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With Keldon Johnson extension, the Spurs have drawn a new timeline in the sand
San Antonio wasted no time in showing commitment to Johnson and the rest of its young core following the unsettling trade of Dejounte Murray.
The Spurs made the reasoning clear when they decided to trade their All Star point guard prior to the start of free agency: They felt a haul of three first-round picks and one first-round swap provided a more solid foundation on which their young core could build than the ever-tightening Dejounte Murray window would’ve allowed. Now, after cashing in on some unexpectedly valuable real estate and unfolding a new set of floor plans, San Antonio has drawn a new timeline in ink.
Shams Charania of The Athletic reported late Friday the Spurs and Keldon Johnson have agreed on a 4-year, $80-million extension that will kick in following the upcoming season — a healthy deal that should prove worth it so long as he continues along his current trajectory.
Johnson was the first post-Kawhi San Antonio draftee in line to become eligible for the rookie-scale extension, and in locking him up the Spurs have made the first big commitment to their current 22-and-under crowd. The front office is sending a message to him and the rest of the group that now is their time; there will be no anxiety or uncertainty prior to the extension deadline, which lands just before the start of the 2022-23 season in October.
But make no mistake: This is a bet on Johnson’s continued development, with a ‘good vibes’ tax thrown in for good measure. On a typical game night, Keldon has essentially been an average NBA starter on both sides of the ball in the early stages of his career. At 6’5 but built like a brick wall, he’s a wing that’s been predominantly masquerading as a ‘four’ on defense because of the Spurs’ general lack of size at the forward position. But despite being undersized, it’s a role that’s allowed him to effectively utilize his skill set, especially considering some of his defensive limitations on the perimeter.
Johnson is much more at home as an interior help defender — bodying up slashers and roll/cut bigs while not getting pushed around by post scorers in mismatches. On the perimeter he’s just fine defending stationary shooters, but quicker guards and wings, as well as movement scorers and shot creators, tend to give him problems. On top of that, despite being active in loose-ball situations (65.3 percent recovery rate, 80th percentile in the league), Johnson is not one to wreak havoc in the passing lanes or at the point of attack. He averaged just 2.4 steals plus deflections per 75 possessions last season, which is just about the definition of average, if not slightly below.
But sweet, merciful help is on the way in the form of Jeremy Sochan, the rookie whose maniacal defense should lift a massive burden off the defense’s shoulders. With the “citizen of the world” in place, Johnson should be able to comfortably play middle linebacker for the Spurs, bumping cutters and rollers off their routes, upping the aggressiveness in the passing lanes, and planting his 225-pound frame and low center of gravity on anyone trying to exploit a difference in height on the block.
Johnson will likely never be considered a lockdown defender, nor will he be more than a physical deterrent around the rim, but his strength and activity are valuable assets on a roster full of skinny dudes. In the grand scheme of things, however, that’s not where he’s going to make his money.
At his best, Johnson is an offensive bowling ball that’s beginning to take ballet lessons. Once solely a straight-line attacker of the rim and glass-crashing bully, he’s developed a finesse to his game that belies his physical nature. Rather than relentlessly slamming into interior defenders and forcing the issue, Johnson has discovered how to leverage his own inertia to create easier shot attempts in the short mid-range area.
Whether it’s his spinning hook over the left shoulder, his power runner or his developing tear-drop game, Johnson has added a delicate touch to his bag of otherwise power-driven tricks. It isn’t always a thing of beauty at this point, but with defenders generally retreating toward the rim or loading up against his downhill momentum, he’s figured out how to effectively take advantage of the extra space. And for a guy who’s had difficulty finishing against length during his short career, this has been an important development.
(Career shot frequency and accuracy, per Cleaning the Glass)
The improvement in accuracy may be subtle, but the added variety illustrated a higher potential for shot creation than what was pictured during the first two years of his career. Because Johnson isn’t a fast-twitch type of athlete who’s going to blow by players off the dribble, the ability to keep defenders off-balance and punish them for selling out and walling off the paint will be a critical element of his game. But very little of this would be possible without his evolving 3-point shot.
I’ve probably buried the lede of the conversation regarding Johnson’s offensive improvements, but the development of his perimeter shooting has been the primary key to unlocking the rest of his game. What was once a moonball that disappeared from your television screen at the top of its trajectory is now a clean-looking, properly arching attempt with a 40-percent chance of going in. He shoots it confidently, whether there’s a man in his face or not, and has become arguably the team’s second-best spot-up marksman behind Doug McDermott. Now that defenders can’t sag off and play for the drive, Johnson has much more real estate with which to work once he puts his head down.
There is one problem, though: His shot process is very, VERY slow, which affects his ability to attack closeouts. Furthermore, because his release is so methodical, his pull-up game from the mid-range to the perimeter is almost nonexistent. Johnson shot just 32.8 percent on 1.7 jumpers off the dribble per game last season, including 21.6 percent on half an attempt per game from the 3-point line. If defenders can comfortably close out without flying by — and after last season’s jump in efficiency, they’ll be on this from the start — it’s going to be more difficult for him to get to his spots without someone hanging from his hip. But there is reason to take a wait-and-see approach when analyzing Johnson’s game in the wake of his new extension.
Typically speaking, when a player’s shot mechanics are altered as much as his were last offseason, it’s just the beginning of a longer process. The Spurs knew teams were generally going to be OK laying off Johnson at the 3-point line, which meant he’d have plenty of open air space in which to work on his rhythm and consistency. But now that muscle memory has been established, it’s time to speed things up and ideally replicate the stroke from different shot setups.
This is hardly a simple task, but it’s damn near a necessity if the team’s soon-to-be-highest-paid player is to continue to elevate his game. If the shot is accelerated with a similar level of efficiency, it means defenders will be forced to close out more quickly, making them more susceptible to pump fakes and ensuing penetration.
Johnson is never going to be the Spurs’ primary ball-handler, nor is he going to be their No. 1 option for the future. But his consistent energy, activity on defense and on the boards, and his increasingly efficient scoring output should make his new contract worth every penny. By the time he’s entering the third year of the extension, after the league has secured a new television deal and the salary cap spikes once again, it’s probably going to look like chump change in retrospect.
But a lot remains to be seen as it pertains to the impact of Murray’s departure, particularly on the offensive end. As one of the beneficiaries of DJ’s high usage rate, more is going to be expected from Johnson as a shot creator, as he’s almost certainly going to see a dip in assisted opportunities without an All Star point guard running the show. Gregg Popovich’s constantly flowing offensive scheme will generate seams and openings, and there will always be opportunities in the open court. But Johnson’s development is going to be tested when things bog down, and the Spurs are banking on his ability adjust and improve as the punches start to land.
From the court to the locker room, even the most out-of-tune ear can gauge the state of the Spurs based on the volume of Keldon’s voice. The yells can be deafening when they’re riding high, but through the ebbs and flows of a young team’s development, the silence can be, too. He’s been the emotional face of the team’s youth movement ever since breaking onto the scene in ‘The Bubble,’ but now that the hype man has been paid and promoted, the greater expectations that come with being part of the featured act are soon to follow.
For Johnson, the real show starts immediately; and if you’re listening along the way, he’ll surely let you know how it’s going.