Despite a slow start to the 2021-22 season, Keldon Johnson ended up having a career year for the San Antonio Spurs, averaging an impressive 17 points, 6.1 rebounds, and 2.1 assists. Better yet, he averaged 20.8 points, 6.5 rebounds, and 2.9 assists in the second half of the year, helping the Spurs make the NBA Play-In Tournament and showing that he has All-Star potential.
Johnson's rapid development mirrors former Spurs superstar Kawhi Leonard, who averaged 12.8 points, 6.2 rebounds, 2 assists, and 1.7 steals in his third season. Actually, Johnson appears to be ahead of where Leonard was at that point in his career, at least in regard to scoring.
As for both rebounding and assists, they're essentially identical. On the other hand, Leonard was a much more impactful defender, averaging double the amount of steals and being tasked with guarding the opposing team's best wing nightly.
Johnson isn't anywhere near that level defensively, and the Spurs don't necessarily need him to be, whereas they drafted Leonard mainly for that reason. Instead, his offensive development is the bigger story, especially with teammate Dejounte Murray becoming an All-Star this season. San Antonio will need a reliable secondary scoring option, particularly as they look to build a playoff team, and Johnson is looking more and more like he'll be that player going forward.
That's big for the Spurs, having their two best players be selected 29th overall instead of needing a top-five pick. In fact, Johnson played much more like a top-five pick this season and was able to up his game by improving as a shooter, connecting on 39.8% of his 5.3 3-point attempts per game. That development into a high percentage, high volume shooter, also helped his drives to the basket. Johnson improved there too, adding more moves than just trying to bully his way to the rim with straight-line drives.
Though there are differences, the comparison is still there
Compare that to Leonard, who took fewer threes, hit them at a lower percentage, and wasn't nearly the slasher that he would become. That was largely due to him playing primarily off-ball and having to share possessions with Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginobili. Fortunately for Johnson, he doesn't have to defer as Leonard did, which probably slowed his growth as an offensive player.
With more offensive freedom, that's given Johnson more latitude to be aggressive (not that he needed much motivation), and it's definitely sped up his development. Actually, based on his jump in scoring the last two seasons, it's possible that he'll average 20 points per game next season, which would put him a full season ahead of Leonard’s development track.
Leonard, of course, progressed quickly after his third season, going from being a rising star to an All-Star, and then to a superstar in three years. It's unclear if Johnson has that high of a ceiling, but considering that he, like Leonard, has wildly exceeded expectations, nothing should be ruled out.
Overall, Johnson has gotten better every season, and his dramatic improvement is similar to that of Leonard, who would go on to become one of the best players in the NBA. Johnson may not reach that level, but if he continues to quickly evolve, it's possible that he'll be an All-Star candidate as soon as next season.
That would not only closely resemble Leonard's rapid progress but actually outpace it.