There are many players in the 2021 NBA Draft that so-called pundits like myself would deem ‘wild cards.’ Some of these guys could be multiple-time all-stars; some could go their entire careers without putting their imprint in the association. This kind of player’s success, perhaps more so than any kind, will hinge on the situation they enter to get the best of their abilities. One player, in my estimation, that exemplifies this phenomenon: Keon Johnson of the Tennessee Volunteers.
Keon Johnson could make an argument that he’s the best athlete in this draft. When you suddenly become Captain Marvel at the NBA Draft Combine and unleash to the world your 48 inch vertical, you won’t get many rebuttals. Keon Johnson’s numbers were not too far off from another kind of player who could’ve been deemed a wild-card entering his draft. Jaylen Brown surely had a lot of promise but was not a sure-fire prospect coming out of Cal. Here’s a rundown of these two’s freshman year statistics per-40 minutes:
I’m not saying that Keon Johnson will be this year’s version of Jaylen Brown. They are nearly the same height, but Brown had nearly 30 pounds on Johnson when Brown left Cal-Berkeley in 2016. But I bring Brown up because the holes Johnson has in his game at the moment were many of the same people thought Brown had when he entered the 2016 draft. For example, Johnson has work to do as a shooter, especially off the bounce. He’s a solid mid-range shooter (important in it’s own right), but when a defender would get occupied by a screen or dare Johnson to shoot by going under it in pick-and-roll, Johnson wouldn’t always be able to capitalize from farther distances:
Tennessee’s offense as a whole didn’t do Keon Johnson many favors either though and oftentimes restricted him from unleashing the force of his athleticism. The spacing around Johnson was reminiscent of a phone booth. Only two Vols shot above 37% from deep this season, so defenses were able to load up on Johnson without fear of repercussion. On top of that, Rick Barnes-led teams are not exactly the most innovative when it comes to executing in the halfcourt. To encapsulate both points: Keon Johnson, one of the best athletes in the draft, posted up more than he cut off-ball during the course of the season. That, in turn, led to possessions like this:
Nearly every Kentucky Wildcat is in the paint on that possession. Keon Johnson tries to back BJ Boston, but gets stripped from behind and turns the ball over. The poor spacing alongside an inconsistent handle played a part in Johnson’s turnover numbers.
It would behoove Keon Johnson to tighten up his focus and discipline a bit as well. Now, I think defense will be Johnson’s calling card to getting playing time early in his career and we’ll get into that in a bit, but there are areas here for him to improve. Johnson can be a bit overzealous and aggressive off the ball.
Keon Johnson is a hound on the ball as well, but sometimes that tenacity gets the best of him in that regard too. This play here is a great example. Watch here how he cuts off LSU’s dynamic freshman scorer Cam Thomas only to bail him out by biting on a pump fake to get Thomas to the free-throw line.
However, those are the kind of mistakes that teams are fine living with, because Keon Johnson makes up for it with his overall defensive play. Johnson isn’t the bulkiest dude, but he compensates with outstanding effort and athleticism. That freakish athleticism Johnson displayed at the combine showed up during the games too.
Yeah, pretty insane for a guard to make that kind of play at the rim. While Keon Johnson can make plays like in the air, he can also clamp people up on the ground as well. Not only does Keon Johnson have the size and athleticism to guard multiple positions, but he also has quick feet to slide with his man and sneaky hands to swipe the ball from his opposition and get deflections. He puts all of these skills to the test here when he gets switched onto Cam Thomas and goes full Andre Iguodala by slapping the ball right from Thomas’ hands.
Keon Johnson uses his athleticism to his advantage on the offensive end of the floor as well. Johnson is already a very good mover without the ball in his hands. The numbers back that up. Johnson generated 1.32 points per possession when he cut off-ball, according to Synergy tracking data via Brian Geisinger on Twitter. Any time Johnson saw daylight in the paint, he seized it, like this play here.
Keon Johnson should be able to step right into the NBA and produce defensively and cutting off the ball like this. Johnson is raw as a creator, though. However, he has shown flashes of what he can do in that setting. Johnson is explosive and quick enough to move defenders playing up on him. People wouldn’t mistake Johnson’s handle with Allen Iverson’s, but here he gains a ton of separation. When he gains that space, Johnson typically looks to punish the rim.
Though Keon Johnson finished the season with more turnovers than assists, I think he’s a solid passer with a good feel for the game. Certainly, he could improve, but he isn’t starting from scratch. When help came to his direction, Johnson typically knew where he was supposed to go with it. This pass off of a Johnson post-up (sidenote: Johnson was pretty decent posting up smaller defenders. While I certainly wouldn’t expect him to be Kobe or Jordan on the block, it’s definitely a nifty tool to have at the next level.) is an example of Johnson’s potential as a playmaker.
Keon Johnson is a raw player. The pendulum can swing farther in any direction with him, more so than just about any other player in this draft. Somewhere in there though is the potential of him becoming a very good two-way player. If not though, I can see him stick in the league as a defensive stopper similar to what Gary Harris has become in the NBA. I do think he can come in right away and impact the game defensively, but his offensive game has some rough edges he needs to sharpen up. If Johnson ends up in a situation with a great player development staff and veterans to help lead the way for him while not putting too much on Johnson’s plate right away, perhaps he will maximize his tantalizing potential. Keon Johnson is a wild-card in this draft, but he’s one that I’d be betting on.