Keldon Johnson burst onto the scene in the bubble and immediately became a fan favorite. At the start of this season, he cemented his place in the the starting lineup for the San Antonio Spurs, becoming one of the brightest gems of the young core. After such a rapid ascent, it wasn’t crazy to expect a mid-season leap.
It hasn’t happened and it doesn’t seem like it will, which is completely fine. His production remains impressive and his potential tantalizing even though he hasn’t developed new skills during the season. His quick progression might have slowed down, but it was so fast before that he’s still ahead of schedule.
In a way, Johnson is a victim of his own success. His work in the bubble already had fans giddy about him, but he really raised the expectations for himself early in the season. In his first 10 games, Johnson shot almost 40 percent from beyond the arc, averaged seven rebounds a game and had plenty of highlights. In the 10 games after that, his outside shooting plummeted but his drives became a deadly weapon, which allowed him to average 53 percent from the field despite shooting under 30 percent from three, to go with 4.5 free throw attempts a game. At first, it seemed like he had addressed the biggest weakness in his game, but even when the shooting proved unsustainable, he kept being effective by bullying his way to the rim.
It was hard not to think he had another gear when he seemed to be getting better almost by the game. The fact that he had electrifying moments made it even easier to place him near the top of the roster in terms of impact and upside, even if the team stats didn’t favor him. But then all that momentum stopped.
At some point between a COVID-related absence and the All-Star game, Johnson went from being prodigious to simply solid. His rebounding tapered off, his shooting remained inconsistent, the drives that had fueled his offense earlier were harder to come by after teams scouted him, and the lack of shot creation for himself and others became more obvious. While still being definitely good enough to earn his minutes, Johnson settled more into a role player’s rhythm of occasional excellence surrounded by mostly decent performances. Since his return from the safety protocol, he’s been playing 27 minutes a game and averaging 11 points and six rebounds while shooting about league average from beyond the arc on a limited number of attempts.
Those numbers are undoubtedly good for any fourth starter, but especially for a 21-year-old late first rounder on his first season as a full-time rotation player. Yet those flashes from earlier on in his career might have raised expectations to such a degree for both fans and analysts that the new reality can be slightly disappointing. It definitely shouldn’t be for a multitude of reasons, some more obvious than others.
Johnson’s age, experience and even draft position make most of his flaws excusable. Beyond that, the fact that he’s playing out of position hides some issues while it exacerbates others. Johnson is a natural small forward who has been asked to play power forward full time out of necessity. As a “big man,” his lack of defensive playmaking and court vision are not huge issues while his adequate shooting can even be considered an asset. That would not be the case at the wing, but the value of his physicality, rebounding and positional defensive versatility would be enhanced significantly. The fact that he can be productive without exploring the more perimeter-oriented side of his game consistently is impressive.
If there is something concerning about how Johnson’s skill tree has grown so far, is that it hasn’t expanded in any particular way far enough. Being well rounded and versatile is great for a role player, but stars tend to have specialized skills. For perimeter players there are usually two main routes: shooting or ball handling. At this point, it’s hard to see Johnson developing into an elite marksman or a dribbling wizard, but he could eventually become good enough at both for it to not matter. It’s the path taken by a lot of the elite small forwards who were not considered preternaturally skilled coming into the league, like Kawhi Leonard and Jaylen Brown. Their handle is good enough to get them to their spots, where their strength and athleticism do the rest; their shooting is reliable enough to make them scary off ball threats.
It’s probably premature to be thinking about how Johnson could become a star in the future, especially if that focus takes away from the real contributions he’s making now. Even if he remains at the power forward spot going forward because of roster composition and slowly hones the skills needed to become a Marvin Williams-Gerald Wallace hybrid, Johnson would remain an extremely valuable piece of the Spurs’ young core. No positional switch is required and no big leap is actually necessary, even though one would surely be welcomed.
Johnson made so much noise when he first broke into the rotation that it feels almost insulting that he’s nearly taken for granted now, as the fan base focuses its attention on the development on other promising young players. But it might be the ultimate compliment that in his second year he’s essentially thought of as a veteran.
Some young players have their breakout moments before later impressing with consistent production. The process often takes years, but Johnson has done it in under a season. He’s so far ahead of schedule that it might seem like he’s lagging behind, like a leading race car about to lap the last place. But those who have been around for the ride from the start know better.