This series looks at each of the Spurs’ eleven under-30 players with an eye toward how they can improve in or expand their role on the team. Rather than focus on individual skills, for the most part, we’ll concentrate on what the team needs from each player on offense and defense to identify a key opportunity to have more impact.
The Spurs were right to be excited about grabbing Keldon Johnson with their second selection in the 2019 draft. He’s only 19 years old with plenty of potential to improve, fills a need in terms of both position and role, and has a great attitude with excellent work ethic. That he was taken 29th — a position that has been particularly propitious for the team —seems as much like foreshadowing as real life.
As if all the intangibles, coach testimonials and aw shucks interviews weren’t enough to get folks excited, Keldon went out and dropped 29 points on 17 shots in his second Summer League game, all but ensuring his inevitable breakout year was just around the corner. But it’s probably a good idea to pump the breaks a little on planning his Rookie of the Year campaign. There’s still a lot of work to be done to transform his potential into on the court contributions.
First and foremost, it’s important to recognize that Keldon’s most NBA-ready skills still need work. He projects to be a good shooter, and his intensity and effort stand out as the essential building blocks for an outstanding defender, but there’s little evidence he’s good enough at either to warrant serious NBA minutes at this point.
It’s very possible he’s accurate enough already to serve as a catch and shoot specialist hanging out on the weakside opposite a primary offensive option like DeMar DeRozan in the pick-and-roll or LaMarcus Aldridge posting up. Keldon hit 38.1% of his 118 three-point attempts in his lone year at Kentucky, which is a promising sign, but he only made 70.3% of his free throws. With a college three-point attempt rate in that range, just over 3.7 per 36 minutes, his free throw accuracy is a good indicator his 3P% will likely regress, at least initially, when stepping out to NBA distance.
On top of that, he hasn’t shown the ability to consistently hit threes in motion, either in college or in Summer League. There are a couple of makes out of floppy action around the 4:15 mark of this highlight video from his year at Kentucky, but nothing like the pace or motion necessary to generate open looks in the NBA, meaning he’ll be almost completely dependent on the offense for those opportunities. That’s not necessarily a bad thing; one of the most intriguing aspects of Keldon’s game is how he manages to score without dedicated touches.
Still, the Spurs don’t typically have much success with wings that can’t shoot on the move or drive and kick at a high level. He has a nice, tight shooting motion, though, with a smooth release, so he doesn’t have to rush to get his shot off quickly. He’s never going to be Patty Mills, but with his natural balance and relentless motor, he could turn into an off ball threat in time, capable of distorting a defense with just his movement and the threat of his shooting ability.
He can already attack close outs well, although he doesn’t appear to have especially good vision or passing ability at this point, as evidenced by his 2 assists in five games of Summer League action. Keldon’s not an explosive finisher, but he’s strong, crafty, and has good touch. Once he gets by his defender, it’s a good bet he’ll put a high percentage shot up on the rim.
With that in mind, there might be room on the wing this season for even league average catch and shoot three-point shooting, as none of the team’s marksmen under 6’8” are especially good defenders. Bryn Forbes showed a ton of progress last season, holding his own in most match-ups, but at 6’3” he’s undersized for a shooting guard (no matter how much he’s bulked up). The other two options, Patty and Marco Belinelli, are defensive liabilities at best.
Dejounte Murray and Derrick White, on the other hand, are already elite defenders, and Lonnie Walker IV seems to be heading in that direction. If any of the three show up this season with the ability to space the floor, the Spurs will have less of a need for the 3-and-D role Keldon is best equipped for at the moment. But even if they do, all three are smaller than Keldon, who despite being just an inch or two taller, has about 20 pounds and 3-4 inches of standing reach on both Derrick and Lonnie. Dejounte, obviously, is much lighter, but can grab the net flat-footed thanks to those Mr. Fantastic arms.
That extra size should give Keldon the versatility to guard larger wings, a requirement that for the most part will be filled by DeMarre Carroll and Rudy Gay this season. Still, adding another player into the mix who can switch 2 to 4 on a nightly basis would give the team more flexibility in assembling solid defensive lineups around DeMar.
Still, it’s unlikely that Keldon is ready for that level of defensive responsibility. Even in Summer League he had some struggles matching up one-on-one with NBA players. That’s not surprising at all, and it’s fair to expect he’ll improve quickly once he has the opportunity to practice and play against that level of competition on a daily basis, but it’ll take a bit longer for him to develop his instincts for team defense.
Much of defending as part of a five-player unit is counter intuitive. There are times when your teammates are beat, and the right answer is to do nothing. Other times, your teammates may appear to have everything under control, and you have to anticipate a rotation anyway. The game moves fast and the other team is quite literally trying to trick you on every play.
Still, Keldon’s energy alone will be worth some playing time. Imagine it’s the 2nd night of a back-to-back on the road: the team comes out flat, so halfway through the first quarter Gregg Popovich subs in Keldon, who proceeds to pester and pressure his way into a couple of steals and forced turnovers and then flexes on the whole arena after a putback dunk he had no business getting to. That’s not so much a what-if as it is a what will we do when. If he’s good enough to play, he’s got the kind of grit that can change the entire complexion of a game.
Call it hustle, making winning plays, having a nose for the ball, or whatever you want, but players like Keldon find ways to impact the bottom line. He steals extra possessions and grabs points out of thin air with effort and timing. It’s just about impossible to evaluate what that’s worth until he gets on the court. Even though his best skills may not be NBA ready just yet, it might be worthwhile to give him some run just to see what he does.
That’s why of the team’s three rookies, he is the most likely to play significant minutes with the big league club this season. Quinndary Weatherspoon is probably the most NBA-ready, but Keldon can fill a role the team needs and has some intangible qualities they missed last season. He’ll still spend his fair share of time in Austin, but it shouldn’t be a surprise when he carves out a spot on the edge of the rotation or gets quality minutes when DeMarre , Rudy Gay, or DeMar DeRozan take a night off.