San Antonio Spurs: Keldon Johnson proving he’s the prize of Kawhi trade

LAKE BUENA VISTA, FLORIDA - JULY 31: Keldon Johnson #3 of the San Antonio Spurs reacts after making a three-point basket against the Sacramento Kings in the second half of an NBA basketball game at the Visa Athletic Center in the ESPN Wide World Of Sports Complex on July 31, 2020 in Lake Buena Vista, Florida. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Kim Klement - Pool/Getty Images)
LAKE BUENA VISTA, FLORIDA - JULY 31: Keldon Johnson #3 of the San Antonio Spurs reacts after making a three-point basket against the Sacramento Kings in the second half of an NBA basketball game at the Visa Athletic Center in the ESPN Wide World Of Sports Complex on July 31, 2020 in Lake Buena Vista, Florida. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Kim Klement - Pool/Getty Images)
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Keldon Johnson has been everything the San Antonio Spurs could have hoped for

Regardless of how you felt about Kawhi Leonard‘s forced exodus from the San Antonio Spurs, most fans were united in their dissatisfaction with what the team got back from the Toronto Raptors. Given how valuable Kawhi had been, and how much of the team’s hopes for the future rested on his shoulders, you couldn’t really blame them.

In the summer of 2018, the San Antonio Spurs sent Leonard and Danny Green to the Raptors for DeMar DeRozan, Jakob Poeltl, and a protected 2019 first-round pick. At the time, DeRozan was fairly viewed as the best asset the Spurs got back in the trade. He was coming off of three straight All-Star appearances, had led one of the best teams in the Eastern Conference for years, and was widely regarded as one of the leagues most deadly scorers.

Now, two years later, it’s not so clear that DeRozan was the most valuable part of that trade. To his credit, DeMar has had two of the best seasons of his career in San Antonio. He’s taken his playmaking to new heights, remained a deadly mid-range scorer, and has taken on his new role as the team’s power forward and tight game closer with ease. But when we think about the long term ramifications of the deal, DeRozan isn’t the one who the Spurs will be thankful they got from the Raptors five years down the road.

When Keldon Johnson slid to the 29th pick in the 2019 draft many were surprised, including his head coach, John Calipari. But Coach Cal knew, like so many of us, that Johnson would be better off for coming to an organization like the Spurs. And after a thrilling performance against the Houston Rockets, Johnson has proven that he alone is the prize of the Kawhi Leonard trade.

Keldon Johnson is an instrumental part of the San Antonio Spurs future

Coming into the bubble we hyped Johnson as one of the players on the Spurs roster who was ready to take on a larger role. He had just begun carving out a spot in the rotation to call his own when the season was suspended and many fans hoped that we would continue to see him featured often during the season restart in Orlando.

After posting back to back career highs against the Philadelphia 76ers and Denver Nuggets, Johnson was changing Spurs fan’s perceptions about what it meant to have a rookie playing a featured role. Spurs rookies typically don’t play much, you have to go back to Kawhi’s time with the team to find one that made a meaningful impact in their first year. But here we are, watching a rookie the Spurs got in return for Leonard, grab national attention.

Keldon had a breakout game against the Houston Rockets. His efficient 24 points off the bench on 8-12 shooting from the floor and a perfect 3-3 from behind the arc were instrumental in helping the Spurs capture a win against their rivals.

The biggest question mark surrounding Johnson’s potential has been his 3-point shooting. He shot just 23.7 percent from behind the arc in his time with the Austin Spurs but, buoyed by some impressive nights that have skewed a small sample size, he’s now hitting on 56.3 percent of his 3-point attempts in the NBA. It’s not a sustainable rate but the improvements he’s made even since the season was suspended have been huge for his overall impact.

Keldon Johnson on the team's mindset in the bubble: "Share the ball, get everybody involved, push the pace, get out and run, rebound and box out" #nba #gospursgo

— JeffGSpursZone (@JeffGSpursZone) August 11, 2020

Almost more important than his on-court contributions right now is the mindset Johnson approaches the game with. The above quote is a perfect embodiment of what Spurs basketball is about. Play defense, move the ball, do the little things, fight for your teammates, that’s how the Spurs were able to build one of the greatest franchises in modern sports and Johnson seems to understand that ethos perfectly.

That team-first attitude has endeared him to his teammates as well. Ask anyone on the Spurs, from Lonnie Walker to DeMar DeRozan, Marco Belinelli to Patty Mills, seemingly every person who has been asked about Keldon as a player, and as a young man, has had nothing but overwhelmingly positive things to say about him. That’s just as important to the long term success of this team as his ability to put the ball in the basket.

Spurs take care of business against rival Houston Rockets. Next

Keldon Johnson has been a revelation for the San Antonio Spurs. Who knew that when they traded away their franchise cornerstone two summers ago that they might get another one in return. He looks that good right now and the best is surely yet to come.

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