If the Olympic scrimmages were the first time you ever watched San Antonio Spurs forward Keldon Johnson play, you might have been impressed with the 21-year-old’s poise trotting alongside All-NBA dignitaries. He made the right reads and showed off his relentless motor in limited minutes, nicely complementing his superstar teammates as they found their footing in FIBA play on their way to gold.
But, in the midst of moments on the court when he experienced notable restraint, there were openings when the Mustang could roam free. In those cases, no opponent was safe, including former Spurs teammate and Olympic bronze medalist Patty Mills.
During the second quarter of a July 12 scrimmage against Mills’ Australia squad, time winding down on the shot clock, Johnson received the ball on the left wing and saw the point guard coming in hot for a closeout.
Johnson quickly set up his drive with a fake pass. Knowing Johnson’s propensity to drive in the paint, Mills seemed prepared to beat Johnson to his spot. His hips were already turning in that direction after not biting on the fake. Mills' idea was decent in theory, but Johnson’s strength and touch made its execution moot in reality.
Step one: two power dribbles. Step two: shrug off the defender. Step three: send defender hurtling into the parking lot. And, finally, flash the finesse to finish through contact. Any fan who has seen Johnson operate in a San Antonio Spurs jersey knows this violence is the norm. He regularly seeks it out.
What many don’t seem to truly appreciate is how special his ability to attack the rim is for such a young player, and what that superpower could portend for his future. A regular Johnson observer would be forgiven if they see the outline of a bonafide, elite slashing forward. A few names like Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and Pascal Siakam come to mind.
Now, for him to reach the top echelon of those players, Johnson will need to continue rounding out his game by improving in all the areas where young downhill artisans may typically need work: outside shooting consistency, tighter ball handling, counters for when defenders sit on pet moves, etc.
While that growth is possible and could unlock new levels we haven’t seen from him, I want to focus on what Johnson does remarkably well right now and how those inherent wrinkles in his game, especially at this age, point to a potential franchise cornerstone for the Spurs to build around.