The leap that Dejounte Murray made this season has deservedly received the most attention from fans, since he’s turned into a legitimate All-Star. It has also overshadowed how steadily and surprisingly Keldon Johnson has grown this year.
Johnson is averaging 17 points, six rebounds and two assists for the season while shooting 50 percent on two pointers and 40 percent on threes. While the numbers are impressive, it’s even more interesting how he got them, since his game has shifted significantly twice in one year.
The first transformation came in the offseason and was on display early on. In the 19 games Johnson played in the first two months of the season, he seemed to be trying to develop as an on-ball scorer, with poor results. The numbers were similar to the ones he’s averaging for the season, but the experiments with him trying to create in the post, pick and roll and isolation were showing that Keldon spending time with Team USA and the Spurs needing some shot creation with DeRozan gone hadn’t magically transformed Johnson into a versatile scorer. Despite doing better in all categories recently, Keldon ranks in the 41th percentile in the league scoring as a pick and roll ball handler, the 47th percentile as an isolation scorer and the 20th percentile in the post, according to Synergy Sports. If we include possessions that end in passes in those settings, his rankings fall close to the basement.
It’s probably tough to accept as a young player on the rise that you are not ready yet to get as many touches as you want despite a lot becoming available. On a tanking team and with a more lenient coach, Johnson would have been encouraged to continue to play the same way in the hopes that he’d eventually figure things out. Instead, Gregg Popovich clearly wanted him to change his approach, as showed by the fact that 19 out of the 29 isolation plays Johnson finished came before the new year, as well as nine out of his 24 post-ups. The Spurs seemingly asked Keldon to go back to mostly being an off-ball offensive threat and he accepted that request, despite clearly coming into the season with different aspirations as to what his role would be.
That humility has paid off.
The type of on-the-fly transformation is so rare in the NBA, that it’s easier to find a comparison in an entirely different arena altogether. Those who are familiar with the massively successful Elden Ring, or another role playing game, are probably aware of the concept of a respec. It consists of allocating experience points that were originally used to level up on skill, and moving to them to another one. It’s normally done when a specific build doesn’t turn out to be as effective (or fun) as expected. Keldon Johnson is not a video game character, but the concept of the respec seems to apply to what he did midseason. All that effort he put in to be a primary scorer was switched to becoming the best off-ball threat he could become. And the results have been fantastic.
Johnson is one of the league’s best outside shooters on a type of volume he had never reached before. He’s still a terror when catching the ball on the move on drives to the basket. Over 75 percent of his buckets are assisted, but in situations in which he holds the ball for fewer than two seconds, his effective field goal percentage is 63 percent. He’s in the top 10 among volume spot-up players in the league, according to Synergy Sports, which not only tracks catch-and-shoot attempts in those situations, but also drives that come from them. Johnson went from a below average featured option on offense to elite role player, which is less glamorous but similarly impressive. And his development is still ongoing.
There are flashes that show that Johnson could simply add to his new build, on offense. He’s shown the ability to create for others on drives, especially when it comes to interior passing. He’s also displaying more variety in terms of finishing around the rim instead of trying to brute force his way to the basket. His ball handling remains a work in progress, but every now and then he’ll pull off an advanced move. Johnson could still eventually evolve into a featured on-ball offensive weapon, considering how young he is and how fast he’s progressed so far, but it’s comforting to know that he doesn’t need to in order to be a huge plus on that end. There’s still a chance Keldon becomes a good primary option, but for now being an elite tertiary one will do.
The path to actual stardom for Johnson is unclear. It would likely require either a successful shift into more self creation or significant improvement as a defender. Or it could simply come from continuing to play to his strengths and maxing out his current abilities. A 20-point scorer who doesn’t stop the offense and plays hard is arguably more valuable in the often heliocentric modern NBA than it has ever been in the past, and Johnson could become that without ever developing fancy footwork or elite ball handling.
It would be foolish to project a cap on the potential of a player that has demonstrated the ability to improve as much as Johnson already has in his young career, but it’s reassuring to know that at the very least he has one of the highest floors among players his age. If a new transformation happens, it will be welcomed. But if this is the basic form Keldon has for the rest of his career, he’ll still be incredibly valuable to the Spurs.