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How Keldon Johnson’s defense can earn him minutes with the Spurs this season

Can the 29th overall pick carve out a role with the Spurs in 2019-2020?

NBA: Utah Summer League-San Antonio Spurs at Memphis Grizzlies Jeff Swinger-USA TODAY Sports

The San Antonio Spurs have long been the gold standard for defensive consistency in the NBA. The art of stopping the ball is the calling card of any successful Gregg Popovich-led team.

Coach Pop demands attention to detail on that end of the court, and a player who fails to meet his lofty standards can expect to find themselves in the proverbial doghouse. If you want to play in San Antonio, you better play some defense.

Since Popovich took over head coaching responsibilities during the 1996-97 season, the Spurs have failed to roster a top-10 scoring defense just five times. The first instance came in his inaugural go-round at the helm of the organization, and the most recent occurrence coming last season.

A plethora of injuries and significant roster turnover can explain some of San Antonio’s struggles to defend last season, but they won’t have that excuse this time. All-NBA defender Dejounte Murray has returned, and the Spurs have added a handful of rangy bodies to their already imposing defensive lineup.

Free Agent signing Trey Lyles has the physical tools to become a plus defender, although he hasn’t necessarily displayed the wherewithal to execute routinely on that end. And while offseason acquisition DeMarre Carroll has a track record of serviceability, his 33-year-old legs aren’t as spry as they used to be.

Of all the new additions, rookie Keldon Johnson could be a darkhorse to earn minutes in a crowded Spurs rotation. Although San Antonio’s earlier 2019 first-round selection Luka Samanic flashed a higher ceiling at Las Vegas Summer League, the opportunity for him to play a sizable role in the NBA won’t be there right away.

Court time won’t be easy for Keldon to come by, either. Twenty-seven rookies have filtered through San Antonio’s system in the past decade. A grand total of six of them played more than 60 games in their first season, and only Kawhi Leonard, Gary Neal, and DeJuan Blair averaged more than 18 minutes per game.

In case Pop’s philosophy on first-year players wasn’t already obvious, he likes to bring along the young guys slowly. That strategy makes complete sense when you’re chasing trophies every year. However, sometimes unfamiliar territory calls for a little risk.

Barring their 1999 lockout-shortened championship campaign, the Spurs had won 50 or more regular-season games for 20 years straight. That historic streak came to a screeching halt at the end of the turbulent 2017-18 season, and the Silver and Black have lost in the first round of the playoffs in back-to-back seasons.

So, how can the Spurs reclaim their title contender status? It won’t be easy, and the answer to this question isn’t simple, but this is where Keldon Johnson fits into the discussion. While he won’t be the key that unlocks San Antonio’s full potential, he can be a piece of the puzzle to finding a solution.

He was projected as a 2019 lottery pick before he ever set foot on the University of Kentucky campus. His lone season of college basketball was chock-full of ups and downs, and he slipped down big boards and into the Spurs arms on draft night.

Despite falling short of expectations, Johnson put his 6’9 1/4” wingspan to use and made himself a defensive force within the SEC. He played with high energy, pestered ball-handlers into uncomfortable situations, and is a self-proclaimed “defender first”, which is exactly why he’ll have a shot to earn Pop’s trust.

Keldon possesses the length and strength to defend guards and wings: something incumbent backup Marco Belinelli lacks. Although he has a one-up on the thirteen-year pro in that department, he won’t be the only one vying for time at two-guard.

Bryn Forbes is the best three-point shooter on the roster, and Lonnie Walker IV is a superior scorer at this stage in their development, but not all hope is lost for Keldon to break into the rotation. Forbes provides little resistance as a defender, and although Lonnie is an explosive athlete with ridiculous measurables, whether or not he can translate those gifts into lockdown material has yet to be determined.

In all likelihood, Keldon will spend the majority of his first season suiting up in the G-League with fellow draft-mates Luka and Quinndary Weatherspoon. There’s no shame in that; plenty of rookies have received the Austin Spurs treatment over the years.

That said, Keldon has the skills to help San Antonio’s second unit and the perfect role models to help him get there. If the 19-year-old shores up his spotty three-point jumper and exhibits discipline on the other side of the ball, fans just may see him in a Spurs lineup sooner than anticipated.