The San Antonio Spurs have an abundance of young potential heading into the season, and Keldon Johnson may have the highest ceiling of them all.
In 2018, the San Antonio Spurs traded away their budding superstar Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green in exchange for DeMar DeRozan, Jakob Poeltl, and a protected 2019 first-round pick. At the time, it was easy to see the pick as an unimportant throw-in. However, with the resulting draft pick turning out to be Keldon Johnson, it appears the trade wasn’t as one-sided as initially thought.
There are no two ways about it. Johnson was a stud when given more minutes in the Orlando bubble, putting up 15 or more points in half of the eight games in which he appeared. His energy and hustle were on full display as the season wound down, with his biggest game being a 24-point, 11-rebound performance in a win over the Houston Rockets.
There was plenty to be excited about when San Antonio had no choice but to roll with a new lineup in the restart, with Johnson’s emergence being the brightest spot of all. The Spurs looked like a completely different team than the group that played from October to March. As a result, they were one shot away from winning six of their first seven games in the bubble, ultimately finishing 5-3 after essentially forfeiting their final contest with the playoffs out of reach.
The Spurs’ inspired play in Orlando gives Head Coach Gregg Popovich more to think about when it comes to how to maximize his roster. San Antonio showed they could be effective while running a variation of small ball, something they haven’t done often in the past.
With more wing spots now open after the departure of Marco Belinelli and Bryn Forbes, Johnson has an outside shot to crack the starters before all is said and done. Here are three ways the 21-year-old can make that happen.
Next: No. 1
1. Keep developing his jumper and firing away
There’s plenty to be encouraged by when you look at Keldon Johnson’s rookie year shot selection. Johnson did the bulk of his damage in the paint, demonstrating his ability to finish in traffic with regularity. The 6-5 small forward went 28-for-40 from the restricted area (70 percent) last season and 7-for-18 in the non-restricted area of the paint.
Keldon also buried 13 of his 22 attempts from the 3-point line while shooting just nine total times from mid-range. While he’ll need to mix more mid-range jumpers as defenses start to hone in on his skill set, his shot selection is certainly friendly when it comes to analytics. Besides, the Spurs have enough mid-range shooters on their roster (for now).
What’s probably going to earn Johnson more minutes are his efforts defensively, but if he continues to impress offensively as well, that could be enough to propel him into the starting lineup. While it’s rare for a player in his first couple of seasons to start for Coach Popovich, it’s definitely not unprecedented.
Next: No. 2
2. Use his newly-developed muscle to lock down defensively
As I said earlier, hustling on the defensive end will earn you minutes in Gregg Popovich’s system, and Keldon Johnson has already demonstrated he can do that. The Spurs’ experiment with going small and having DeRozan at the power forward position was a success in Orlando. At roughly the same size as DeMar, Keldon could be asked to do the same at times during the season, particularly against smaller teams like the Houston Rockets.
Keldon’s frame is perfect for being able to scramble defensively without being a pushover when guarding some of the bigger guys in the league. While he’s already been dubbed as “Big Body,” Keldon has gotten even bigger over the offseason, as Spurs digital journalist Jeff Garcia captured on Twitter.
— JeffGSpursZone (@JeffGSpursZone) September 28, 2020
At 6-5, Johnson will have to rely mostly on his smarts and quickness to keep his man off the glass but will also need to use his increased strength to make sure his presence is felt. Long gone are the days of Spurs fans being tortured watching Belinelli and Forbes getting torched on the perimeter — Johnson isn’t about to let that happen on his watch.
Next: No. 3
3. Keep channeling his inner Manu Ginobili
Yes, the name of Manu Ginobili is sacred in San Antonio and should be used carefully. It would be ridiculous to claim Keldon will be the next Manu, but I can’t help but see similarities between the two when watching Keldon on the court.
As a member of both the Austin and San Antonio Spurs, Johnson has built a reputation for going all out on the court — making big plays on both ends of the court that end up making a huge difference.
Just watch Keldon here in the Spurs’ first game in the Orlando bubble. It might not look like much, but before the clip begins, Keldon was already hounding Buddy Hield and preventing him from getting to the cup. Once he forces the pass, he then slides over to provide help defense before fending Cory Joseph off for the rebound.https://videos.nba.com/nba/pbp/media/2020/07/31/0021901237/133/5fe873c1-88ab-b27b-5574-5dc78f1ad580_1280x720.mp4
Keldon has spectacular awareness on the court, knowing how valuable it is to play both individual and team defense until the rebound is secured. Like Ginobili, Keldon also has the ability to get past his man by using a quick first step and some craftiness. Here, he even finishes with the left hand against the Rockets.https://videos.nba.com/nba/pbp/media/2020/08/11/0021901298/110/59088d91-1537-6c60-d364-7fcb38bdade8_1280x720.mp4
Since DeMar DeRozan and Derrick White are deservedly ahead of him in the rotation, Keldon has an opportunity to share another similarity with Manu: being a key bench player that wins ball games.
I have a feeling the world will be introduced to Keldon Johnson in a big way next season, and watching it unfold will be exciting for Spurs fans.