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As shooting slump continues, Spurs try to get Keldon Johnson back in his comfort zones
It's been a difficult eight-game stretch for San Antonio's emotional leader, but the team is finding ways to put K.J. in positions to prove his game is about 'more than just launching 3s.'
It had been about a year and a half since we’d all thought it disappeared. That sky-scraping, slowly released Keldon Johnson moon-ball from the 3-point line had been replaced by a rhythmic spot-up shot with a flight trajectory that mostly stayed within the frame of your television screen, and efficiency numbers spiked as a result. It appeared Johnson’s tweaked mechanics had led him to a standing among the best in the NBA in catch-and-shoot situations, and it did not seem like a fluke.
But out of nowhere that old form returned, and along with it the inconsistency. At least, it felt as though it had come out of nowhere. Weird things can happen to a person’s brain when elements of life (or basketball) are going terribly, and things have been decidedly terrible for the Spurs on the court over the last month. Injuries have ravaged a roster that simply isn’t built to withstand the absence of a key player or two, let alone five or more, and young players (like Johnson and Devin Vassell) who were already adapting to new, larger roles this season have been tasked with shouldering a burden beyond their pay grades.
Without Jakob Poeltl organizing the offense from the elbow, or Jeremy Sochan cutting, flashing, crashing the glass and running the floor, or Doug McDermott constantly moving and efficiently firing away from deep, or Josh Richardson offering a steady, reliable hand, Johnson has been pressing to initiate offense, and the results are speaking for themselves. Over the last eight games he’s shot just 51 percent at the rim, 27 percent from all mid-range spots, and 20 percent from the 3-point line. He’s shooting less often off the catch and more often on pull-up jumpers, trying to score in ways that are outside of the comfort zones defenses are taking away from him.
Johnson and his coaches haven’t given any specific reasoning behind the slump beyond attribution to the inherent ebbs and flows of the game of basketball. But when human beings are faced with a state of discomfort in relatively unfamiliar situations, we tend to resort to routines and practices that were once familiar, even if they’d recently been altered in a beneficial way.
There’s a reason old habits die hard.
None of this is an attempt to play armchair psychologist, nor is it an effort to filter words into Johnson’s mouth. It is simply a stab at identifying why he’s reverted back to his previously towering touch.
The video below is from the before times — the first half of the season — when Keldon looked as comfortable as he ever had from the perimeter. His rhythm was great, he was maintaining one smooth motion from the gather all the way through the release, and he was letting the ball fly from out in front of his body, which kept the trajectory at an almost perfect angle.
But over the course of the last eight games or so, it’s almost appeared as though Johnson has been running through the steps in his head at times, rather than just stepping into the shot and letting it go. In the clips below, notice how upright he is when he shoots. The transition from the gather to the release seems disjointed, his legs straighten out, and the ball is coming out above his head and sometimes even behind his feet. As a result, it enters a rainbow-like flight path that leaves a smaller margin for error and inaccuracy.
(Also, make sure your sound is on. I chose these clips from recent games specifically because of the commentary. In the first batch, you’ll hear the Oklahoma City Thunder television crew repeatedly mention the arc on Keldon’s shots; in the second batch — from Sunday’s game against the Suns — listen closely and you’ll hear Johnson audibly react to each ball almost immediately, knowing right away they were off the mark.)
Keldon isn’t going to stop putting ‘em up, though. Nor should he. There could be any number of reasons for his current funk, not the least of which being the Spurs simply aren’t themselves at the moment. Without key teammates in place to help the offense function properly, Johnson and San Antonio haven’t been able to maintain the pace at which they like to play, players are trying to backfill roles temporarily vacated by the usual suspects, and the general movement — the team’s offensive lifeblood — has been seriously lacking and often stagnant for long stretches. When basketball is played flatfooted, the lack of rhythm can often bleed into the individual mechanics of any player on any given night.
And yet, as one of the Spurs’ primary options, Johnson doesn’t have much of a choice in his path forward. It’s still pretty simple.
