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Keldon Johnson could be an elite sixth man

Could Johnson be the league’s best sixth man if he accepted that role? The PtR staff discusses that and more on this week’s roundtable.

NBA: Dallas Mavericks at San Antonio Spurs Daniel Dunn-USA TODAY Sports

True or false: If Keldon Johnson comes off the bench next season, he’ll be the frontrunner for Sixth Man of the Year.

Mark Barrington: Normally, any of the San Antonio Spurs getting that kind of attention in the national press would be implausible, but with Wembanyama on the team, the Spurs will be getting tons of coverage. If he comes off the bench all year it’s definitely possible, especially since I expect that he will be dominant playing against bench players.

Bruno Passos: Considering he averaged 22/5/3 as a starter playing 33 minutes a game last season, I wouldn’t hate Johnson’s odds at the award from a sheer production point of view. The points would go down but a rebound in his three-point percentage would make him one of the more potent contributors off the bench. I’d still hold off on considering him a frontrunner given a regression to the mean in his shooting isn’t a given and the Warriors’ Chris Paul (still sounds weird to say it) might have a powerful narrative behind him if he accepts that role in Golden State, not to mention whoever else emerges from the field.

Jacob Douglas: I would expect Johnson to be in the conversation at the very least. He was the team’s go-to scorer last season, and despite a drop in efficiency, carried that load better than expected. My only hesitation is that I don’t see him coming off of the bench all of the time. As it stands the Spurs have six players who project as starters. Are we certain that they are going to have a set starting five? As the Spurs develop around Wembanyama this season, I foresee many different starting lineups, with and without KJ. The question becomes, does he come off the bench for more games than he starts, to earn 6th man of the year eligibility?

Jesus Gomez: If he’s a bench player in name only, then yes. By that I mean that he gets 30 minutes a night and has a similar role on offense than the one he had last season, but simply doesn’t start games for reasons of lineup cohesion. In that case, Johnson can get the numbers to run away with the award, assuming the Spurs are not absolutely horrendous as a team. But it wouldn’t be surprising to see him start a fair number of games so it’s hard to make a prediction.

Assuming the Spurs decide to not go with a huge lineup and Cam Payne is on the roster opening night, should he start over Tre Jones?

Barrington: That’s a tough call, but I like what Tre does to organize the Spurs offense. If Jones didn’t improve his three-point shooting over the summer, I think that Cam might get the nod, but I expect Tre Jones to be much better from long range this year. I don’t have any data to support that, but I know he works hard on his game, and his brother is an excellent shooter, so it’s possible, but maybe I’m just projecting my desires into expectations. If I’m wrong, Cam gets the nod because he’s more versatile on offense.

Both players bring similar things to the team, being undersized point guards who aren’t great defenders, not to mention that Devonte’ Graham is still on the roster, listed as a 6” 1’ point guard. I realize that I’m completely ignoring Blake Wesley, who is going to spend most of this year in Austin. I would hope that the Spurs don’t use all three of the short point guards in the rotation because they are too similar. Jones and Payne might be the shortest combination of starter and backup point guards since Tony Parker and Speedy Claxton ... which, come to think of it, didn’t turn out too badly.

Passos: Choose the guy that just came over on a trade and who we’re not sure may be on the roster and is also five years older than last season’s starter? As important as floor-spacing is and as concerned as I am about opponents converging into a singularity around Wembanyama whenever he touches the ball, Jones should have the inside track given his familiarity with the system, his strides last season, and the confidence that he can still figure out how to put some pressure on defenses that dare him to shoot. I assume there will be a rotation spot for Payne if he’s still around and the team will have plenty of time to gauge whether he becomes a more viable option.

Douglas: Absolutely not. Jones is one of the Spurs best point-of-attack defenders. As a team that was dead last in defensive rating last year, they need a guard who can disrupt opposing ball-handlers. Jones is a stronger pick and roll playmaker than Payne. Those two skills are going to be strong fits with Wembanyama. Payne makes more sense leading the second unit alongside someone like Malaki Branham. I prefer starting the floor general and bringing the scoring guards off of the bench.

Gomez: If the Spurs’ goal was to be the best team possible next season, there would be a case for Payne over Jones. The veteran can shoot, which would be a huge plus on offense, and Jones could bring much-needed defense and playmaking to the second unit. As things stand now, though, it would make little sense to start a 28-year-old on an expiring contract when there’s a much younger option who could actually end up being the better overall player, if he isn’t already.

If you could only keep one veteran and contracts didn’t matter, would you pick Cedi Osman, Reggie Bullock or Doug McDermott?

Barrington: Because you included Doug in the list, it’s not a hard decision, I would definitely choose McDermott over the other two because he provides shooting and he’s a valuable locker room asset. McBuckets should get a lot of open looks with Wembanyama on the court, so I expect his scoring to take a jump next year if he isn’t traded.

Bullock would be my second choice because he’s a starter-level player and is mentally tough and the best defender in the group. That’s not to say that Osman is a bad player, he’s definitely got skills, but of the three, he’s probably the most expendable.

Passos: It took answering this question to learn that McDermott is actually younger than Bullock. Despite the latter maybe being the better overall player, I’ll give another nod to the incumbent. I think some of the Spurs’ better offensive stretches of play since his arrival have come when McDermott’s on the floor and I assume that could continue next season, just because he does a couple of things at an elite enough level to help the young guys find their way.

Douglas: McDermott seems to be the best locker room fit. From what I’ve read and seen, he seems like a strong voice and a well-liked individual on the team. Talent and fit-wise I prefer Bullock. He’d instantly become one of the Spurs best perimeter defenders and shoots over 36% from three. He’s an upgrade to the Keita Bate-Diop role in my mind. Moving McDermott also opens up some opportunities for Julian Champagnie to be used as a movement shooter off of the bench.

Gomez: They could all be useful in the right role but McDermott gets the nod because of his experience with the team. Osman is more versatile and Bullock is the better defender, but Doug knows when to cut when Zach Collins is facilitating off the high post and understands his role perfectly. He’s also never had issues with having his playing time fluctuate. With so many new faces, having a guy who has proved he can fit in San Antonio is more valuable than getting a small upgrade in my eyes.