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What Keldon Johnson’s season says about his role for the future

KJ has shown he shouldn’t be a first option, but he should definitely be a part of their future plans.

NBA: Denver Nuggets at San Antonio Spurs Scott Wachter-USA TODAY Sports

In July 2018, the Spurs traded Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green to the Toronto Raptors for DeMar DeRozan, Jakob Poeltl, and a first-round draft pick. That selection, the 29th overall, became Keldon Johnson. Considering the organization, the first 80% of his rookie campaign went EXACTLY to plan — he barely played. He amassed a total of roughly 40 minutes in the first 59 games. Then in the spring of 2020, via COVID, the world turned upside down. Fortunately, a bubble formed five months later, and in a couple of weeks in the fall of 2020, up rose Keldon with three games of 20 or more points and many eyebrows.

Keldon always had our curiosity — the high-arching shot, atomic energy, and a physical structure that would make brick walls nervous. But by game five of the post-bubble season, when Keldon, against the Lakers, scored 26 points and hit five three-pointers, he had our attention.

Frankly, no one involved have looked back since. In three seasons, two-hundred games, 13,105 possessions, 6,328 minutes, and 3,468 points (16.8 per game), Keldon has shot league average from theee (35.5%) with a true shooting that also tracks the league average (56.4%). By every metric, he’s been good. In a redraft, one would struggle to find an analyst who would slot him outside the top 10, and Spurs fans would have him around 7. Hence, the Spurs nabbed a top 10 draft talent with the 29th pick— a song we’ve heard before (e.g. Derrick White and Dejounte Murray).

Chart 1: Keldon Johnson’s Usage Last 3 seasons

But it hasn’t all been roses, for the organization’s goals have since changed. The Spurs won 47 games the season before Keldon’s selection, and those totals have steadily declined. Moreover, the decrease has been purposeful, as the front office has cleaved away starters from his rookie season, and with each departure, an increasing load transferred to his shoulders. As the chart below shows, DeRozan departed for Chicago in August of 2021. Derrick White soared to Boston in February of 2022. Dejounte Murray left for Atlanta in June of 2022. Finally, Jakob returned to Toronto one month ago.

When an athlete shows potential, the organization must evaluate his capacity. If an athlete can shoot 38% from three, taking four shots per game, what happens when he takes six? How about eight? League average usage for rotational players is 20%. How does the athlete perform with a usage of 25.0 (e.g., Jamal Murray and Tyler Herro)? How about 30 (e.g., De’Aaron Fox and Anthony Edwards)? Or even 35! (Whoa, Giannis & Luka.) Essentially, everybody breaks. The turnovers increase and the true shooting (equivalent to points per shooting possession) drops significantly below the league average.

With key teammates wearing new jerseys in different cities, this season would be Keldon’s opportunity to explore his developing capabilities. And much to the excitement of Spurs fans, he started the season like the long-range shooting, hard-court version of Cocaine Bear. Fourteen games into the season, he was second only to Steph Curry in three-pointers made while shooting 42.3% with a usage of 27.8. Keldon’s true shooting was over 60% while launching 8.8 3-point shots and scoring 22.7 points per game. Shots dropped from the stratosphere; Big Body screamed, fans cheered, and tanking didn’t seem all that bad.

Chart 2: Keldon’s True Shooting and Usage this Season

To say the good times didn’t stick is an understatement, for the slump that ensued would be the basketball equivalent of a Nick Nolte mugshot. Over the next 11 games, Keldon would plummet to the league’s worst high-volume outside shooter: 21.5% (minimum of 5 attempts per game). Amongst that group, he would also have the worst true shooting percentage (42.1%). Interestingly, we would also see Keldon’s highest usage level (increasing from 27.8 to 30.3.) His two-pt FGA increased from 8.1 to 13.5 per game, while his outside attempts dropped from 8.8 to 6.5 per game. Keldon took four more shots per game, but his scoring average decreased from 22.7 to 19.1 points. More resulted in less.

It was all too much. Taking 20 shots per game against opposing defenses guided by scouting reports only concerned with Keldon and 1.75 other players was too steep of a climb. Overloaded and out-matched as an undersized 6’4.75” 3-4 combo forward, he adjusted his game. Enduring a season where your team loses nearly 75% of its games requires some coping techniques. The rim shrinks, and the blunders become more frequent. To cope, he looked inward—specifically, to the lane. Only 21% of his shots were at the rim during his hot-shooting start. This frequency has nearly doubled to 42.1% since the onset of 2023. He also increased his free throw attempts from 4.8 to 5.5 per game. Moreover, his usage retreated from an excessive 30.1 to a more reasonable 26.4.

Chart 3: Rim and Behind the Arc Scoring (points per shooting possession)

As you can see by the chart above, Keldon compensated for his decrease in three-point efficiency with increased scoring at the rim (Chart 3). This shift in emphasis produced an outcome that likely flew under the radar — his true shooting percentage has been above league average two of the last three months (see Chart 2). Thus, despite losing his outside shot, he found a way to make it work.

Chart 4: Top 50 Scorers in this Season

By several metrics, Keldon is the 30-35th most prolific scorer in the league (see chart 4), which is probably too high. Since his early-season slump, he has only shot 29% from behind the arc in the last 28 games. This lack of shooting was apparent in the Spur’s losing streaks. On a squad with limited shooting, his increased driving further impaired the team’s spacing, making the lane more crowded. He leads the team in minutes, points, and shot attempts in 2023. On a contender, he would be an ideal 3-4th leading scorer feasting on a respectful diet of 3-pointers and rim drives.

Hence the tank. Adding a star to the Spurs and further development from Devin Vassell and a certain Polish army knife would shift Keldon to a more natural, opportunistic role. And in that role, I anticipate we would see his outside shooting accuracy return. Overall, Keldon is here to stay. His contract is amazingly team friendly, and his skillset will fit on any future Spurs team. More time simply needed to determine what that will be.