The Whiteboard: Keldon Johnson is the rotation player no one saw coming

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Keldon Johnson has played a grand total of 28 NBA games in his career.

That’s how long it takes for Gregg Popovich and the San Antonio Spurs to turn late first-round prospects into capable rotation players.

To be fair, that kind of statement is something of an oversimplification. Johnson showed signs of life last season as a rookie, particularly in the bubble, and the former 29th overall pick of the 2019 draft deserves credit on his own merit for what he’s showing now.

But no matter how you slice it, it looks like the Spurs have nailed yet another selection from an area of the draft where teams shouldn’t be expected to do so, and certainly not as consistently as they’ve been able to do for years now. At 21 years old, Keldon Johnson is already showing signs of being a long-term fixture with this sneaky-good, young core that includes Dejounte Murray, Derrick White, Lonnie Walker IV and Devin Vassell.

That’s quite a lot of guard and wing depth to contend with, and there’s no question White’s injury-related absence opens up some minutes in the backcourt and on the wing, but Johnson was already carving out rotation minutes for himself in the Orlando bubble, and he’s doing even more with the opportunity he’s earning now.

“When I step foot on the court and I’m going out there to play in the game, it’s just me being myself,” he told the Spurs’ social media team. “Don’t try to be someone I’m not. Just be Keldon.”

Through the Spurs’ first 11 games, the 21-year-old wing has posted 13.5 points, 7.4 rebounds, 2.4 assists and 1.3 steals per game. He’s shooting 44.6 percent from the field, 37.1 percent from 3-point range (on 3.2 attempts per game) and 82.4 percent from the foul line, which he’s getting to 3.1 times per game (second to only DeMar DeRozan at 6.7 attempts a night).

“He’s always at a high level of competitiveness,” Popovich told the Spurs’ social media team. “His motor is always top notch. He doesn’t have a gear as far as anything below maximum. So his enthusiasm is infectious.”

So far, the majority of Johnson’s energy has come in the form of drives — drives, drives and more drives. Heading into Tuesday’s win over the Oklahoma City Thunder, Johnson had 77 drives in 314 minutes, which equates to 8.8 drives per 36 minutes.

While his value as a slasher is easy to behold when he barrels his way with strength and length, he still has plenty of room for improvement as well. Despite a whopping 63.6 percent of his shots coming from around the rim, he’s only shooting 49.4 percent on those attempts — well below the league-average mark of 57.6 percent. Prior to Tuesday night, he had only recorded two assists on drives compared to 12 turnovers, per NBA.com, and 15.6 percent of his drives had resulted in a turnover.

However, watch the compilation of his 2-point attempts this season and his potential as an elite finisher is quite clear. That’s Jonas Valanciunas and Aron Baynes he’s bodying on those relentless onslaughts to the rim. He’s not beguiling defenders on these half-court drives with speed, athleticism or an elite vertical, but rather, bullying them with brute strength and graceful finishing ability after creating and absorbing contact. As you’d expect from a younger player, he’s not always getting the benefit of the foul call, which has contributed to the early shooting numbers not skewing in his favor.

That will improve with time, as he gets stronger and also craftier when it comes to learning how to draw a more favorable whistle. He still needs to improve his ability to adapt when he gets stone-walled while trying to create contact with the ball in his hands, either by kicking it out to a teammate or mastering his body control to the point where he can get off a clean look rather than bounce off one of the trees in the paint and throw up some silly-looking shot.

“Just pace,” he replied to a postgame question interview about what the coaching staff was working on with him. “Not always going 100 miles per hour or going full speed, kinda read your options and see what they give me. That’s just the main thing in film, and when I get in there, look for my teammates.”

Developing that passing ability, and perhaps a floater, will be key to adjusting to the one-dimensional scouting report opponents are starting to fill out for him. However, that’s certainly not the extent of his value to the Spurs either — he’s also a terrific, active rebounder at only 6-foot-6.

In fact, among players 6-foot-7 or shorter, Johnson ranks fifth in the entire league in rebounding at 7.4 boards per game. His offensive board late in OKC Tuesday night sealed another win, which helped the Spurs finish 4-1 on their road trip and return home with a winning record despite starting the season 2-4.

The advanced numbers are far from kind for San Antonio’s sophomore; the Spurs are minus-57 in his time on the court through 11 games, and their Net Rating with him on the court (minus-8.7) compared to when he sits (plus-11.4) is striking. Part of that is the ongoing struggles of the starters and playing against high-caliber competition; part of that is just indicative of how far he has to go still in order to impact winning.

However, considering that he’s only 21 years old, that 11 games is a tiny sample size, and that Keldon Johnson is already flashing some promising skills that will eventually allow him to contribute to winning basketball, the future seems bright for this unexpected rotation piece in San Antonio’s young core.

“This is just beginning,” he said. “Like this don’t mean anything if you get to your goal and then you just be satisfied. You just can’t get complacent…so as long as I’ve stepped foot on the court, I’m never satisfied with where I’m at in basketball, ’cause I feel like I can always get better.”

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