The San Antonio Spurs are one of the most storied franchises in the NBA. The Texan team has an amazing history. It now tries to build back for the 2022 season by finding a training camp surprise who can grow into a force on the new roster.
Under the current coach, Gregg Popovich, the Spurs had 20 seasons of 50 or more wins in a row. They made the playoffs 22 years in a row, only breaking the streak in the last two seasons. Of course, they also won five titles and had one of the most successful and longest-running big threes in Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, and Tim Duncan.
Now, their roster is looking very different. The leaders are young guys, and the team is in full rebuild mode. Young guns like Dejounte Murray, Lonnie Walker, and Joshua Primo are poised to become the stars of the franchise. Guys like Jakob Poeltl and Luka Samanic are looking to get as many minutes as possible, while Doug McDermott and Zach Collins are seeking second chances in the league.
There has been one surprise in the works over training camp – that is the game of Keldon Johnson.
Spurs training camp surprise
It would be unfair to say that it has been a total surprise. Johnson has been invited to the Tokyo 2020 Olympic US team, but aside from some preparation games, did not feature much. Still, with the whole NBA at his disposal, Popovich selected Johnson and all the guys in the team were happy with his contribution to the squad. Due to the nature of the NBA today, sometimes it is forgotten that players can contribute to the team in a different way possibly not shown by the stats.
However, in terms of his play for the Spurs, Johnson’s help has been shown in the stats. In the three preseason games so far, Johnson has been in double digits in all three games, scoring-wise. He scored 10 in the opener versus the Utah Jazz, 18 in the loss to the Detroit Pistons, and led the Spurs with 23 in a loss to the Miami Heat. Johnson averaged 12.8 for the whole of last season, so these are promising signs in terms of his offense.
With the way this squad was built, most people were convinced that it will be Murray who takes over the team. It was clear that, although a huge prospect, Walker was not going to be more than an incredible defensive player with limited offensive skill. Poeltl is slowly becoming a good rotational piece, while other prospects on the roster are either one-dimensional, like Derrick White, or still too raw to really assess, like Luka Samanic. However, the Spurs seem to be handing over the keys to Johnson.
It is beyond stating that Johnson still has a ton of room to improve. Firstly, he is a wing scorer in the modern NBA that does not have a consistent three-point shot. During this preseason, he shot around three shots from behind the arc, shooting 22.2%. That is obviously abysmal and will need to improve. Additionally, he needs more offensive versatility, which he can only get by improving his handle. It will be Murray, Walker, and Primo holding on to the ball, but Johnson needs to perfect his dribbling skills to get past his opponents.
That all being said, it is still visible, even in preseason, that Johnson has taken a leap. Maybe not all the numbers will be behind this statement, but his play on the field speaks for itself. He is poised to become the leader of this team for the future. As it was stated above, he was not invited to Tokyo just because Popovich is the coach of the Spurs. If that was the case, there would be issues within the team itself. Johnson has tons of potential and after a rollercoaster of a rookie season, where he alternated between the NBA and G-League, he finally has a place to show it.
With all the respect possible to the Spurs, even if Johnson takes a giant leap forward, it will not be enough. The Spurs roster is simply overmatched in the rough Western Conference. Even fringe, possibly playoff teams, like the Pelicans, still have stronger squads, on paper, than the Spurs. Of course, that is not the end of the world. They still have tons of young prospects who will be getting a lot of time to play, which is something they desperately need in their young career.
If Keldon Johnson is given the keys to the franchise in terms of leadership, that will be based on Popovich’s judgement and on Johnson’s great work, including this training camp. As it is widely known, the judgement of coach Popovich is not something that should be questioned and it is something that brought the Spurs five rings and a place in NBA history.