The Spurs have a history of draft night success. Despite spending the last two decades picking outside the lottery, the team has shown the ability to consistently unearth quality NBA players, often finding overlooked and undervalued talent hidden in plain sight. While some of those selections became obvious only in retrospect, it seemed pretty clear right from the start what kind of player Keldon Johnson — the 29th pick in the 2019 NBA draft and a golden spot for the Spurs — was going to become.
NBA.com’s prospect profile said he was “a competitive, strong wing who showed the ability to space the floor, take the ball strong to the rim, and defend multiple positions” while the Ringer.com’s draft profile commended his “effort and passion” and called him a “decisive scorer” who “grabs the ball and goes when attacking closeouts or sprinting in transition, taking long strides on his way to the rim.”
It would be difficult to come up with more accurate assessments of what he showed over the Spurs’ last 4 games before the season was suspended. In his first consistent NBA minutes, Keldon put up per 36 minute averages of 15.1 points, 5.9 rebounds and 2.7 steals. Those numbers may not jump off the screen, but for a 20 year-old rookie, that kind of performance sustained over the rest of the year would put him in rare company. Of course, extrapolating from such a small sample size can be misleading, but looking at the tape of his performances so far this year provides plenty of reasons to believe that Keldon will be able to continue to produce at a high level.
The first thing that stands out about his play is how often he is involved in the action. For many young players, including Lonnie Walker IV earlier this season, it can be difficult to find a balance between asserting themselves and filling their role. They’ll often either disappear or press too hard. So far, that hasn’t been an issue for Keldon at all.
Even when he spaces to the corner just likes he’s supposed to and the play goes away from him, Keldon still ends up right in the thick of things.
One of his defining traits is the ability to contribute without needing his number called, and those points often come on plays just like this. Keldon is always ready to scoop up a loose ball, tip out a rebound, or do whatever else the team needs in a given moment.
He seems to have a very good feel for what he’s capable of and what the team needs. He rarely gets himself into trouble by gambling on either end and is willing to step into the spotlight with no hesitation. That even includes playing the role of defensive stopper.
Keldon is willing to go toe-to-toe with anybody and appears to relish the opportunity to take difficult match ups. This possession against Luka Doncic isn’t exactly replicable, but it’s a great indicator of why Keldon is on the floor and what he believes he needs to do to stay there. He competes every second, which is sure to make him a Gregg Popovich favorite if he isn’t one already.
On top of his sheer competitiveness, Keldon is also surprisingly sturdy. He absorbs contact with ease, rarely giving ground on either side of the ball. He isn’t explosive enough to rely solely on his athleticism for finishing, but defenders bounce off him, and he has a knack for finding an open angle to the rim.
His solid frame and relentless pursuit also allows him to be far more effective on the offensive glass than he ought to be at just 6’5”.
On the other end of the court, that kind of physicality translates to hard drives that can’t quite get to the rim.
This is a case where measurements fall short of capturing how an individual plays the game. Keldon has excellent body control and balance, which makes it difficult to clear him out of the way. Once Miles Bridges feints dribbling into a handoff and decides to drive, Keldon tries to get his right hand in front of Bridges’ left hip. But Bridges wards him off with solid shot to the chest.
That much contact from someone as strong as Bridges would usually clear a lane all the way to the right side of the glass, but Keldon takes the blow in stride and stays in good position the whole way, forcing a difficult running hook that misses badly.
Of course, it naturally hasn’t all been good. Keldon’s ability to space the floor is still a work in progress. Although he’s hit 2 of his 5 three point attempts with the big league club, he shot just 23.4% on 94 attempts in Austin this season.
Perhaps more importantly, despite his willingness to go to war on every possession, Keldon lacks the lateral quickness to stay in front of quicker guards and wings. As The Ringer noted, he’s “heavy-footed moving laterally since he’s on his heels, and he bites for far too many fakes.”
That forces him to rely on anticipation and physicality, which gets him into trouble against quicker ball handlers or heady players like Doncic. But then, just about every player is in trouble when they have to guard him, so maybe that’s not something to be too overly concerned with. Still, there are times when Keldon’s tendency to think ahead gives him a marked advantage.
This is a difficult play to defend, with Keldon having to time his help out of the weak side corner so as not to give up a wide open three-pointer while still arriving in time to break up the lob. That he sees it coming early enough to be ready is perhaps the most impressive part, as there was concern about his off ball defense coming into the draft.
It’s important to remember that Keldon’s still a rookie, so it’s a little too early to get caught up in his mistakes. He’ll obviously continue to improve, hopefully developing a better sense of how to offset his weaknesses on both ends of the floor.
As he continues to get better, the Spurs will face some interesting roster construction issues moving forward. There’s a logjam in the backcourt, but plenty of room for improvement in the frontcourt, so it seems likely that some changes will occur during the offseason. Whether or not the Spurs are prepared to make those changes, given their recent track record, is perhaps still up in the air. But they certainly should be, because Keldon came exactly as advertised.