Keldon Johnson was just warming up when the season was suspended. Here’s who the San Antonio Spurs promising rookie should be studying now
Many were surprised when Keldon Johnson fell to the San Antonio Spurs late in the first round of the 2019 Draft. The former SEC Freshman of the Year was a projected lottery pick but his slide to the Spurs is looking like a blessing in disguise through his first year in the NBA.
Following in the tradition of Spurs rookies before him, Johnson spent the majority of his rookie season playing with the Austin Spurs. He averaged 20 points, 5.8 rebounds, 2.1 assists, and a steal per game on a team-leading 30 minutes per night. He was one of the most active players on the court, frequently diving for loose balls and throwing himself into the teeth of the defense.
Johnson was just starting to get going when the season was suspended. The Spurs’ struggles on defense and fading playoff chances opened the door for Johnson to finally see the court more often. Over the final four games of the season, he was averaging 16 minutes of playing time a night.
It was a shame to see the rug pulled out from under the promising youngster right as he was finally finding a groove but that’s the reality we are living in now. In lieu of more consistent playing time over the final few weeks of the season, here are a few well known NBA stars who Johnson should be studying this summer.
Next: Jimmy Butler
Although we didn’t get to see it much, the glimpses of Johnson’s defensive potential were enough to excite Spurs fans. The way he stepped up to guard Luka Doncic showed us that he’s not going to back down from anyone.
That never back down mentality is something that Johnson shares with Jimmy Butler. Like Johnson, Butler plays with relentless energy. He’s been one of the best defenders in the league for years because of it.
He’s tasked with covering the best scorers in the league on a nightly basis and slide between guarding forwards or guards with ease. His ability to guard every position on the floor is something that is crucial to guard switch-heavy offenses.
In addition to his impressive on-ball defense, Butler is a menace in passing lanes. He does a great job of keeping an eye on both his man and the ball, leading to quite a few steals. He’s regularly in the top-10 in the league in steals per game and ranked 6th this season.
Similar to Butler, Johnson should be able to guard multiple positions down the road. He’s a little bit shorter than Butler is but makes up for it with his impressive wingspan. He has all the physical tools to be a key player on a team that needs to get back to being one of the better groups in the NBA.
Much more than just a defender, Butler can also serve as a model for how Johnson can improve his playmaking. Ball handling wasn’t something Butler was asked to do much of in the early parts of his career but it’s become a strength for him. He’s gradually improved to the point where he was running much of the Philadelphia 76ers in the 2019 playoffs and led the Heat in assists this season.
With Dejounte Murray and Derrick White running point, Johnson won’t be asked to initiate the offense early on. But if he can work on that part of his game he can help make the Spurs offense that much more dangerous down the road.
Next: Russell Westbrook
For much of his rookie season, Johnson preferred to get the majority of his points at the rim. He’s got a quick first step, long strides, and a gentle touch, all helping him thrive on getting points in the paint. He should be watching how Russell Westbook attacks the rim to steal some pointers on how to improve.
Size disadvantages be damned, Westbrook is going to come at you full steam ahead. He’s consistently one of the league leaders in points in the paint because he does so much damage close to the basket. He’d probably prefer to dunk on a defender than maneuver around them but Westbook can do either.
Like Butler and Johnson, Westbook shares a fast-paced motor that helps him play at a frantic pace. He’s slowing down, but he continues to show a knack for changing pace in the middle of his drives in order to create space. That’s something that Johnson will have to add to his game as he continues to get more comfortable with the speed of the NBA.
The Houston Rockets were able to play Westbrook and James Harden together because Westbrook was willing to cut out less efficient parts of his game and lean into attacking the rim even more. If Johnson can put a similar effort into developing his abilities as a slasher he should be able to carve out a sizable role in the rotation next year.
Next: Kawhi Leonard
Some San Antonio Spurs fans might not like seeing this here but as far as Spurs’ developmental success stories go, Kawhi Leonard is the gold standard. During his time he went from a defensive specialist to an MVP candidate, it’d be unfair to measure the success that Johnson will have to next to that success. He doesn’t have to bring home the same awards but he can follow Leonard’s track to a degree.
Johnson is able to dig further into Leonard’s bag of tricks than the other two players because he has the access. More than just watching film, he can reach out to a former teammate like Patty Mills or assistant coach like Tim Duncan for more specifics if there is something that grabs his attention.
If there is one aspect of Leonard’s game that Johnson should try to model it should be his steady improvement as a 3-point shooter. Leonard was never a bad shooter by any stretch, but it was a weak spot of his game. By the time he left San Antonio, he was one of the most dangerous shooters in the league, having hit 42 percent of his three’s over his final two years with the Spurs.
Kawhi told Mike Monroe with Bleacher Report that Spurs assistant coach Chip Engelland tinkered with his form a bit and gave him some shooting drills to work on but a lot of his success came down to hard work.
“I just think repetition and getting the game reps shooting the ball in games really helps, rather than just practicing. You can get game timing”
Thanks to his hard work Leonard was able to round out his game and turn his 3-point shot into a strength. Johnson shot just 23.7 percent from behind the arc in G-League play so there is room for improvement but the potential is there.
He already looks like an above-average defender, if he can follow Leonards development on offense he could be a real two-way force for the Spurs for years to come.
Johnson is already on his way to becoming a great NBA player but studying the tape on these three All-Stars could really help him improve.