Keldon Johnson: Role

keldon-johnson-background.png

Strengths

  • Solid frame for a wing

  • Good shooter off the catch, with flashes off movement & dribble

  • Excellent closeout attacker

  • Sneaky-good passer

Weaknesses

  • Subpar athlete, with limited explosiveness & agility concerns

  • Limited ball-handling & tools, greatly restricting his self-creation

  • Though engaged defensively, makes little impact on or off-ball

Offensive role at Kentucky

Johnson’s role at Kentucky is primarily off-ball, with just occasional usage as a ball-handler in transition or the pick-and-roll. His most frequent play type is spotting up, where he is equally dangerous both catching-and-shooting and attacking closeouts (over 1.2 PPP in either case). He also gets a few scoring opportunities per game off movement, whether cutting to the rim or running off screens. In a limited sample he has shown the ability to square up and drain jumpers off movement, a skill most wings develop later in their college career, though he hasn't quite mastered reading defenders while on the move. He also does a good job filling lanes in transition, though his lack of both ball-handling ability and explosiveness is a limiting factor in the open court.

Offensive role projection -

Off-ball threat

Johnson’s role at the next level won’t be overly complex, but it will be valuable. His primary function will be spotting up and attacking closeouts, just like at Kentucky. His ability to space the floor from above the break leaves the corners available for weaker shooters. His decisiveness off the catch will contribute toward a good offensive flow, and his passing ability while moving downhill will allow him to be a play-through player rather than simply an endpoint for possessions. This role isn’t glamorous, but it’s also the archetype that many teams are searching for around the trade deadline every year because these players fit into any offense without limiting the focal points.

Johnson’s upside rests almost entirely on how his off-movement game develops. His shooting mechanics are a mixed bag, but generally effective. He does a good job of squaring up his shoulders to the rim when coming off movement, with impressive side-to-side accuracy. Developing better distance control will be the key, but he seems to be ahead of the curve overall as an off-movement shooter. Few players emerge as legitimate threats on these higher difficulty shots, but the possibility provides a modicum of upside for a player that otherwise is not very dynamic.

Defensive role at Kentucky

Johnson plays as the 3 in Kentucky’s man-to-man defense, typically the only wing on the floor along with two guards, a forward, and a big man. He seems to have a good understanding of his role within the scheme, and for the most part remains engaged on the defensive end. However, although he makes few technical mistakes, his lack of dynamism is perhaps more evident on this end of the court than on offense. When on the weak side he lacks the requisite anticipation or burst to jump passing lanes or the length and explosiveness to make an impact when helping at the rim. On-ball his length often provides him an edge, but against more dynamic athletes it often isn’t enough as his lateral agility is subpar. Kentucky typically has impact defenders behind him to clean up the mess or simply dissuade a player from driving in the first place, but he is one of the less impactful defenders on this strong defensive team.

Defensive role projection -

Hidden defender

This end of the floor is a legitimate concern for Johnson’s long term projection. However, his solid frame (6’6” tall, 211 pounds and a 6’11” wingspan) provides enough positional flexibility that teams should be able to hide him from the more dynamic offensive players in the league. He does a good job on the defensive glass, vacuuming up rebounds at a high rate for a wing. Combined with his solid motor, staying engaged throughout defensive possessions, this may be enough to limit the damage on this end. However, most 2-guards in the NBA will simply be too quick for him, which means he will often be forced to play up to the 3 where his frame is merely average relative to NBA opponents.

Why Johnson will earn minutes as a rookie

Spacing is the name of the game in the modern NBA. If you aren’t a star, you are expected to provide the stars with room to work. Johnson can play that role immediately, while being efficient and decisive as a play-through player in a low-usage role. His frame should provide the flexibility he will need to fit within a team defense, and his positive impact on the boards will be appreciated by his NBA coach. Developing his playmaking and shot creation will greatly bolster his stock, but his other offensive skills won't necessitate him being a prolific passer early. He will need to knock down open shots and not get exposed when defending to stay on the floor. Teams spend tons of capital trying to collect high-floor players who provide versatility; Johnson has it out of the gate and should be able to help right away.

Why Johnson’s minutes may be limited as a rookie

The big question is whether NBA teams will bother accommodating Johnson’s defensive limitations simply to get another shooter on the floor, particularly one with so little on-ball juice. While he may fit in many lineups, there may simply be better options available in the team’s rotation early in his career. Moreover, wings are typically expected to shoulder part of the shot-creation load in the NBA. If he ends up on a team lacking in playmakers it will be difficult for him to earn minutes over more dynamic wing options. The archetype of ‘three-and-D’ wings has become a part of the NBA zeitgeist, known to media and fans alike as a precious commodity in the league, but even within that valuable role players must fit in the system. Johnson holds tremendous value (though he isn't quite enough of a defensive bulldog to earn the coveted moniker), particularly for a player his age, but he still needs certain kinds of teammates (namely, a rim protector capable of rotating from the weak side and a primary initiator who can handle the bulk of the ball handling duties) to stay in the rotation.