One of the main beneficiaries of Spurs’ recent transition to a smaller, faster-paced team was undoubtedly Keldon Johnson. The young forward went from being a seldom-used play for most of his rookie season to a bubble sensation and starter ever since.
At every stage, Johnson has been ready to make the most of the opportunities presented to him, and last season was no exception. Yet despite good numbers, improvements in key areas and an endearing personality, some questions remain about the tweener’s ceiling and his ability to make his team better.
Traits, Expected Role, and Stats
Keldon Johnson is a 22-year-old 6’6” combo forward who entered his third year in the league as a starter after spending the summer winning an Olympic gold medal with Team USA. -United.
He was expected to take on a bigger attacking role while continuing to provide infectious energy to his teammates. He was also expected to show either progress in terms of perimeter skills or impact on defense and boards, to clarify his future position and role.
In 75 appearances, Johnson averaged 17 points, six rebounds and two assists while shooting 40% from beyond the arc in 31.9 minutes per game.
For the first 20 or so games of the season, Johnson tried the self-creator hat, and the results weren’t always the best. While his numbers weren’t bad, it was clear he wasn’t quite up to it yet to take on a bigger role in attack. Luckily for Spurs, he hasn’t been shy about adapting. Maybe things clicked after the only player meeting that happened in late November, or maybe the change came naturally, but Keldon started to focus more on his strengths as games went on, delaying seemingly his star aspirations while becoming a rock-solid complementary player. on the Spurs attack. A higher percentage of his buckets were assisted and his efficiency became even more impressive, leading him to a year in which he shot 40% from beyond the arc and 51% from two points.
Johnson’s contributions on offense and on the boards, along with his durability, made him a truly valuable member of the team for most of the season, but he saved the best for last. Prior to the All-Star break, Johnson was averaging a shade under 16 points per game, to go with six rebounds and 1.8 assists. After the break, he upped his game, posting averages of 20.8 points, 6.5 assists and 2.9 assists. It wasn’t just the hunt for season-ending stats either, as his push coincided with a run that saw the team enter the play-in after going 11-12 down the back row. right. Johnson also upped his game when Doug McDermott was out and Spurs lacked forwards, which makes him all the more impressive. Although there are still questions about his ideal position and defensive potential, Keldon has shown that he already has the basics to be an elite player.
Season Rating: A-
Johnson’s improvement as a shooter is what stands out the most, and that in itself makes his final season a hugely positive one. He basically put everything together as an off-the-ball threat, as he can now shoot, drive and pass to the big men if faced with help. The only thing missing is having more vision to find shooters on the discs, but that should come with time. He also did a solid job on the boards although he was often at a height disadvantage. Finally, he showed a knack for making big plays that ignited his teammates, and in general he seemed like the emotional leader of a young team that went through tough times but never gave up on the season. Every franchise would love to have a talented, athletic 22-year-old sniper who hustles and has the respect of the locker room.
However, the reason why last season cannot be considered an absolute success for Johnson is that she did not clarify questions about her ability to create and, more importantly, did not do much. to allay concerns about his lack of defensive impact. Is Johnson a winger? Right now, he doesn’t have the type of ball handling and diverse attacking package on the ball of one. Even late in the season, when he was dropping 20 points with relative ease and setting career highs, he really struggled in the fourth quarter when defenses tightened. Keldon shot 27% from the field and 15% from beyond the line in the clutch last season, in part because the best look he could create for himself was a contested pull-up three.
Growing pains are expected, and if Johnson showed elite 3 and D potential, it wouldn’t be a problem that he struggled with creation, but he only fulfills one aspect of this archetype. Defensively, Johnson was non-disruptive as an off-the-ball assist defender and struggled on the ball depending on the game. The bigger players caused him problems, but also the smaller and faster ones. He wasn’t a complete liability for this end due to his physique and energy, but he was by no means an advantage, and it’s fair to wonder if he ever will be.
Johnson will enter the fourth and final year of his rookie contract and will be eligible for an extension this offseason. It’s unclear if he’ll get one, as there are multiple factors at play.
If the Spurs decide to essentially roll over their cap space, not giving Johnson an extension would allow them more room next offseason. It would be a similar situation to Kawhi Leonard in that Johnson’s cap take would simply be less than his next contract. At the same time, if Johnson is willing to sign a contract similar to those given to Dejounte Murray and Derrick White in the past, it might be wise to just pull the trigger. If Keldon makes progress on defense and continues to shoot at a high level, he will enter restricted free agency in 2023 as a 23-year-old winger with size, scoring ability and positional flexibility. These type of players are paid. Betting on himself could pay off for Johnson, if he’s willing to take the risk.
As for his game, there are several aspects where he could reasonably improve. Finding a way to create on his own, via isolation, pick-and-rolls, or mail, would be a good way to raise his ceiling. In defence, he is unlikely to ever be the most disruptive player or stopper, but if he shows the ability to stay ahead of perimeter ball handlers he could be invaluable in a heavy system like the one Spurs use. Playing in a more traditional formation with a natural striker alongside him could help speed up the process,
Because Johnson has been reliably productive for quite some time, it’s often easy to forget just how young he is. It is not a finished product. Unless something drastic happens that changes the plan, he’ll likely be in San Antonio for a while, where the coaching staff will help him find his best form.
It may take Johnson, the team and the fanbase a little longer to figure out just how good he can be, but last season has clearly shown that the wait is worth it. His ceiling and ideal position and role may not yet be clear, but it has become clear that he is the type of young player every team would be lucky to have.
Keita Bates Diop
Lonnie Walker IV