee of the Sioux Falls Skyforce (Photo by Chris Covatta/NBAE via Getty Images)

Though impressive in his preliminary season with the San Antonio Spurs, rookie Keldon Johnson has a long way to go before reaching his ceiling.

Developing into a legitimate NBA rotation player is no easy task, but it’s becoming clearer that San Antonio Spurs rookie Keldon Johnson is well on his way to breaking the rotation. Standing at 6-foot-5 with the physicality of a small forward and the quickness of a point guard, Keldon’s position in the NBA is largely undetermined because of his distinctive versatility.

Like nearly all Spurs rookies do, Keldon spent the majority of his season playing with the organization’s G-League affiliate in Austin, where he averaged 20.3 points, 5.8 boards and a steal in 30 minutes per game. Johnson prides himself on being the most active, energetic player on the court just about every play and began cracking head coach Gregg Popovich’s lineup late in the season as a result.

It’s extremely difficult to be deemed worthy of NBA action as a rookie under Pop, but Johnson’s adaptable defensive talent and all-around skill set make him one of the most underrated players of his draft class who surely would’ve logged more minutes with another team. However, this is just the Spurs Way and he’ll likely become a better player for it.

What makes Johnson so exciting as a prospect is that there’s no telling how good he might be. He’s excellent at pummeling defenders one-on-one by posting up or putting his shoulder into them on the way to the rim. Using a range of dribbles and finishing moves, Keldon is confident when absorbing contact and taking the ball up for shots at the basket.

Certain things like motor, aggression and a team-first mentality come from within for Keldon, so instead, we’re going to look at a few skills that would help him take his impact on the court to another level next season.

Next: Learning to translate his scoring threat to assists

CLEVELAND, OHIO – MARCH 08: Head coach Gregg Popovich of the San Antonio Spurs talks with Dejounte Murray #5, Keldon Johnson #3 and Trey Lyles #41 at Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)
CLEVELAND, OHIO – MARCH 08: Head coach Gregg Popovich of the San Antonio Spurs talks with Dejounte Murray #5, Keldon Johnson #3 and Trey Lyles #41 at Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)

Taking steps to become a playmaker for his teammates

It’s not easy to suddenly become a playmaker when you’ve been known for scoring, but Keldon’s drive and passion for the game tells me that he’ll do what it takes to get the Spurs back to their winning ways. People are going to catch on to the fact that he’s a menace when attacking the rim, and having the wherewithal to translate that into offense for his teammates would give Keldon legitimate star potential.

When defenders start to catch on to Johnson’s incredible slashing ability, they’ll start guarding him more physically and will call for help defense. This opens up opportunities for Keldon’s teammates since help defense always results in an open man.

Upon entering his NBA career, many wondered whether former MVP Russell Westbrook would be a true point guard or if he was better suited as a shooting guard. A lot of this criticism came because Russ would drive to the basket so often, but didn’t use it as an opportunity to pass out on many occasions. He took some ill-advised shots instead, which caused some to question his decision-making.

Johnson isn’t Russell Westbrook, nor is he a point guard, but that doesn’t mean he can’t learn from the nine-time All-Star. Keldon can take a leap in his development if he learns how to pass out of his drives to the basket and manipulate defenders so that his teammates can benefit from the threat he poses as a slasher. I’m not saying that Keldon should change the way he drives to the basket because he’s on a great trajectory right now.

However, learning when to take those shots and when to dump off a pass instead is beneficial for the greater good of his team.

Next: Improving his shooting with volume

SAN ANTONIO, TX – FEBRUARY 26: Keldon Johnson #3 of the San Antonio Spurs drives on the Dallas Mavericks at AT&T Center on February 26, 2020 (Photo by Ronald Cortes/Getty Images)
SAN ANTONIO, TX – FEBRUARY 26: Keldon Johnson #3 of the San Antonio Spurs drives on the Dallas Mavericks at AT&T Center on February 26, 2020 (Photo by Ronald Cortes/Getty Images)

Learning to be comfortable with volume shooting

On one hand, Johnson is a very capable and determined scorer whose pursuit of success seems to come naturally. On the other hand, he has a tendency to break down when his shot volume increases. During the G-League season, Johnson had 10 games in which he took at least four triples and shot just 26 percent from beyond the arc in that scenario.

Barring massively unforeseen circumstances, there aren’t going to be a whole lot of times next season when Johnson is the leading shot-taker for San Antonio the way he was for Austin. With that said, there might be nights when he’s the man who’s left open and when his name is called, he needs to be able to perform. To become a legitimate, high-level role player in the Spurs’ rotation next year, Johnson must improve his volume shooting.

This is more of an issue in regards to his shooting from distance because he struggled with this three-pointer in the G-League, but this comes on two-pointers as well. He missed a whole lot of mid-range jumpers this season because of his momentum and wonky shot selection. Despite that being the case, he hit 48.8 percent of shots in games with at least 17 field goal attempts.

His layups and close shots are going to fall at a high clip—it’s where he’s most comfortable scoring. However, he has the capacity to be a solid jump shooter like we’ve already seen.

Keldon has the power to lock himself in the gym and put up jumpers until he’s prepared to live up to the 40 percent three-point shooting he’ll potentially carry into next season after hitting 2-of-5 triples in the NBA.

Next: Staying locked in at all times

CHARLOTTE, NORTH CAROLINA – MARCH 03: Cody Martin #11 of the Charlotte Hornets is defended by Keldon Johnson #3 of the San Antonio Spurs during the fourth quarter (Photo by Jacob Kupferman/Getty Images)
CHARLOTTE, NORTH CAROLINA – MARCH 03: Cody Martin #11 of the Charlotte Hornets is defended by Keldon Johnson #3 of the San Antonio Spurs during the fourth quarter (Photo by Jacob Kupferman/Getty Images)

Staying focused away from the ball and lurking for steals

When it comes to on-ball defense, Johnson performed about as well as you could possibly ask in his rookie campaign. He fought hard through 31 G-League games to be the best defender he could be and carried that same frame of mind when his jersey number was called in the last four games of the regular season before the NBA was suspended.

One thing that stood out was that Johnson was far more locked-in when he was defending on the ball than he was away from the ball. This might be a bit harsh because quite frankly, he was more locked in defensively during his short playing time than most new NBA players are, but there’s certainly room for improvement.

Keldon’s rotations to help when a player drives past mismatches came a bit late at times and he missed opportunities to jump into the passing lane. Physical guard defense is difficult to maintain in the modern game considering all of the rules that restrict defenders from being truly assertive against their man, and yet Keldon has figured it out. He’s as physical as you could be without committing consistent fouls by hounding the ball and oftentimes forcing turnovers.

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If he could translate that skill away from the ball, he could be a legitimate contender to lead the league in steals further down the line.

No, Johnson’s not the tallest, the strongest or the most talented player on the court; but chances are he’s going to out-hustle everyone else on the floor. That’s why I’d like to see him remain more engaged away from the ball and intercept passing lanes the way that his teammates Dejounte Murray and Derrick White do so masterfully.

It takes a lot to earn “dog” status in the NBA, but Keldon’s got it. Being a dog means that you’re providing high-octane play on both ends of the floor for the full 48. It means that you’re playing harder than your opponents, treating them like enemies and setting the tempo for your teammates to get on your level. The main players that come to mind in conjunction with the term are Patrick Beverley, P.J. Tucker and Marcus Smart because of the unmitigated passion they bring to the game.

Next. Ranking the five best signature shots in Spurs history

Keldon has earned the title from Spurs fans and probably some fans in Kentucky too, but he needs to go prove the world that he’s here to stay and this is one way to do it.

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