The No. 29. In the 52 year history of the San Antonio Spurs, no player has donned such number, yet it carries a fair share of weight. Since 2011, the team has gone on a bit of a streak finding players with the second to last pick in the first round, No. 29.
In the span of nine drafts, the Spurs have used four of their first-round picks on the 29th selection. The players drafted outplayed their draft status and are still in the league. Cory Joseph (2011) is a career spot-starter and 2014 champion; Dejounte Murray (2016) is the youngest player in NBA history to be named to an All-Defensive Team; Derrick White (2017) was a hero during their most recent playoff run, including a game three with a +30 plus/minus; Keldon Johnson (2019) is the intriguing rookie.
With the NBA Draft complete and Summer League action upon us, attention – outside of free agency – is being diverted to the rookie class. With that known, one name, after two days of play, has emerged as the star in the Utah mountains: Keldon Johnson.
Johnson’s first game – against the Cleveland Cavaliers – wasn’t too inspiring, he showed attentiveness as a defender, but he scored just four points on the same amount of attempts; taking a backseat to Lonnie Walker. Perhaps it was due to an adjustment to the altitude, but Johnson didn’t look the part of the same player the next night.
In his second game wearing the Spurs’ black and silver, Johnson was unstoppable. In wake to a 15-point victory, the 6-foot-6 wing racked up 29 points, 7 rebounds, and 3 steals on 58.8% from the field, including a trio of threes supplemented by just one miss — one of those was a half-court buzzer-beater.
Johnson’s 29 points begin to materialize a question looming across the Western Conference. “Did the Spurs do it again?”
Did Gregg Popovich and Ric Buford really luck into yet another gem with the 29th pick in the draft? Like their recent selections at the same pick, Johnson, to the surprise of many, somehow slid all the way to the graveyard shift of the draft festivities. Unlike Joseph, Murray, or White, he’s a wing – one of the Spurs’ most prominent needs entering the off-season.
The 19-year-old Keldon Johnson may present a babyface, but he plays with a particular type of aggressiveness – on both sides of the ball – that San Antonio strives on. As NBC Sports’ Chase Hughes says;
Johnson plays with a lot of passion and is known for wearing his emotions on his sleeve. He brings tons of energy to both ends of the floor and that is a good sign for his potential at the next level.
He appears to be much more than a passionate player; Johnson is athletic as can be, has an NBA-ready body, and has a silky smooth jumper. The wing recorded a 36.5-inch vertical at Kentucky to go along with measurements that include a 6-foot-6 frame (with shoes) with 216-pounds built upon it and a 6-foot-9.25-wingspan.
Johnson’s jump shot is hitchless and has a high release points that make you think “butter” when shooting from the deep range; despite not getting much hop into it. At Kentucky, he shot 38.1% from deep on 3.2 attempts per game.
Keldon Johnson is a prototypical off-ball wing – a significant need for a team with outstanding depth at ball-handling guard. At Kentucky, according to NBA Advanced Statistics, 35% of his possessions came on spot-ups, 12% off-screens, and 34% of his attempts are on the catch-and-shoot variety. He scored 1.184 points per catch and shoot jump shot in the half court — which is in the 79th percentile.
On defense, Johnson is as fiery as they come, as he brings relentless hustle and an acute awareness to the table. He’s competitive and tends to make sure opposition knows. Per NBA Advanced Statistics, he allowed 0.618 points per one-on-one possession in college.
Coming out of Kentucky, he looks the part of the three-and-D wing that is littered through few pro rosters, even earning comparisons to Spurs greats Bruce Bowen and Danny Green. However, he does have his kinks to work out, primarily with the ball in his hands.
Johnson’s decision-making as a passer is not up to par of the Spurs’ standard; neither is his ability to create a shot. Though he found success as a pick and roll shooter, he struggled when it came down to making a bucket for his own. He typically won’t shoot with the ball in his hands after three dribbles and tends to get bogged down in isolation situations.
However, knowing the Spurs developmental schemes and success – they shaped Kawhi Leonard into the monster he now is – Johnson should continue to improve in those areas of concern. Considering that the team rarely gives rookies big minutes, he’ll likely spend time in their Austin G-League team working on these areas, while Rudy Gay and Demarre Carroll play the bulk of NBA minutes on the wing for San Antonio.
The culmination of who Johnson is as a prospect shouldn’t have resulted in a No. 29 selection. The wing may be undersized to play the three in the NBA, but his versatility echoes that of a Klay Thompson-type in that he’s feisty enough as a defender and can work off the ball to where he can play the position.
Nonetheless, it’s hard not to see a perfect home found for Johnson in the Alamo City. His ability to score off the ball is vital to success in the NBA on the wing and is just what the Spurs need. Considering that the team likely won’t throw him in the ringer too early, there is time for his ball-handling and skills to develop.
If all goes right, the Spurs did it again in the draft. Johnson has the floor of a solid roleplaying three-and-D winger, with the ceiling of an elite scoring in the association. NBA teams should learn this by now: don’t give Gregg Popovich an athletic, defensive-minded youngster with a jump shot – the rest will follow suit.