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Keldon Johnson is struggling to be the first option the Spurs need him to be

Johnson is doing his best to adjust to a much bigger role, but so far it seems he might be better off in a smaller one in the future.

NBA: San Antonio Spurs at Oklahoma City Thunder Alonzo Adams-USA TODAY Sports

With Dejounte Murray gone and fresh off signing an extension, Keldon Johnson arguably became the temporary face of the Spurs franchise. The charismatic young forward stepped up into a leadership spot and saw his role increase heavily on offense while changing positions.

The results have not been bad at all, as Johnson is averaging career highs in points and assists, but so far there have been some subtle warning signs about the scalability of his game that suggest Johnson can play the part of a top option on offense well enough on a bad team, but he might be at his best on a smaller role in a squad with bigger aspirations.

It’s important to be fair to Johnson and point out that this Spurs team was designed to throw him into the fire as a scorer and creator and on top of that has suffered numerous injuries that have made it tricky to develop the necessary chemistry with teammates. Such a drastic change in the size of his role was always going to involve some growing pains and the desire to prioritize the development of Jeremy Sochan instead of providing good spacing for a starting unit that featured two other non-shooters essentially meant having Devin Vassell and Johnson play on hard mode. On top of that, the focus on transition play at least partially explains the team-wide issues with turnovers that have also affected Keldon. There’s nuance to some of his struggles or lack of improvement. That being said, there are still some issues that seem worrisome.

Even the good has caveats. Johnson is boasting a first option’s usage percentage and is producing in volume to the tune of 21 points and three assists per game. The question is how much of that production is simply a direct result of usage alone. In the simplest of terms, Johnson is scoring more and dishing out more assists but is doing so while being inefficient and turnover-prone. It’s not like any player could get the numbers Johnson is getting simply by shooting and handling the ball more, but he does have the second-lowest Effective Field Goal Percentage out of all the players in the league that have a usage percentage over 25 behind only Terry Rozier and barely edging out Bones Hyland. The only players with that usage and a worse assist-to-turnover ratio are a few big men as well as Kelly Oubre, Norman Powell, RJ Barrett, Jalen Green, Kyle Kuzma and Jaylen Brown. Not terrible company, but not the best either for someone trying to expand his playmaking horizons.

Beyond just the raw numbers, other concerns appear. Digging deeper into his assist numbers it becomes clear that transition opportunities are helping Johnson get better stats. He averages almost one turnover per assist in the halfcourt, according to Synergy Sports. In transition, he averages 2.33 assists for every turnover. It would be unfair to criticize Johnson for getting better assist numbers on the break since most players do, or complain about him thriving in a setting the coaching staff accentuates, but it’s important to put his improved playmaking in context. Even more concerning is the fact that despite seeing a jump in minutes per game and usage, he has only marginally improved in terms of secondary assists from last year from 0.3 to 0.4 and is actually creating fewer points per assist than in the past.

Again, nuance is important. The part about fewer points per assist can be attributed to a lack of three-point shooters around him to a degree, and while the secondary assists are more worrying since they seem to point to Johnson not actually breaking down the defense and triggering the type of rotations that results in an open look, they don’t necessarily indicate a complete lack of progress as a creator. No one could have realistically expected Johnson to make a huge playmaking leap overnight anyway and while the numbers are not particularly encouraging, the eye test has shown that he has improved his vision and passing ability at least marginally, which could be enough for now. After all, there are star wings who either never develop their passing to elite levels or take long to do so but are still cornerstones because of their scoring and defense. But does Johnson fit that mold?

It’s nearly impossible to analyze defense on a young team like the Spurs, especially after so many injuries, but scoring is somewhat easier to isolate and there are some warning signs there as well. Johnson went from shooting a very solid 40 percent on three-pointers in 2021/22 to a below-league-average 34 percent this season. The decline can be largely attributed to a larger portion of Johnson’s threes being of the pull-up variety, which has never been his strength in part because he struggles to create separation, and to the fact that he’s getting fewer wide-open looks now. But he has also shot much worse on lightly contested long shots, going from connecting on 40 percent of shots with a defender between four to six feet of him last season to now shooting just 33 percent on such attempts. His struggles got so bad that he went from shooting well over eight threes a game in the first two months of the season to taking only five a game in December. And he’s actually shooting them worse now, making just 28 percent from beyond the arc in the last 10 games.

Even reliable three-point shooters can get cold and lose their confidence for a while and Johnson’s game has always been predicated on his ability to drive more than anything. Alas, the numbers don’t paint a pretty picture in that area either. Among players who average at least nine drives a game, Johnson has the fifth-worst field goal percentage on drives in the league and the fourth-lowest assist percentage. Not everything is bad, fortunately, as Johnson gets to the line at a high level and doesn’t turn the ball over often. It’s also fair to point out that two other Spurs, Tre Jones and Devin Vassell, rank worse than him in field goal percentage on drives, which possibly points to a team-wide issue with spacing, and that Johnson has improved his numbers dramatically in December, when he focused on getting to the rim more than in past months. Still, for a player whose driving ability is supposed to be his signature skill, the devolution in field goal percentage and assist percentage on drives from last year to this one has to be a little concerning.

There’s not a lot more on offense that really stands out. Johnson is posting up a little more but remains inefficient and somewhat turnover-prone in that setting, according to Synergy Sports. He’s taken a small step back as a pick-and-roll ball handler, but that was to be expected with added responsibility and defensive attention. He’s largely staying away from taking mid-range shots, which is the right idea for now since that’s not an area in which he has traditionally done well and definitely one in which he has struggled greatly this year. He was never a great offensive rebounder, but the move to the wing has made him even less impactful there, which was predictable. Johnson looks very similar to the player he used to be, only less efficient in a bigger role.

There’s nothing wrong with that, of course. The entire purpose of this season is to help young players figure out what they can and can’t do and work on fixing their weaknesses. There have also been subtle improvements to Johnson’s game that numbers simply can’t capture and deserve their own breakdown. The entire point of doing checkups like this one is to figure out where a player is in their path to reaching their potential, not to determine exactly what their ceiling is, since development is rarely linear.

That said, one of the questions the Spurs are surely eager to figure out this year is whether Keldon Johnson is ready to be an efficient and versatile first or second option they can build around. While it’s too early both in the season and Johnson’s career to be confident that the answer is “no” it seems fair at this point to at least say “not yet.”