Getting to the Rim Comes Naturally to Keldon Johnson
The former Kentucky standout has always had a penchant for aggressive drives to the rim. His relentlessness is reminiscent of a powerful running back in football. He fearlessly hammers away at opposing defenses and sends bodies to the floor with relative ease. He embodies Marshawn Lynch’s edict: “Run through a [redacted]’s face. Then you don’t have to worry about them no more.”
His default tendency to drive to the bucket undoubtedly got him into trouble at times last season. He had some missed passes and careless turnovers, typical of a game imbued with a sort of recklessness that first led Coach Gregg Popovich to compare Johnson to a mustang.
That being said, one can understand why Johnson felt so inclined to opt for stampeding to the basket when he got the ball since he’s equipped with the requisite first step, balance, and mentality to get into the restricted area seemingly at will. He finished his sophomore campaign attempting 347 field goals in the restricted area, good for 9th among all forwards, according to NBA Stats. The next three names? Bam Adebayo (335 FGA), Tatum (326), and Siakam (322).
Johnson finishing slightly less than 60 percent of those shots should not be cause for concern because the process in which he got those baskets was incredibly incisive, especially considering his lack of an advanced handle at this stage.
Frankly, he didn’t need a deep bag of tricks to get deep into the paint. In fact, it often only required a straight-line drive with a couple of power dribbles until he was careening into a big man and finishing through or around them. However, it's worth noting that he did benefit greatly from feasting on tilted defenses on their heels as he received kick-outs from DeMar DeRozan or Dejounte Murray.
Still, one would be mistaken if they believed that Johnson is wholly devoid of craft when probing for openings in the paint. He has teased a budding Euro step game and in-and-out dribble: two encouraging signs he possesses the shiftiness to expand on his paint prowess.
Along with those lateral moves, he’s shown some change-of-speed that will add nuance to his straight-line drives. Defenders often bite harder than they probably should on his hesi because they never expect the frenetic Johnson to decelerate.
He does need to avoid being too upright on his drives and tighten his handle to continue honing these maneuvers. Nevertheless, Spurs fans should feel emboldened to buy "Big Body" stock. Generating this level of rim pressure, especially at his age, is a rarity.
According to Cleaning the Glass, in the last 15 years, only 12 wings/forwards who started their season at 21 or younger and played at least 1000 minutes finished their campaign ranked in the 90th percentile or greater in attempts at the rim. Crucially, in that group of players, Johnson was third in effective field goal percentage at 52.5 percent.
The eFG% is particularly necessary to pay attention to in this context because the list of these paint practitioners is littered with athletic marvels who either didn’t live up to their early promise (such as Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson) or are in the process of figuring it out (Isaac Okoro and RJ Barrett). The only ones with an eFG% above 50 were Jaylen Brown, Johnson, Giannis Antetokounmpo (three times!), and new Spurs teammate Thaddeus Young.
Maybe this shot frequency points to a lean shot diet that should be bolstered with more perimeter creation in time. More importantly, though, it signals an aggressive disposition and downhill skills that can feed into more aspects of his game. In fact, those tools fuel another element of his game that’s further along than most young slashers.