Before the game against the Jazz, Gregg Popovich announced that Keldon Johnson will come off the bench for the foreseeable future for the Spurs. Julian Champagnie will take over the starting small forward spot.
The young wing had started every game this season before joining the second unit in the game against the Mavericks on Dec. 23, so the decision is somewhat surprising. The reason for the change is to bolster the bench and give Victor Wembanyama and Devin Vassell bigger roles on offense, as relayed by SAEN’s Jeff Mcdonald:
Pop says Keldon Johnson will come off the bench for the foreseeable future to help shore up the second unit.— Jeff McDonald (@JMcDonald_SAEN) December 26, 2023
Part of the thinking is also to give Wemby/Vassell more offensive opportunity.
Julian Champagnie will start for the second straight game.
The move makes sense. Johnson’s usage percentage decreased dramatically from last season and he became more of an off-ball option. His free throw rate went down and his three-point rate increased. He went from ranking first in the team in front-court touches per game last season to fourth this year behind Vassell, Wembanyama and Zach Collins, as he clearly became the third option for the starters. Coming off the bench should allow him the freedom to return to the form he showed in 2022/23, when he had a career year as a first option.
The move should also help the bench, which has not struggled to get points on the board but has lacked consistency. Having Johnson around as a scorer to anchor lineups on offense should give the second unit more direction and if he can continue to assist teammates at a career-high level, he could share the burden of playmaking off the bench with Tre Jones, freeing the point guard to look for his shot more often. Defensively, not having to deal with starting forwards should allow Johnson to have more energy to spend in general and will allow Pop to hide him from some of the least favorable matchups.
The Spurs have been trying new things with their rotations recently in hopes of finding something that works. Having Johnson as a sixth man could turn out to be a good decision that benefits the team and the player, as long as Johnson embraces the new role and Champagnie fits in with the starters as a floor-spacing 3-and-D wing.