A Patty Mills sound byte following the Spurs’ loss to the Nuggets on Wednesday echoed the team’s party line in Orlando. Even if the result was a step in the wrong direction in their attempt to make the postseason, the quote serves as a candid reminder of the organization’s shift in perspective:
“This whole approach is all about them. It’s for them to be able to play meaningful games, develop the way that we believe they can grow into and the potential they have to be able to get better every game. So look, two losses in the row, obviously is the result, but I think we’re playing good basketball. The style that we’re playing is good and guys are getting better. For me it’s big picture. It’s not great to say after a loss because you always want to win, but when you understand where we were, where we’re going and the process that we’re taking and where we’re trying to be, we’re doing well. And this group is being put together to be able to go out there and get the job done with what we have. It’s a process and everyone understands that process. When you do understand that, it’s about growing, it’s about learning and everyone has to go through it. This is a great chance for them to do that.”
With growth and learning in mind, the Spurs will keep riding their young guys and taking their lumps through the remaining four games. Their 2-2 record thus far isn’t bad, all things considered, and the bigger victories have come through seeing what those players are capable of doing with larger roles.
Keldon Johnson has been one of those revelations. A recurring theme in postgame Zoom calls with Gregg Popovich and the object of praise from his teammates, the Kentucky product is coming off a career-best effort against the Nuggets with 20 points and 6 rebounds.
“He’s a monster competitor,” said Pop ahead of Wednesday afternoon’s game. “Learning more every day, getting confidence in shooting, he grinds it well. He hits the board and plays hard on D. He’s a fine young player.”
As a rule, expectations for San Antonio rookies should be tempered and, before the restart, his first season had played out more or less to script. Johnson spent most of his time in Austin and saw only 92 minutes playing with the varsity team.
The 20-year-old has already seen the floor for more minutes (103) in these four restart games, and he’s done plenty with them, averaging 13 points on 62% shooting, 5.3 rebounds and routinely being a net positive in his moments on the floor. Injuries to Bryn Forbes and Marco Belinelli (a healthy scratch on Wednesday) have helped give way, but it’s hard to see the coaching staff reeling back Johnson’s role moving forward.
Johnson came into the league with a draft profile fairly fitting of a late first-round pick. Analysts saw promise in his three-point shot and finishing ability but cited concerns around heavy feet and lack of awareness on defense, lack of offensive polish, and tendency to not play as physically as he could.
But the Spurs still thought they’d found strong, if hidden value with the 29th pick. Here’s how R.C. Buford justified the selection:
“Sometimes, especially when they’re not the elite talent at Kentucky, you oftentimes get maybe lumped into a group of really good players and it may be difficult to separate yourself. The team had 3 guys drafted in the first round. That potential is there.”
Johnson didn’t shoot the ball from deep well in his time in Austin (24.7% on 3 attempts per game), but he did enough of everything else to warrant a look in San Antonio before the league suspended play. He also displayed a knack for finishing around the basket, something that’s carried over when playing against NBA athletes:
As Pop notes, many of Johnson’s contributions stem from the energy and motor packed into his sturdy, 6-6ish, 220-pound frame. He gets on the floor for loose balls, fights for rebounds, and can be routinely seen barreling opponents over in the process. He’s not demonstrably taller than guys like Dejounte Murray, Lonnie Walker IV or DeMar DeRozan, but he plays bigger, hinting at the potential to defend some bigger forwards.
But hustle and good intentions aren’t enough. Johnson’s shined in the Bubble by matching that energy and limiting mistakes, aggressively attacking the rim on close-outs and showcasing an ability to stretch the floor.
Scoring off the dribble is where Johnson is of most value on offense right now. Despite a strong preference to going right, he has a keen feel for angles, knows how to keep a defender on his hip and wrest the advantage, and has no problem finishing through contact— an area where many of his teammates still struggle. If he can make any strides in ability to make plays off a pick and roll, then the team will be able to exploit him as a downhill threat even more.
Here’s what his NBA shot chart looks like thus far:
If that green around the perimeter is any indication (and it’s worth noting that we are still dealing in small sample sizes), opponents are going to have to keep chasing Johnson. He’s made 6 of 9 from deep in these four games and 8 of 14 on the year, showing confidence and good decision-making when he’s open. Most or all of these have come off the catch:
Following Wednesday’s loss, I asked Pop about Johnson and if there’s any area of his game where the coach has been pleasantly surprised.
“He’s shooting the ball a little bit better than I expected. That’s a good sign that he’s got the confidence that if he’s open he’s knocking it down. He’s always a good driver, always very competitive, but the fact that he’s showing a little confidence in his shooting is really nice.”
The coaching staff likely also takes note that Johnson can be trusted to go on the floor and not be a negative when possessions swing his way, whether that means taking the open shot or making the right read when a driving lane doesn’t present itself. Either way, the ball rarely stops with him and he almost never turns the ball over — he’s got only four turnovers to his name this season and a turnover rate (4.6%) that’s only behind Belinelli on the team. The less reasons he gives Pop to pull him, the more floor time he sees, which can only benefit his growth.
Development is just one side of the coin with the Spurs’ focus on youth in the Bubble — the other part is a closer evaluation of what the team has in guys like Johnson and how they can fit in next year and beyond. It’s enough of a positive that he’s showing the makings of an NBA-level player (not always the case with a 29th pick), but they can now get a better feel for what NBA-level skills they can either count on or build upon. Going by what we’ve seen, it’s possible that more pleasant surprises await.