San Antonio Spurs: Can Keldon Johnson take a second season leap?

The San Antonio Spurs wing is coming off an impressive finish to his rookie season

If you’re a rookie in the NBA, chances are your first year in the league is going to have a pretty tough acclimation period. Coming to a team with a well-established development program like the San Antonio Spurs can help, but it’s still likely going to be the most challenging experience a player has had to face so far.

There are exceptions to this of course. Otherworldly talents like LeBron James and players who’ve been competing in one of the best leagues in the world before coming to the NBA, as Luka Doncic did, have been able to find success in their rookie seasons. But these guys are the exceptions, not the rule.

By a stroke of good luck, for him and the San Antonio Spurs, Keldon Johnson slid all the way to the 29th pick in the 2019 NBA Draft. He was the 2019 SEC Freshman of the Year but for some reason, 28 other teams made the mistake of passing on the player who’s quickly captured the attention of Spurs fans.

Like many Spurs rookies before him, Johnson spent much of his first season in the NBA working with the Austin Spurs. He saw a few minutes here and there in the NBA but didn’t really start to carve out a sizeable role until March. And then when the Spurs entered the bubble he took off.

Can Keldon Johnson build off his bubble performance heading into year two?

Coming into San Antonio’s final eight games of the season we had high expectations for Johnson. We knew that the Spurs were going to focus more on getting playing time for their young guys and that KJ would be a big part of that. But I don’t think any of us expected him to go quite as hard as he did.

Keldon went off a little bit during the Spurs last-minute playoff push. He averaged 14.3 points, 5 rebounds, and 1.1 steals per game on 64 percent shooting from the floor and 65 percent from behind the arc while playing almost 26 minutes per game. Not bad for a guy who had barely been able to crack the rotation just months before.

Now the big question is if he can carry that performance into his second season in the league. We need to set realistic expectations for Keldon in year two. For example, it’s impossible to expect him to continue to knock down 65 percent of his 3-point shots. But there’s a lot pointing to a breakout season for Johnson.

There’s no question that the Spurs are better when Keldon is on the floor. His aggressiveness on both ends of the floor is an instant energizer and his willingness to throw himself into the fray to go for and-one opportunities and loose balls translates to plenty of extra points. The advanced stats back it up, over the final eight games of the season, the Spurs were outscoring their opponents by 10.3 points per 100 possession when Johnson was on the floor and were being outscored by 3.7 points per 100 possessions when he sat.

Looking even deeper, they rebounded the ball better, had a higher effective shooting percentage and true shooting percentage, and finally, and this is key, played at a faster pace. San Antonio was revving up the pace over their final few games and Johnson played a huge part in that.

The biggest hindrance to a potential Johnson breakout year could be a minute shortage. With LaMarcus Aldridge coming back and a healthy Trey Lyles, the Spurs rotations could look different than they did in the bubble. But the impending free agencies of Marco Belinelli and Bryn Forbes could open up some minutes for Johnson if either one of them doesn’t return to San Antonio.

Even if the Spurs bring everyone back they will surely still find ways to get Keldon on the court. He’s far too good and far too important to the future of the team to be stuck on the bench behind someone like Belinelli or Rudy Gay.

We know he’s got the talent and he’s clearly been putting in the work, there’s no reason not to expect great things from Keldon Johnson in his second season with the San Antonio Spurs.