Rookies are more talented than ever in the modern NBA and despite their affinity for developing them, the San Antonio Spurs are being forced to adapt.
Most of the time, the San Antonio Spurs have picked from the back-end of the NBA Draft lottery and developed these players over time. It’s not often that guys selected closer to the second-round than the lottery are going to make an instant impact, which is why San Antonio values the experience and development provided by the Austin Spurs.
The standard procedure was that guys wouldn’t play meaningful minutes until their second year unless injuries or extenuating circumstances truly called for it. For most of the 2019-20 regular season, the same applied to rookie Keldon Johnson, who honed his skills in the G-League.
Except Keldon forced the Spurs’ hand in the four games prior to the shutdown. Though he was only just getting his feet wet, Johnson provided quality minutes for the silver and black in games against Charlotte, Cleveland, Brooklyn and Dallas. It became evident that Johnson was already one of the team’s best defensive players in addition to being a swiss army knife with the ball in his hands and a bully in the paint.
— San Antonio Spurs (@spurs) August 4, 2020
It’s going to be hard for the Spurs to go back to their old ways, forcing Keldon on the back of the rotation and making him dig deep for his minutes. Johnson isn’t the type of player who needs to be taught basketball IQ, physicality and game strategy — He’s already picked up on most of what the Spurs have asked of him and now, Johnson is a mainstay in San Antonio’s lineup.
Now, Johnson is pushing the needle with every new opportunity. He’s set career-highs in scoring during both of his last two games including a 20-point, six rebound outing against the Denver Nuggets. Even though he’s only 20-years-old, Keldon plays like a grown man.
Regardless of whether or not they make the eighth seed, it’s looking like the Spurs will have their highest draft selection since 1997 this offseason. When you’re drafting that high, the talent has to be on-par with the product that the Spurs are putting on the floor this season. Unless they pick someone knowing they’ll be a project as they did with Luka Samanic in the 2019 NBA Draft, chances are the Spurs will be in a position to let that player get minutes.
Back-to-back career highs in the bubble ? pic.twitter.com/0B1SI6RwaQ
— San Antonio Spurs (@spurs) August 6, 2020
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San Antonio’s roster has serious flaws including perimeter defense and frontcourt depth as a whole. If they address those needs with a lottery draft pick, then there’s really no reason left not to play them. Of course, they’ll need to prove that they’re worthy of having that role, but first-year players aren’t what they were in years past.
You’ve got rookie point guards starting on playoff contenders like Michael Porter Jr. for the Nuggets or Kendrick Nunn for the Heat. In Memphis, Brandon Clarke is one of the most impressive statistical rookies the league has ever seen. We’ve seen Tyler Herro, Matisse Thybulle and Cameron Johnson each contribute to winning basketball inside the bubble as first-year players.
Letting guys work through their kinks during spot minutes against NBA competition early in their careers gets them ready for big moments when it counts later in the season. Johnson is proving to the Spurs that maybe giving these young guys a shot is worth it every once in a while and considering the draft capital they’re about to gain, San Antonio is going to keep adding viable young talent to its roster.
We may look back on this season and remember Johnson as a trailblazer for young players moving into this modern era of Spurs basketball.