Spurs

Johnson Giving Spurs Legit Building Block

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The Spurs are winning.

For decades, that’s always been a certainty in the Gregg Popovich era.

But for this season in particular, you’d think the Spurs would want to enter the Victor Wembanyama sweepstakes and race toward the bottom of the league.

Yet again, the Spurs have outperformed preseason expectations. Per Caesars Sportsbook, San Antonio projected to finish in the 22-23 win range. If the winning trend keeps up, the Spurs could up end closer to .500 than previously thought.

Like with much of San Antonio’s successes, most of it has gone under the radar. And now, you can add another player to the growing list of underappreciated contributors over the franchise’s history.

In his fourth season, Keldon Johnson looks great right out of the gates. If the performance keeps up, Johnson will easily be a promising piece for a Spurs team entering the beginnings of a full-blown rebuild.

Serious strides in three-point shooting, playmaking

Johnson’s biggest trait in the NBA is his improvement as an all-around scorer. In four seasons in the league, the numbers show his growth across the board:

  • 2019-2020: 9.1 points per game, 60% FG on 5.2 attempts, 59% 3PT on 1.3 attempts, 80% FT on 2.6 attempts
  • 2020-2021: 12.8 points per game, 48% FG on 10.2 attempts, 33% 3PT on 2.6 attempts, 74% FT on 2.8 attempts
  • 2021-2022: 17.0 points per game, 47% FG on 13.5 attempts, 40% 3PT on 5.3 attempts, 76% FT on 3.1 attempts
  • 2022-2023: 22.9 points per game, 44% FG on 17.8 attempts, 41% 3PT on 8.9 attempts, 78% FT on 4.5 attempts

This season, the biggest surprise from KJ is the efficiency from three on a career-high attempt rate. As a result, Johnson is able to keep the defense on edge.

Additionally, Johnson’s improvement from behind the line opens up the Spurs’ offense, especially his abilities as a playmaker and shot-creator. After averaging a shade under two assists in the past two years, Johnson sits right at four assists per game to begin the 2022-2023 season.

On defense, Johnson continues to play at an above-average-to-good level.

Typically, wings who take on more of an offensive role decline on the defensive end because of the added scoring load. Think of some recent examples, such as Jerami Grant and Brandon Ingram. In a secondary or tertiary role, the defensive effort doesn’t fall off. But as primary options, that trend is pretty common.

So far, that hasn’t been the case for Keldon Johnson.

The Spurs definitely landed themselves a steal after taking him 29th in the 2019 NBA Draft. Playing in his age-23 season, there is still tons of potential left to be tapped.

How high is Johnson’s ceiling?

To date, Johnson’s performance will put him in the NBA’s Most Improved Player conversation. As of now, he remains one of the best value bets on the market. Per FanDuel Sportsbook, Johnson sits at +5000 to win the award, which severely underrated how good he’s been this season.

If the Spurs continue staying around .500 closer to January and February, expect KJ to also enter the All-Star conversation. Despite his performance, it’s a long shot. However, you can’t ignore the value of a legit two-way wing that’s improved greatly as a three-point shooter and playmaker.

Moving forward, there are three things to watch for as Johnson’s career continues.

First, the playmaking numbers are solid but can definitely improve. Can KJ go from four assists to five or six? Is there another level to go to as a ball-handler? The NBA’s best wings, from Jayson Tatum to Paul George, all took leaps in this area.

Next, it’s obviously the three-point shooting. How sustainable is 44% from three on almost nine attempts? Is that Johnson’s ceiling? Will his shooting regress a bit to the mean as this season continues? If Johnson can still chip in 40% on six or seven attempts, that would be a big plus for the Spurs.

Lastly, the general scoring is something intriguing to watch for. Typically, an increase in volume and usage correlates with a decline in efficiency. Johnson’s role on offense moving forward will be a fascinating narrative to watch for.

Johnson’s career within the context of the Spurs’ rebuild

As of now, Keldon Johnson is in a unique position. Technically, he isn’t considered by most in the NBA community as a franchise superstar, or even a fringe secondary star.

But he brings tons of two-way value for San Antonio as the team embraces a rebuild. The team already shipped off All-Star Dejounte Murray while his value was highest. Don’t expect the Spurs to make the same choice with Johnson.

In July, Johnson and San Antonio agreed to a four-year, $80 million extension. So far, Johnson’s play makes that contract look like an absolute bargain.

Heading into next season, San Antonio could sit with close to $78 million in cap space. Youngsters Devin Vassell and Jeremy Sochan will still be on their rookie deals.

Suddenly, a Spurs team looking to tank finds itself in a great rebuilding situation. And, that’s before including San Antonio owning their (pretty valuable) draft pick for the 2023 NBA Draft. Despite the hot start, the Spurs should still be considered in the race for Wembanyama or Scoot Henderson.

So far, San Antonio’s rebuild is off to a fantastic start. Keldon Johnson will be an indispensable part of that moving forward.

Even if, as always with the Spurs, it doesn’t get the attention it deserves.

About Dominic Chiappone

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