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Keldon Johnson: Spurs' next star or biggest trade asset?

Keldon Johnson, Gregg Popovich
Keldon Johnson, Gregg Popovich / Thearon W. Henderson/GettyImages
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After recently signing a four-year, $74 million extension, San Antonio Spurs forward Keldon Johnson now appears to be a key part of the team's long-term plans. In fact, aside from the players on rookie deals, Johnson is the only Spur under contract for at least three seasons. Still, recent history suggests that by signing an extension, the team will eventually trade him.

After all, both Derrick White and Dejounte Murray signed affordable extensions only to be traded less than halfway through their new deals. However, Johnson’s fate might be different given his age, ceiling, and the direction of the team. That leads to questions about whether he’s the team’s next star or another trade asset. Let's examine.

Johnson made a significant improvement in his third season, averaging 17 points and six rebounds per game while shooting nearly 40% from three. However, in the second half of last season, he was even better, averaging 20.8 points, 6.5 rebounds, and 2.9 assists, in 20 games.

That's definitely encouraging but, with Dejounte Murray gone, Johnson will be expected to play like that over an entire season. He could with more shots and a higher usage rate, but it remains to be seen how he’d fare as a number one option. Johnson doesn’t project to be that type of player going forward, and it's more likely that he'll develop into a good second or a great third option on a playoff team.

Why the Spurs put all their chips in on Keldon

So why did the Spurs choose Johnson over Murray when Murray's already an All-Star? The biggest factor is probably age. Murray is nearly 26 years old and three years older than Johnson. Normally, this isn't a big deal, but the Spurs' four most recent first-round picks are all still teenagers. As a result, Johnson fits in better with the team's increasingly young core.

That made Murray expendable because he’s entering his prime, is clearly still improving, and has two years remaining on his contract. Thus, Murray was traded for three first-rounders, a pick swap, and Danilo Gallinari.

Johnson is a valuable asset in his own right, but his potential isn't something teams are willing to pay that much for just yet. Now, if he becomes a borderline All-Star next season, that could quickly change, especially since his four-year extension doesn't actually kick in until after next season.

Asking prices around the league are changing

Teams might be willing to offer a lot for a 23-year-old rising star then, particularly now that teams are seemingly willing to give up more first-round picks in trades than ever before. That said, I don't foresee Johnson going anywhere in the near future. The Spurs probably aren’t going to trade him next season, and then there’s the draft lottery, where they could land a top-three pick in a stacked 2023 NBA Draft.

Victor Wambanyama is the clear prize, and if the Spurs are lucky enough to select him, they're going to need to build around him. Johnson will only be 24 in a couple of seasons and could be a star by then, so he'd be a great building block.

Overall, Johnson signing an extension doesn't necessarily mean he's a part of the team's future. Still, his play during the second half of last season hints at stardom, and the Spurs will soon see what he's capable of now that Murray is gone.

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If he becomes a star, then Johnson's extension could quickly become one of the best contracts in the NBA, and he could be in San Antonio to stay.

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