2019-20 Rookie Review: San Antonio Is Molding Keldon Johnson

(Image by Tomek Kordylewski)

By Matt Esposito

Whenever you think the Spurs aren’t being too Spursy, trust me, this is when they are likely being their Spursiest. We should have seen the signs coming. Keldon Johnson was ranked as a top 20 prospect by multiple publications and San Antonio was able to nab him with the 29th pick.

Still, the former Wildcat did not play more than 10 games for the Spurs this season, making a review of his somewhat difficult. But this is America, god dangit. We persevere. I dug up some footage and stats of KJ’s NBA and G-League time to study his rookie season. Plus, I reached out to some San Antonio writers (read: experts who are smarter than me.) Let’s go over the findings.

Finishing At The Rim

During his time in the G-League, Keldon Johnson converted 71 percent of the 214 attempts he took at the rim (within five feet of the hoop.) This is an incredible number. Standing at 6-foot-6 with a strong frame and some underrated explosiveness, Johnson loves to attack.

Sometimes, like in the clips seen below, he simply overpower defenders. He seeks out contact and rightly so. Johnson has shoulders built for tossing aside shot contesters. His stable center of gravity also plays a role. Although the sample size is small, we’ve seen KJ do this at both the G-League and NBA level.

Johnson has shown more than an affinity for brute strength, however. His finishing package contains some nifty footwork. He can be seen using side hops and eurosteps to finish around players that are much taller than him. What’s more, he knows how to utilize hang time as a finishing tool. Most importantly, however, is KJ’s almost palpable feel for the game around the rim.

Midrange Shooting

Although his finishing at the bucket seems to be hardwired into his DNA, Johnson’s midrange game also showed encouraging signs. Specifically, KJ sank 45.3 percent of his midrange jumpers. He demonstrated smart shot selection and great touch on a nightly basis.

Johnson also showed off some shot creation moves. Considering that San Antonio may be transitioning KJ from an off ball player into a higher usage scorer/pick and roll handler, it make senses to see him attempting stepbacks and pull-ups. This type of functional handle did not get too much exposure during his college days, which makes it only right that the Spurs were able to sniff it out.

These four plays are ones that Spurs fans should find to be the most promising. Johnson showed off an ability to maneuver pick and rolls before easing into smooth looking jumpers. His wiggle is an added wrinkle and that high release works to his advantage. Plus, it appears as though he has been working on adding some hesitation to his game.

3-Point Shooting

So, what skill does Johnson need to further develop? His 3-point shooting was streaky at best. Johnson buried only 23.7 percent if his triples while in the G-League this year. This is a far cry from the 38.1 percent he hit in college. Before you see what changed in his shooting mechanics, check out his sporadic monthly splits.

Courtesy of NBA.com

What caused such inconsistency? It seems as though Johnson switched up how he uses his guide hand during his 3-point stroke. Check out his mechanics while at Kentucky and target in on both his left hand usage and placement.

Now, check out how his shot looked during his rookie season. Again, focus in on that guiding hand. Something has clearly changed. Perhaps legendary shooting coach Chip Engelland is retooling KJ’s shot. If so, then just give him time. For now, however, its evident that KJ is exaggerating his guide hand a remarkable amount.

But there were also moments where Johnson looked like a capable perimeter shooter. He gets good arc on his shots and has solid rhythm heading into them. Regardless, Johnson needs many more reps to let that guiding motion settle into place and become a legitimate floor stretcher at the professional level.

Offseason To-Do List

Johnson should spent this offseason by taking 3-pointers until his arms give out. We can be confident that his shooting form revision was sanctioned by Spurs coaching. If not, someone is in for a stern talking to. Following the script will work best for Johnson and he can find comfort in the long list of players who have mastered the art of shooting in San Antonio.

Additionally, KJ should continue to develop as a pick and roll scorer. This means practicing his snaking routine through screens, hesitation moves and pull-up jump shooting. Running sets or scrimmages with other young Spurs would be a great idea. Johnson could build chemistry with the people he will likely be spending next season with.

BONUS: What Are The Experts Saying?

Whenever you can get Tom Petrini and Noah Magaro-George to provide their opinions, you do it. Tom, who hustles for a multitude of Spurs related outlets, is first up to share his expertise.

On Johnson’s Shifting NBA Role

“Keldon Johnson was the third option at Kentucky, and did most of his work off the ball as a small ball four. In Austin, he did a lot more attacking out of pick and roll and iso sets. He’s already one of the most versatile defenders on the Spurs. He has the size, strength and explosiveness to be a great NBA player, but more than that, he works harder than everybody else when he’s on the court. He’s on his way to establishing himself as a deep threat, and once he does, he’ll be a very well-rounded player on both ends.

Next up, Noah, who writes for SB Nation about both the Spurs and Nets, addresses what Johnson needs to do in order to become a better player for next season.

On Improvements

“Keldon Johnson showed several encouraging signs between stints in the G-League and NBA throughout his first season, but the Kentucky product has plenty of room to grow. Defending without fouling, cutting down on turnovers, and developing a reliable three-point jumper will be the keys to unlocking his potential. For now, the 20-year-old’s primary advantage is his unmatched motor on both ends of the court.”

Published by Matt Esposito

Founder/Writer for Theplaygrounder.com and contributor to Red’s Army Twitter: @Mattesposito_

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