Returning to play at the end of July will give San Antonio Spurs rookie Keldon Johnson a shot to leave a strong impression on his team.
It’s not easy to make it as a rookie in the San Antonio Spurs’ system, so first-year wing Keldon Johnson deserves a lot of credit. His tenacity on both end of the floor earned him more minutes than expected at the tail-end of the Spurs’ season prior to the league’s stoppage of play. While injuries played into it, it seemed like head coach Gregg Popovich liked what he saw.
Johnson is a fiery competitor with a wide range of skills, but he still needs to figure out what he’s best at. It’s a good problem to have for one of the most NBA-ready rookies in his class despite playing for the team least-likely to give playing time to first-year players. The fact that he had that four-game stretch playing meaningful minutes during the course of action says a lot about his maturity.
— Austin Spurs (@austin_spurs) December 5, 2019
Popovich doesn’t just dole out minutes to first-year players—Johnson has already logged 13 or more minutes in one more game than Lonnie Walker IV did as a rookie. Playing time isn’t a right, it’s a privilege and Keldon is earning that by pushing himself in the G-League and acclimating to the professional talent as early and often as possible. When he plays garbage-time minutes at the end of games, Keldon plays with the aggressiveness he would during the course of a game.
His two-way effort never wavers, even if it occasionally gets him into some trouble with fouls or turnovers. Still, Keldon course-corrects more easily than most rookies ever could, which makes him the right fit for San Antonio’s system. There are certain aspects of his game that already outshine players ahead of him in the rotation and now that the Spurs are in the Orlando Bubble, it’s more likely than ever that he can carve out a role.
Next: No. 1 - Making the most of opportunity
1. The San Antonio Spurs have three scrimmages before their season resumes and Keldon could use those as a launching point.
San Antonio is going to face off against three Eastern Conference teams of varying skill levels before their season resumes: The Milwaukee Bucks, Brooklyn Nets and Indiana Pacers. One of those teams is a championship contender, one is a pretender and the other is in the middle of the pack, so it’ll make for great practice at all levels.
However, Coach Popovich probably isn’t going to play his veterans extended minutes in those games since they don’t have any actual value. It’ll give them a chance to get their bodies moving and play against other high-level competition, but this is essentially a preseason circuit and Pop usually gives his rookies some run in those games.
With that in mind, we’re likely to see some extended Keldon Johnson run in those games and he needs to take advantage of that. If we see Johnson come out of the gates as a defensive monster, pestering opponents and picking their pockets, it’ll be hard to deny him minutes. The team is going to be significantly better with Johnson on the floor versus starting two-guard Bryn Forbes due to his defensive intensity. Maybe Popovich won’t like it, but Johnson could force his hand.
Whether it be in late-game minutes or for stints as the starters take a breather, Johnson needs to give 100 percent effort. If he does, there’s a chance that he can crack the rotation moving forward.
Next: No. 2 - Bring some nasty on defense
2. By asserting himself on defense, Keldon Johnson can prove himself as one of the San Antonio Spurs’ best perimeter defenders.
Believe it or not, Johnson can be a rock for the Spurs on defense. He’s a strong, stout defender at 6-foot-5 who has incredibly high defensive IQ for a 20-year-old. Keldon is extremely mobile, pivoting his body to keep pace with opposing ball-handlers while chasing down loose balls or errant passes to capitalize on his opponent’s mistakes.
You can’t say the same about most of San Antonio’s wings as they’ve become one of the worst defensive teams in basketball. It’s extremely uncharacteristic of a Popovich-led team, which is why Johnson’s fit in the rotation is going to be crucial moving forward. Considering the lack of depth at the small forward spot, Johnson can fill in as a two or three when guys like Forbes and Marco Belinelli get pulled from games for failing on that side of the court.
You’d have to think that at some point Popovich is going to say “Enough is enough” and just put his best defensive lineup into the game. That’d likely include Johnson at the three-spot over Walker or DeRozan because of his instinct and physicality. Maybe Walker has the physical profile of a great perimeter defender and the ambition to make it come true, but it’s not there yet.
With Johnson, defense comes instinctively. He’s a dog on defense who thrives on repositioning himself when he’s overmatched and adjusting his defensive style based on his matchup. It’s quite remarkable to watch and when the time comes, he’ll be ready to pick up on defense for the Spurs.
Next: No. 3 - Being smart, yet aggressive as a scorer
3. If the San Antonio Spurs are going to include him in the rotation, he needs to get to the charity stripe and convert.
Offensively, Keldon’s best trait is his ability to get to the rim and convert. He combines a physical and aggressive playstyle with intellectual decision-making while in the air. On one hand, he can muscle his way through contact and convert and-ones with relative ease. On the other hand, he can evade contact to get his shot up at the rim.
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For the Spurs to give him a shot at consistent minutes in the Orlando Bubble and moving forward, we need to see Keldon getting to the line and converting the way he did in Austin this year. Johnson is 7-for-10 on free throws in the NBA this year but in the G-League, he averaged a team-high 3.3 free throw attempts per game. Despite being fourth on the team in total minutes played this year, Johnson led the team with 103 attempts from the charity stripe for 78 makes.
He needs to take that aggressive mindset with him to Florida and get to the free-throw line. It’s not every day that a rookie can waltz into the league and get to the charity stripe like that. Keldon’s ambition and fearless nature are what make him a unique player and when his name is called for the silver and black, that’s what Coach Pop needs to see.
Even on a Kentucky team with PJ Washington and Tyler Herro, Keldon managed to make the most of his opportunities and get to the free-throw line. He took fewer shots than Herro did but got to the charity stripe the second-most of any player on his team besides the big man, Washington. To be within 25 free-throw attempts from a big man with a featured role is absurd.
Drawing contact and converting shows basketball maturity and that’s what’ll entice Popovich to give Keldon a legitimate role moving forward.