Keldon Johnson might as well face the snarling Monstars of Space Jam, because he appears most comfortable when smashing into the NBA’s biggest men at the rim. The 21-year-old specifically loves colliding into their chest like a tire that has been careening downhill for 72 uninterrupted hours. Sometimes, he finishes with points. Other times, he only succeeds in sowing chaos. Either way, Johnson makes a beeline to the hoop, no matter the size and strength of his opponent.
That lack of fear is a major reason why Johnson stands out in San Antonio’s budding, intriguing young core. He joins Lonnie Walker IV, 22, and Dejounte Murray, 24, (and hopefully Derrick White once he’s healthy) in taking a noticeable step forward this year. Walker’s game benefits from the Spurs’ faster pace and an uptick in three-point shooting. Murray, as Gregg Popovich stated last week, is becoming a more complete point guard, probing and organizing rather than dribbling into traffic.
Johnson’s talent appears more raw in comparison, but at times more promising. He carved out a starting five spot in his second season without ankle-breaking handles or fancy footwork. He has not shown himself to be a reliable outside shooter, and he is not throwing tricky passes.
The fourth-youngest player next to Luka Samanic and rookies Tre Jones and Devin Vassell, Johnson’s true value lies in his unrelenting motor. At times, that asset is difficult to quantify. He is omnipresent on the court and defined by hustle. Before Jacob Poeltl’s recent surge in the last few games, he had led the team among regular rotation players in blocks per game (0.8) and is second in both offensive and defensive rebounds. He makes a respectable 47 percent of his shots while attempting the sixth-most field goals on the team. He uses every bit of his 6-foot 5-inch, 220 pound frame to create space for himself and bother opponents on defense.
When his impact does show in the box score — he dropped 29 points on the Rockets’ forehead last week — a first-time viewer would be forgiven for assuming he is, at least, the second best player in NBA history.
In all seriousness, the comparison of his game to Russell Westbrook is coming into focus. Johnson wears his ferociousness like no Spur has before. On dunk attempts, his spine rears into a banana shape, accompanied by an expression of rage that, frankly, makes me concerned for his well-being.
He regularly flexes. He often yells at the sky in triumph. And, as shown during the Spurs’ recent matchup with the Thunder, he is already comfortable pumping up his teammates in a crunch-time huddle.
For now, the comparison to Westbrook only goes so far. Let us hope Johnson does not start throwing passes to his imaginary friends or shooting three-pointers like a drunk man playing his 15th straight dart game. Their shared intensity, however, is more valuable to me than a smooth shooting stroke or natural handling ability. The fire cannot be taught; leave the shot improvement to Chip Engelland.
In the immediate future, Johnson’s attitude is a critical addition to a team led by coolest of cucumbers in DeMar DeRozen, Rudy Gay and LaMarcus Aldridge. The veterans now have to chase around the kid who can’t sit still in church. So far, that appears to be working.
In time, with some refinement, Johnson could hold the best chance at becoming the Spurs’ next All-Star. And who knows? He could be part of a new “Big 3” cooking in the Alamo City.