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What Keldon Johnson’s career night says about his future

The second-year forward put himself in rare company after his 20-20 performance against the Cleveland Cavaliers.

San Antonio Spurs v Cleveland Cavaliers Photo by David Liam Kyle/NBAE via Getty Images

The Silver and Black faithful went ballistic when Keldon Johnson became the first Spur since Tim Duncan to tally 20 points and 20 rebounds on Friday. While that performance put his name in the same breath as the greatest player in franchise history, the second-year forward also joined an astonishingly exclusive collection of guys who registered a 20-20 stat-line before their 22nd birthday.

It can reckless to use one outing to predict career trajectory, but when the list of 38 players is home to nine MVPs, 11 Hall-of-Famers, and 11 All-NBA honorees, including Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett, and Shaquille O’Neal, the odds of Keldon developing into anything less than an above-average starter become vanishingly small.

Of course, this group has a handful of duds like Mike Sojourner, Jared Sullinger, and former Spur DeJuan Blair, who were out of the league within a few years of their dominant single-game showing. With that in mind, Keldon doesn’t have the weight, consistency, or injury issues that plagued this trio, and San Antonio won’t have to worry about a limited skill set capping his value at an early age.

Even if you sort everyone by their all-time VORP (Value Over Replacement Player), the median outcome lands you somewhere between perennial All-Stars Chris Bosh and Elton Brand. Although there is no guarantee that KJ will ever become an echelon-bordering organizational cornerstone, he has already exceeded every expectation for a the 29th overall pick.

You could make the argument that Johnson would be the fifth man off the board in a redraft of the 2019 rookie class, a range usually reserved for franchise building blocks like Zion Williamson and Ja Morant. And the NBA is apparently on board with that train of thought to some degree as they made Keldon the only non-lottery pick for Team USA’s Rising Stars roster.

PATFO have undoubtedly unearthed yet another criminally undervalued prospect in the Kentucky alum, but how does he stack up against the other players who meet the 20-20 before 22 criteria? Realistically, he falls in the ballpark of Jarrett Allen but below Deandre Ayton, John Collins, and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. Encouraging territory considering each is under 23 with enough potential to eventually earn an All-Star appearance.

What does the 21-year-old have to do to reach an All-Star ceiling? First, let’s place him in the forward cohort since that’s where he has spent 94% of his minutes this season. From that viewpoint, three of the top determining factors for becoming an All-Star seem to be unassisted field goal rate, free throw rate, and assist percentage — owning top-tier athleticism or another elite trait only improves your chances.

The closest Keldon comes to an outlier talent is as a finisher, where he regularly pulls off acrobatic layups and impossibly difficult and-ones. While the volume is there to qualify among the league leaders in points at the rim, he still ranks in the 43rd percentile in restricted area efficiency in the NBA. And surprisingly, that number drops to the 37th percentile when strictly compared to forwards.

Two of my favorite indicators of future stardom are advanced self-creation and the ability to make those around you better. Keldon occasionally shoots off the bounce and flashes dribble combinations but is primarily a straight-line driver and standstill shooter who relies on others to get him the ball. And while his aggression is admirable, tunnel vision when slashing has led to several squandered opportunities for wide-open teammates.

His unassisted field goal rate (29.5%) and assist percentage (10.4%) are miles away from any forward nominated to the All-Star game in the last five seasons. However, his free throw rate (30.1%) is All-Staresque, regardless of position. And Keldon continues to weaponize his fearlessness for drawing contact in a way many of his peers don’t.

The best players usually provide a massive two-way impact. When it comes to Keldon, there’s no denying he’s a burgeoning stopper who can cover basically any position at any given moment, and the numbers back the eye test. According to BBall Index, he ranks in the 90th percentile in defensive versatility, and his defensive field goal percentage (46.9%) sits just below league average despite guarding 2021 All-Stars on 14.6% of his defensive possessions this season.

There are some things you can’t quantify, and the sophomore forward has a motor that runs white-hot from the opening tip to the final buzzer. That kid-on-a-sugar-buzz energy combined with his active hands, swift feet, sturdy frame, and relentless physicality make him a nightmare matchup who pesters opposing assignments on a nightly basis.

Competitiveness, work ethic, and leadership can’t be measured by statistics either. Gregg Popovich and Spurs veterans and youngsters alike haven’t been shy about heaping praise upon the six-five human bowling ball. And it’s no mystery why their faces light up when speaking about the fan-favorite. His enthusiasm is infectious on the court, he enjoys watching his teammates succeed, and his game is rapidly improving.

Keldon may not be ready to take the reins and lead the Silver and Black to their sixth championship right away. But Pop and his staff are steadily preparing him to carry the mantle of franchise player just like they have many times before.

There’s a reason Keldon Johnson is the center of attention in nearly every promotional video you come across on the Spurs’ social media feed, and it’s not just because of his charisma, contagious toothy grin, or amusing primal shrieks. Those aspects of his personality make him prime marketing material. But his ability to influence the momentum of a game outweighs all the rest.

His ball-handling, long-range shooting, in-between-game, vision, decision making, and patience, among a handful of other facets of his repertoire, must improve for him to make the proverbial developmental leap into a legitimate lead-option. Nonetheless, my money is on Keldon “Big Body” Johnson when it comes time for the San Antonio to lean on a new face to carry them into the next era of Spurs basketball.