If you read the title, scoffed, and thought, “Keldon Johnson already is the Spurs’ next franchise cornerstone,” I can’t blame you. He’s quickly become one of the leaders, if not the leader of the San Antonio Spurs’ young core, was the first active Spurs player to win an Olympic gold medal since Manu Ginobili in 2004, and made a convincing leap in his third year with the team, averaging 17 points, 6.1 rebounds, and 2.1 assists per game on 47/40/76 shooting splits. It’s hard to look at that brief yet impressive resume and bring oneself to ask much more of the young forward.
But here’s the fact of the matter: a player becoming a franchise cornerstone requires more than having a good head on their shoulders and playing well in a complementary role. A cornerstone is a foundational part of a roster that determines how the roster is built in the future.
In other words, being a franchise cornerstone means becoming one of the best players on the court for a championship-competing team. While the Spurs won’t be competing for a championship next season, the team’s top brass will surely start assessing whether or not Johnson can be that type of player moving forward.
As difficult as it may be, Johnson has a path in front of him to become that kind of an asset for the Spurs. He’s shown enough flashes of high-level play in a secondary or tertiary role to convince me that he’ll be able to take another step forward in his fourth season in a more primary role. Johnson will need to improve in the following areas to take the next step toward becoming a franchise cornerstone.
1. Johnson needs to add to his playmaking repertoire
Beginning with the area where I think Johnson has the best chance of showing dramatic improvements, let’s talk about his ability to find open teammates. Johnson’s passing is frequently listed as one of his biggest areas for improvement moving forward, and while that’s generally a correct assessment, I think his current ability to create opportunities for his teammates goes a bit undervalued. More specifically, Johnson’s dump-off passes around the bucket often go under-noticed despite his talent for them being his most guard-like attribute.
Am I ready to declare Johnson as a master of the dump-off? Not quite, but he pulled them out of his bag enough this past season to convince me that they should be his bread and butter in the upcoming ‘22-’23 season. 'Example A' shown above sees Johnson attack the rim after the Bucks fail to pressure him on the perimeter, use a nice euro to get past Middleton, and get the ball to Poeltl after drawing Giannis Antetokounmpo in. While it didn’t result in a bucket on this occasion, it did result in two free throws. 'Example B' is just as impressive and leads to an easy bucket for Poeltl.
Passes like these, despite not being the flashiest, tell me that the game is slowing down a bit for Johnson and that he’s slowly gaining more control over his drives. Expanding this part of his game by starting with short-distance passes like dump-offs is natural, but for his playmaking off drives to be effective in the long run, he’ll need to expand to slightly more advanced kick-out passes, for example, which he's shown he's capable of.
Johnson will surely be getting more on-ball reps this season, and while I initially expect an adjustment period, I’ll be paying attention to his playmaking growth (or lack thereof) as the season continues.