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Checking in on Keldon Johnson and Luka Samanic after the G-League Showcase

A look at the Spurs rookies as December ends.

NBAE via Getty Images

As then San Antonio Spurs swing through the bottom half of the Western Conference, looking for rays of hope in a rare, tumultuous season, rookies Keldon Johnson and Luka Samanic have been away from the action. Instead, they have been trying to make names for themselves in the NBA G-League as part of the Austin Spurs. With almost 2 months of professional basketball under their belt, including the G-League Winter Showcase, let’s check back in and see how the Spurs’ most recent draft picks have fared in December.

Keldon Johnson

December Stats: 21.1 PTS, 6.8 REB, 2.9 AST, 4.0 TO, 59/50/80 shooting (FG%, 3PT%, FT%)

Not only is Johnson leading Austin in scoring during December, but he is doing so at almost elite efficiency levels. He is 9th in the G-League with an effective field goal percentage of 65.2% this month, and is doing so with the highest usage rate in the top 20. Games of 32 and 25 points in the last week or so have showcased his ability to be a proven threat in the G-League. While most of his baskets come from physical advantages, Johnson does have a few moves, and I would like to see him get past defenders off of skill more.

Something intriguing that Johnson has brought into his game is 3-point shooting. After literally not making a single 3 in November, Johnson is 50% from deep in December on 3.3 attempts per game. He is unlikely to keep this high of a mark, but where might that number settle in? At Kentucky last year, Johnson hit 43% of his 3’s from November to January, but just 32% for the rest of the season. After two drastically different shooting stretches once again, it seems safe to conclude (as of now) that Johnson projects as a good, albeit streaky shooter, ranging from the low to upper 30’s.

Despite the ever so slightest decrease in usage rate (25.7% down to 24.1%), Johnson’s turnovers have doubled while his assist numbers have increased marginally. I’ve mentioned before that Johnson’s playmaking was never a strength and that I was pessimistic on his ability to develop this skill into a positive aspect of his game, but this is worse than I imagined. In order to be a successful NBA player, you need to be able dribble, pass, and shoot. If he absolutely cannot do one of these things, it limits his upside.

My confidence in Johnson’s defense is starting to waver, not surprising after posting the fourth worst defensive efficiency on his team (109.2) in December. Additionally, his steal and block rate of 1.1% and 1.4% are among the lowest on Austin. If he cannot generate turnovers or seemingly help his team, expectations might need to be lowered. However, as Johnson is still just 20-years-old, he has plenty of time to hone his defense through increased game reps, and I still believe he should turn into a positive defender.

Simply put, Johnson has been one of the best players in the entire G-League. Sure, he has problems that needs to be worked on, but he seems to be solidifying his status as another solid first round pick for San Antonio. When his opportunity comes, expect to see Johnson thrive.

Luka Samanic

December Stats: 12.4 PTS, 6.6 REB, 4.4 TO, 1 STL/BLK, 34/26/78 shooting (FG%, 3PT%, FT%)

Samanic has continued to show off his bag of tricks offensively. While it doesn’t seem to occur every game, a byproduct of his youth and him still mastering consistency, the flashes are tremendous. Samanic has about every move in the book, it is just a matter of whether he can execute. You see the potential in games such as his 26-point performance on December 14.

However, with the good also comes the bad, and there are some concerning numbers. Shooting 26% from 3 and having an effective field goal percentage of 46% is rough, especially when Samanic is considered a floor-spacing 4. He made some substantial improvements to his shot over last spring and summer, but it has not been showcased consistently.

While I’m not going to get into his passing/playmaking again, there has not been much of an improvement in this aspect of his game. Outside of those one-off plays, it has easily been more bad than good for the Croatian, who will need to make significant strides here

Defense has been a mixed bag for Samanic. While he always shows flashes (both on and off the ball) during games, Samanic still leaves much to be desired. After posting a defensive rating below 100 during November, it has jumped up to 109.5 in December. Samanic’s propensity to create offensive possessions (1.3% steal rate and 2.6% block rate) are extremely positive indicators. However, Austin’s defense as a whole has regressed slightly, so it is tough to tell how much that affects Samanic. Personally, I see a slight drop off in his defense but still feel confident in projecting him as a positive defender.

RC Buford and co. likely knew it would take time for Samanic to develop into an NBA caliber player, so these struggles are no surprise for those who follow San Antonio or the NBA Draft. In the meantime, fans should instead focus on the positives from Samanic, as he shows the promise that the Spurs’ brass hoped for when they drafted him with the 19th pick.