After a fantastic sophomore season and a summer winning gold with Team USA, this year was supposed to be the one in which Keldon Johnson made the leap. With the veterans gone he was primed to get a bigger role, and he seemed ready for it.
So far, we haven’t seen the quick progression that was expected. Johnson is posting career-best numbers in most categories but looks more like a solid role player than a budding star. There are encouraging signs that he could eventually get there, but they mostly come with caveats.
Yet despite not having a meteoric rise, Johnson does seem to be getting better, and as long as his career trajectory continues to trend upwards, there should be no concerns about him continuing to develop at his own pace.
There is a lot of good to talk about, so let’s get the bad out of the way first. Johnson hasn’t really improved much as a shot creator. He’s getting assisted on about two thirds of his makes, a slightly lower mark than in past years but one that still ranks seventh on the team among rotation players. His assist percentage (the share of buckets he assists when he’s on the court) has similarly climbed a little, but still has him ranked eighth on the team. Johnson has been shifting the way he gets his points, showing off more of a diverse offensive package, but at this point remains mostly a finisher.
The main reason for the struggles to create for himself more is his still rudimentary ball handling. Johnson can’t get past his man in isolation or get to the rim in pick and rolls, when the opponent switches. He’s a freight train coming down the lane when he can get momentum off the catch or in transition, and he’s showing some creativity with his finishes that is getting him to the line a little more often, but when he’s at a standstill, he lacks the shiftiness or the explosive first step to blow by someone at this point.
As for creating for others, the issue is that Johnson still looks to score first, especially on drives. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, since the Spurs lack threats who can get to the teeth of the defense, but it’s something that limits Johnson’s impact in some cases. Recently, Sean Elliott pointed out that Johnson completely ignored a wide open Tre Jones because he was essentially tunnel visioning on getting a shot up. It was not a rare occurrence. Johnson passes the ball in under 20 percent of his drives and gets an assist in under five percent of them. He’s gotten better at finding dump-offs to the bigs if his way to the rim is impeded, but passing to the perimeter remains something he can’t do consistently.
Now, Johnson not being a shot creator yet is only a problem because the Spurs could really use more of them. The reality is that despite not becoming the type of player that can shoulder a heavy offensive load on his own yet, Johnson is still valuable and has improved on that end. His outside shooting is streaky, but he’s connecting on 38 percent of his long bombs while taking three per game. If he can keep up the efficiency while upping his attempts, defenses will have to close out on him stronger, which could unlock his driving game.
Johnson has also flashed the semblance of a mid-range game. Just as it happens with his outside shooting, his jumper is inconsistent, but if he can start hitting those shots at a high rate, it would help him tremendously. Right now perimeter defenders backpedal when guarding him and bigs stay in the paint after ball screens to deter his drives. If he can punish them with his pull-up, he’d force them to pick their poison. As long as he doesn’t get too dependent on in-between shots, he should definitely make them a permanent part of his repertoire.
Johnson has not developed a go-to move or taken a step towards being an elite shot creator yet, but he has seemingly started to develop counters to the ways opponents try to limit him, which is a big step in the right direction.
Something similar happens on defense, where Johnson has not suddenly become a difference-maker but has showed big improvements when it comes to the little things. He’s not going to awe people on that end like some of his teammates, but he does a lot well. Off the ball, in particular, he’s improved significantly to the point where he typically helps and recovers well to shooters and is ready to fly around and rotate to execute the Spurs’ aggressive defensive system. He might never develop into someone who can anticipate plays and stop them the way Devin Vassell and Derrick White can or be as disruptive as Dejounte Murray, but he’ll get his share of steals, blocks and deflections and for the most part will be where he’s supposed to.
The only real concern about him as a defender comes on the ball, where a full transition to the perimeter might not be seamless. Johnson can handle bigs with perimeter-oriented games and will hold his own in the post unless the size disparity is massive, but he seems to lack the foot speed to stay with elite wings and doesn’t seem to have a great understanding of the proper techniques to navigate screens. Normally the Spurs can just hide him on a power forward or 3-and-D player, but when the opponent’s best perimeter weapon is too big for Dejounte Murray or Derrick White, the team needs Johnson to be a viable option, and at this point, he’ alternates between great plays and bad ones.
Johnson might struggle to get much quicker without losing the weight and strength that make him special, but he might not have to. The glass half full perspective on his ocasional struggles is that because of the defensive prowess of his teammates, Johnson has simply not gotten many opportunities to take on the challenge to guard stars. With more time and reps, he could get better at understanding the nuances of perimeter defense and become a viable option against the big wings of the league, which is all the Spurs need him to be.
Keldon Johnson did not come out of the gates in his third season playing like a future star, like many of us hoped for, but he’s still showing enough growth that the upside for him to eventually become a true difference-maker remains.
As time go by, we’ll get a better understanding of which areas of Keldon’s game are progressing faster, but 15 games into the season, it’s been reassuring to see that he’s improving across the board, albeit slowly.
A leap would be great, but it’s perfectly fine for Johnson to take his time before reaching his significant potential, as long as he get there in the end.