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Becoming a playmaker is Keldon Johnson’s next step towards reaching his potential

In this new series, we’ll put the core young players under the microscope, to see which skills they should develop next. First up, Keldon Johnson.

NBA: San Antonio Spurs at Milwaukee Bucks Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

The fate of the Spurs in the 2021/22 season will be determined mostly by internal development. The front office made some solid additions, but the biggest factor will be the growth of the young players, who will be trusted with bigger roles.

With that in mind, we’ll take a close look at some areas of improvement for each core player. As we go through them, we’ll sometimes focus on weaknesses and others on strengths that could become even bigger assets. In all cases, we’ll hone in on very specific skills, so get ready for some nitpicking. To start, we’ll discuss Keldon Johnson.

For Johnson, who is already a quality starter, the focus should be on taking a step closer to stardom. In order to do so, there are several areas he could work on, including three-point shooting and being more disruptive on defense, but we’ll zoom in on two others that are not as obvious but still very important: getting to the line more and becoming a better passer.

Johnson could be a foul magnet if he adds more shiftiness to his game

For a player that is known for relishing contact, Keldon Johnson doesn’t get to the line as much as he should. His 2.8 attempts per game are not terrible for a role player by any means, and he did draw the 37th most shooting fouls in the league last season, but those numbers only suggest he could be among the best in the league at getting freebies. He only needs to be a little more shifty.

Johnson got a big share of his free throws on drives, which makes sense. When he puts his head down and puts the ball on the floor, he’s looking to get to the paint and finish through contact. Strangely enough, the fact that Johnson always goes right at defenders might be one of the reasons why he doesn’t get more trips to the line.

Johnson is a straight line driver who rarely shoots mid-range jumpers or floaters and instead goes straight to the bucket and into the chest of the rotating big, which means it’s easy for them to predict where he’ll take off and stay vertical. Keldon usually powers through them for tough finishes, but there’s often no foul. Similarly, because Johnson goes right into his drive as soon as he gets the ball and focuses on actually getting to the rim instead of drawing contact early, he doesn’t get as many handcheck fouls as he probably should.

Johnson has been incredibly successful with this approach so far, and he might get more calls going forward simply because he gets more respect from officials, but if he could add more variety to his driving game, that would help a lot. Adding a floater or a short mid-range jumper would be a good idea, especially if he gets open after a ball screen. Developing a shot designed to avoid contact might seem counterintuitive if the goal is to get more whistles, but it would make Johnson more unpredictable and eventually allow him to get bigs to go at him instead of waiting for him or to get them in the air on fakes. Stopping suddenly before getting to the rim like he usually does might also get his defender, who will be desperately trying to get back in the play, to bump into him or crowd him.

Basically any change of speed or sudden stop could help Johnson. Trying to get around bigs instead of through them could also help, but Johnson gets blocked a fair amount (17th in the league), so exposing the ball more might not be the best idea. Still, the more variety he adds to his finishing, the better when it comes to getting fouls.

Passing is still one of Johnson’s biggest weaknesses, but there’s hope

While getting more trips to the line would be turning something Johnson is already decent at into a legitimate strength, developing more vision after attacking is more about addressing a weakness.

We’ve talked about this in the past, but Johnson simply doesn’t look to pass enough. To an extent, his unbridled aggression has been his main strength, so he shouldn’t abandon it completely for any reason, whether it be getting to the line more or racking up assists. At the same time, it would be great if he could add more weapons to his arsenal as he matures, and developing more vision would help both him and the team.

Johnson only passed out of drives on a ridiculously low 21.2 percent of the time and had the lowest assist percentage on drives among San Antonio’s rotation players. Again, it’s forgivable because he scores at a high clip when he gets to the rim, but the attention he draws when he attacks often results in one of his teammates being left open. So far, Johnson hasn’t recognized those situations easily. It’s an old problem by now.

Part of the reason why Keldon might not have been thinking about passing in the past in the half court as much is that the Spurs had a lot of non-shooters. His potential assists (passes that resulted directly in a shot) were very low, but that’s at least partially explained by the fact that since he played with the starters, Lonnie Walker IV was the only three-point threat available to him. Johnson assisted him more than anyone else, which suggests that if there are shooters spacing the floor, Keldon will try to find them. Assuming Derrick White keeps improving as a marksman and Doug McDermott (or anyone other than Thaddeus Young) starts, Johnson might have more targets now.

The departure of DeMar DeRozan should also help Johnson discover his inner distributor. While Dejounte Murray and Derrick White are expected to do a lot of the heavy lifting when it comes to shot creation, everyone should get more touches in the half court and be encouraged to keep the ball moving. Johnson was mostly a finisher last season, which meant he barely held the ball or dribbled much. He either tried to take a shot or passed the ball back to a playmaker, primarily Murray and DeRozan, who received well over half of his total passes.

Next season he might get a chance to take a little more time to see if he can create more. It would be particularly interesting to see if he can find cutters if he posts up against smaller defenders but if he only focuses on finding the open guy on drives, that would be a step in the right direction.

Johnson is good despite not having a refined game, which means there are plenty of ways for him to improve. He could become a better three-point shooter or a more disruptive defender, a craftier ball handler or a more accurate mid-range shooter, and any of those developments could make him a lot better. He’s the rare player who is already productive despite having room for growth in almost every facet.

Becoming more prolific as a free throw shooter and assist man, at least on drives, simply feels like two of the most achievable skills for Johnson to incorporate to his game seamlessly. They also happen to be the two things DeRozan provided consistently for the Spurs in recent years, so if Johnson can make a leap in both areas, San Antonio might not feel the lack of a bonafide shot creators as much. Surely a confident player like Johnson will be ready for the challenge.