“Keep shooting. Before I was hitting, I was shooting the ball. Now I am going to shoot the ball and I am going to keep shooting the ball. Eventually, it will go in. This is what I work on all summer, this is my job, this is my craft. When it ain’t working, I just keep going,” he said. “My teammates keep trusting me. My coaches keep trusting me. And it will fall. Do I know when? No. But I know I am more than just a shooter when it comes to basketball, so I can impact the game different ways.”
“More than just a shooter” — the key phrase Johnson and San Antonio are homed in on at the moment. Keldon put up only five 3-point attempts on Sunday, his second-lowest total of the season thus far. Instead, the focus was shifted toward literally everything else.
Brett Brown, who’s been temporarily filling in for Gregg Popovich after the head coach underwent a minor medical procedure recently, made a concerted effort to put Johnson in some more advantageous situations against the Suns. He was going to him in the post, working him into spots at the elbows and at the nail in the middle of the floor, and generally trying to get him going downhill to the rim and into the soft areas within the short mid-range.
Not coincidentally, 13 of Keldon’s 17 post-ups this season have come in the last eight games as he works through his shooting slump. He scored all three times he touched the ball on the block Sunday, and he connected on a handful of floaters and pull-ups as well. As potent as Johnson had become from the 3-point line, his strength had always been one of his greatest assets. And as his touch has caught up to the physical side of his game, he’s become more difficult for guards and smaller wings to handle in the paint.
“We tried to post him a little bit, let him play bully ball down there. I think he had a few timely moments, but you always want to help him have more. I think in general trying to help him determine (what his game is). It’s more than just launching 3s. It has to be,” Brown said. “And it’s getting better. You can see how tough he is. Pop’s tapped into him in a bunch of different ways, and it’s part of the excitement of how do you use him, how does he use himself as his NBA career unfolds. The versatility of being a scorer more than just a long shooter is his path.”
But beyond that, Brown has been stressing how critical the energy elements of the game are for a player who’s struggling. So has Keldon. When shots aren’t falling, it can be easy to fall into a trap, to allow the the misses to pile up on the floor and take your mind away from the rest of the game. It’s those other areas that can often reveal the magic elixir for much of what has been ailing a team or player.
“Go to the stats that (show) you’re just busting your tail. It’s effort, it’s aggression, it’s how many rebounds — offense, defense — and how many steals and deflections. That counts for energy,” Brown said. “How many times you get to the rim instead of just settle. That counts for something. There’s a handful of things you can help him with to keep him on track, and we do, where it isn’t just his judgment day of, ‘Did I make or miss the 3-ball?’”
This is the difficult (and sometimes ugly) portion of the development process for players who, up to a point, had only been asked to play supporting roles. The challenges and subsequent struggles when facing new obstacles can create a snowball effect on what feels like a never-ending downhill slope, and weaknesses on both an individual and team level can become more glaring than they’d ever been before. None of it is a fun experience, but to an extent it is a necessary one.
Along the way, as players improve and the organization adds more talent, everything will seem significantly easier — not just because of individual development and roster additions, but because of the added experience as well.
“They’re being groomed and grown, I hope, in a very calculated and responsible way, where we know what we think your game should look like when you’re 27 (years old),” Brown said. “We don’t take our eye off the prize of, ‘What’s the end game?’ And the group lets us coach them. They truly want to get better.”
For Johnson, it’s about patience. It’s about getting back to the roots of his game and trusting in the process and mechanical development that pushed his perimeter shot to a different level. And perhaps most importantly, it’s about rediscovering the perspective that he doesn’t have to press, he doesn’t have to force the issue, and he doesn’t have to win games by himself. None of these Spurs do. Not now.
In his heart, Keldon knows that. He understands this is just a blip on the radar, unless he lets it become something larger in his own head. But he doesn’t seem built to think that way.
“I have been shooting a basketball my whole life. For me, to take steps backward, nah,” he said. “You tweak it a little bit, but other than that, you just keep shooting.
“It will come.”