Being in the NBA’s Orlando restart gives the San Antonio Spurs a chance to let rookie Keldon Johnson play through mistakes and earn his role moving forward.
Fearless. That’s the first word that comes to mind when San Antonio Spurs rookie Keldon Johnson steps on the court. There’s not a single defensive assignment that Johnson shies away from despite being a bit undersized for his position. Keldon brings his team stability through chaotic, asserting himself on every play without sacrificing good decision-making on either side of the ball.
While Johnson is never particularly the fastest, tallest, or strongest player on the court, he’s always amongst the most engaged. Keldon gives full effort with every opportunity he’s presented, imposing his physical nature on his matchup on the way to the rim without forcing shots that he can’t make. So many players will barrel to the rim trying to absorb contact to draw a foul — That’s not Keldon. Instead, he compliments that physicality using a soft touch with either hand near the rim.
Leading up to the Orlando restart, there’s been a lot of buzz around Keldon’s game. His teammates speak glowingly about him with Dejounte Murray going as far as to say that he “brings a light to the team.” Johnson recently signed with San Antonio-based marketing company FSM. In an interview with Jeff Garcia, FSM’s Rahul Patel highlighted Keldon’s diligent work-ethic as it pertained to his preparation for life in the bubble.
“He’s been locked in. I’ve seen his diet, his workout regiment and what he has been doing to get prepared for the season,” said Patel. “He’s ready to go. I’m excited to see him play.”
Investing in a better diet and making lifestyle changes are difficult for any player, let alone a rookie. There are veterans throughout the league who give in to the temptations of the NBA lifestyle, eating freely and partying at the expense of their bodies. Some thrive with that approach, but others need to stray away from that to survive. It’s obvious that Keldon is avoiding distractions and taking steps to be the best version of himself today. Keldon’s dedication shined when the Spurs took on the Milwaukee Bucks in their first scrimmage of the restart. The 20-year-old tallied 11 points on six shots with five boards, two assists and a block in 18 minutes off the bench.
— Austin Spurs (@austin_spurs) July 23, 2020
Throughout the course of the game, Keldon hit a buzzer-beating stepback jumper, rocketed pinpoint passes to his teammates and punished defenders who dared to step in his way on the way to the rim. With just over three minutes left in the game, Keldon grabbed a defensive rebound and led the fastbreak. As Robin Lopez stood in his path, Johnson took a hard dribble in the paint, forced a reaction from the defense and placed a pass perfectly in Bryn Forbes’ hands for a triple.
This may seem new for those who haven’t had the privilege to watch Keldon so far, but it’s been a part of his game for some time. Johnson brings an underdog mentality to the court that shows through his hustle, heart and constant energy. It’s a trait that shined during an impressive all-around campaign as a freshman at Kentucky.
Coming out of high school, Keldon was ranked the No. 7 player in the country according to the 2018 ESPN 100. While he didn’t necessarily steal the show for a modest UK class, Johnson was anticipated to be picked somewhere in the late lottery or just outside. Maybe league executives through he lacked the star potential of other candidates, but Johnson is already one of the better players in the class. It’ll be a while before he fully develops in San Antonio’s system, but Keldon is ready to prove that he’s got what it takes.
Even before the hiatus, Keldon broke the mold of the traditional Spurs rookie. He forced head coach Gregg Popovich’s hand, getting inserted to the lineup with about 80 minutes across in his last five appearances. Like his teammate Derrick White, Keldon is a great anticipatory shot-blocker for his position.
During 15 minutes against the Charlotte Hornets in Tim Duncan’s head coaching debut, Keldon took on an assignment against a taller and heavier opponent in Miles Bridges. Keldon held his ground, forcing Bridges off of the baseline and stuffing his layup attempt out of bounds after predicting the spin-move. This is just one small example of how Keldon is always ready to stand his ground.
Keldon’s physical nature and assertive defensive intensity come into play when faced with adversity. No matter the opponent and regardless of their size, Johnson is a bulldog. By forcing his opponents into uncomfortable positioning, Keldon primes himself to send ill-advised shots packing and block off entry passes to his assignment.
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As far as basketball IQ goes, Cleveland’s Kevin Love is near the top of the list. He’s been matching up against players at multiple positions of all sizes for years now. Yet in this play, the 12-year-veteran can’t seem to overcome this bold rookie’s authoritative defense. Mind you, this was only his eighth NBA game and his first over 15 minutes.
The future is now for the San Antonio Spurs and based on their rotations in the first game, they’re ready to accept their fate. Johnson looked better than most of his teammates in the group’s first scrimmage. We have to take these games at face value, but he was matched up against players who arrived in Orlando to vie for a championship. That has to count for something.
San Antonio’s coaching staff let the reins loose in that first game. Whether Becky Hammon’s decision to play Keldon is consistent with Pop’s plan is yet to be seen. Nevertheless, Johnson has an opportunity that no rookie has come close to in the modern era of Spurs basketball. Ready or not, Keldon Johnson has arrived and he’s here to stay.
*All stats and clips courtesy of Stats.NBA.com, h/t 3Ball*