One of the main beneficiaries of the Spurs’ recent transition into a small, faster paced team was definitely Keldon Johnson. The young forward went from a seldom used piece for most of his rookie season to bubble sensation and a starter since then.
Every step of the way Johnson has been ready to make the most of the opportunities he was presented with, and this past season wasn’t the exception. Yet, despite posting good numbers, improving in key areas and possessing an endearing personality, some questions remain as to 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.
He was expected to take on a bigger offensive role while continuing to provide infectious energy to his teammates. He also needed to show either progress in terms of perimeter skills or an impact on defense and the boards, to make his future position and role clear.
In 75 appearances, Johnson averaged 17 points, six rebounds and two assists while shooting 40 percent from beyond the arc in 31.9 minutes per game.
For the first 20 games or so of the season, Johnson tried on the hat of self-creator, and the results weren’t always the best. While his numbers weren’t bad, it was clear that he was not up to the task of taking on a bigger role on offense yet. Luckily for the Spurs, he wasn’t reluctant to adjust. Maybe things clicked after the players only meeting that happened in late November, or maybe the change just came naturally, but Keldon started to focus on his strengths more as the games went by, seemingly delaying 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 percent from beyond the arc and 51 percent on two-pointers.
Johnson’s contributions on offense and on the boards, as well as his durability, made him a really valuable member of the team for most of the season, but he saved the best for last. Before 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 raised his game, posting averages of 20.8 points, 6.5 assists and 2.9 assists. It wasn’t just late-season stat hunting either, since his surge coincided with a run that got the team into the play-in after going 11-12 in over the final stretch. Johnson also raised his game when Doug McDermott was out and the Spurs were short on forwards, which makes it all the more impressive. While there are still questions about his ideal position and defensive potential, Keldon showed that he already has the foundation to be an elite role player.
Season grade: A-
Johnson’s improvement as a shooter is what stands out the most, and by itself it makes his last season a hugely positive one. He has essentially put it all together as an off-ball threat, as he can now shoot, drive, and make drop-off pass to the big men if he faces help. The only thing that is missing is having more vision to find shooters on drives, but it should come with time. He also did a solid job on the boards despite often being at a height disadvantage. Finally, he showed a knack for making big plays that fired up his teammates, and in general he appeared to be the emotional leader of a young team that went through some tough stretches but never gave up on the season. Every franchise would love to have a talented and athletic 22-year-old marksman who hustles and has the respect of the locker room.
However, the reason why last season can’t be considered an absolute success for Johnson is it didn’t clarify the questions about his ability to create and, more importantly, did little to ease the worries about his lack of defensive impact. Is Johnson a wing scorer? Right now, he doesn’t have the type of ball handling and diverse on-ball offensive package of one. Even in the late part of the season, when he was dropping 20 points with relative ease and setting career highs, he really struggled in fourth quarters when defenses tightened up. Keldon shot 27 percent from the field and 15 percent 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 was showing elite 3-and-D potential it wouldn’t be a problem that he struggled with creation, but he only fills one aspect of that archetype. Defensively, Johnson was not disruptive as a help defender off the ball and struggled on the ball depending on the matchup. Bigger players gave him trouble, but so did smaller, quicker ones. He was not a complete liability on that end because of his physicality and energy, but he wasn’t a plus by any means, and it’s fair to wonder if he ever will be one.
Johnson will enter the fourth and final year of his rookie contract and will be extension eligible this offseason. Whether he will get one is unclear, since there are several factors at play.
If the Spurs decide to essentially roll over their cap space, holding off on giving Johnson an extension would allow them to have more room next offseason. It would be a similar situation to Kawhi Leonard’s in that Johnson’s cap hold would simply be smaller than his next contract. At the same time, if Johnson is willing to sign a similar contract to the ones awarded to Dejounte Murray and Derrick White in the past, it might be wise to just pull the trigger. If Keldon makes some progress on defense and continues to shoot at a high level, he’d enter restricted free agency in 2023 as a 23-year-old wing with size, scoring ability and positional flexibility. Those type of players get 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 in which he could reasonably improve. Finding a way to create for himself, via isolation, pick-and-rolls or the post, would be a good way to raise his ceiling. On defense he’s likely never going to be the most disruptive of players or a stopper, but if he shows the ability to stay in front of perimeters ball handlers, he could be valuable in a switch-heavy system like the one the Spurs use. Playing in a more traditional lineup that features a natural power forward next to him could help expedite the process,
Because Johnson has been reliably productive for a while, it’s often easy to forget how young he is. He’s not a finished product. Unless something dramatic happens and 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 might take a while longer for Johnson, the team, and the fan base to fully understand just how good he can be, but the past season made it clear that the wait is worth it. His ceiling and his ideal position and role might still be unclear, but it’s become obvious that’s he’s the type of young player every team would be lucky to have around.
Lonnie Walker IV