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Keldon Johnson’s transformative summer has him faster, stronger, “feeling better than ever”

Johnson followed up a career year by dropping 20 pounds this offseason.

San Antonio Spurs v Utah Jazz Photo by Alex Goodlett/Getty Images

If Keldon Johnson looks a little different these days, maybe a half-step quicker on both ends of the floor, you can thank the extra work and change in diet he put in over the summer.

The 6-foot-6 23-year-old heads into his 4th pro season with not only a freshly inked extension, but 20 pounds lighter of frame and, according to him, the physical transformation has him feeling better than ever.

“I feel so much better,” Johnson said ahead of Thursday’s preseason tip against the Oklahoma City Thunder. “I feel like it’s definitely a game changer for me.”

The change-up follows a career season for Johnson, in which he upped his scoring from 12.8 to 17 points per game and complemented his slashing skills by becoming a consistent, high-volume threat from beyond the arc, hitting nearly 40% of his threes on 5.3 attempts per game.

“We started in June,” he said. “Just sitting with my nutritionist, our performance sci, and my chef, as well. Kind of just switched up the diet.” That meant sacrificing some of his favorites, like the Chick-Fil-As and Gus’ Fried Chickens. “I love to eat. All fast food — I cut all that out.”

Johnson said he kept it simple in the early going: “At first, it was just chicken and rice, beef and rice until my body adjusted, and then expanded (on the diet) from there.” He allows himself one cheat day a week. “Nothing too crazy. Just treat myself to something special.”

Known as much for his finishes around the basket as his emergent three-point shot, Johnson’s earned nicknames like the Mustang and Big Body. That physicality’s also lent itself to him shifting up a position until now. Last season he started mostly alongside Doug McDermott and routinely took on the bigger assignment. According to Basketball Reference, 56% of his minutes came at the 4 last season.

Johnson held his own on the glass (6.1 rebounds per game, 10% rebounding rate) in that role, and the Spurs switch 1 through 4 enough for positions to mean a little less, but a nominal shift to the 3 may suit both him and the Spurs, who had their struggles against bigger lineups throughout the year. The arrival of guys like rookie Jeremy Sochan, the presumptive day 1 starter, and Isaiah Roby should help change that.

Said Gregg Popovich earlier this preseason on Johnson this year:

“[Keldon]’s really a wing player. He’s not really a ‘four’, so this is putting him more at his natural position... So he’s a little quicker, he moves better, and he tells me that he looks better, too.”

For Johnson, that should mean more time spent on shiftier ball handlers, which is where being lighter and more fleet of foot should really pay off. It’s easy to overanalyze flashes in preseason, but moments like sticking with Jordan Clarkson on the perimeter and drawing an offensive foul are the kind you want to see him build on in the months ahead. In the least, it’s a bit of momentum for a guy known to get going with a head of steam behind him.

Johnson doesn’t seem concerned that the drop in weight will take away from those more physical aspects of his game. Quite the opposite: “I feel a lot lighter, more explosive. Other than that, I feel stronger than I’ve ever been. As a basketball player, I feel every aspect of my game has been helped.”

He’s still Big Body; there’s just a little less of him.