Keldon Johnson unplugged: On growth with Spurs, Victor Wembanyama’s early days and more

SAN ANTONIO — It’s been four years since Keldon Johnson was drafted, but when the Kentucky product harkens back to his rookie season, his self scouting report lines up perfectly with Gregg Popovich’s. Back then, the legendary San Antonio Spurs coach referred to the then-19-year-old Johnson as “a bull in a china shop.”

Now 23, Johnson fully understands what Popovich was talking about, recalling his younger days with a smile.

“Coming in, I was definitely a driver,” Johnson told The Athletic. “Hard right, catch and rip, and I just kind of grew my game from there.”

Because of the rare nature of Johnson’s entrance to the league — the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent Orlando bubble during the 2019-20 season restart — his development and experience differ from other young players. Johnson joined a Spurs team that was littered with veteran names such as LaMarcus Aldridge, DeMar DeRozan, Patty Mills and Rudy Gay, to name a few. As a result, his role and expectations were stark contrasts to now, when he’s become an offensive engine for a rebuilding franchise.

“I kept it simple,” Johnson said of his rookie season. “Do what my teammates need me to do. Defend, and when I got the ball and I was open — if I was that wide open — I’d take the 3. But usually, I was trying to get downhill, get some contact, get to the free-throw line.”

San Antonio had the likes of Dejounte Murray and Derrick White shouldering the playmaking load when Johnson first arrived. Per Synergy, Johnson logged just 13 pick-and-roll possessions as the ballhandler in the 2019-20 season. Last year, that number was 286. Johnson’s offensive role has shifted to fit whatever San Antonio needs, a big reason the Spurs signed him to a four-year contract extension last summer that could total $80 million if certain incentives are reached. If they need him to space the floor and be a spot-up shooter, he’ll do it. If they ask him to attack gaps in defenses and drive-and-kick, he’ll do it. The Spurs have referred to him as a Swiss Army knife because of his unselfishness and overall versatility.

Keldon’s Offensive Snapshot

Play Type % Time Points per Possession %ile

Spot Up




P&R Ball Handler
















Off Screen








Heading into his fifth season, Johnson wants to become a better defender and hopefully see that translate to more wins as a team. Historically, the Spurs have been a better offensive unit with him on the floor. Now, with teammate Devin Vassell also locked up on a long-term extension and No. 1 pick Victor Wembanyama in tow, Johnson is a part of what seems to be the early etchings of a new organizational fulcrum. Johnson has taken on a leadership role with this young group while continuing to develop his own game within the Spurs system.

Ahead of the new season, Johnson sat down with The Athletic to talk his growth, the early impact of Wembanyama, the chip on his shoulder that continues to grow and much more. Parts were edited for clarity and brevity.

Spurs forward Keldon Johnson focuses during Spurs training camp. (Photo courtesy of the Spurs)

You never got to play with the likes of Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobli and Tony Parker in San Antonio, but Gregg Popovich is the one constant that has remained throughout. Have you felt “The Spurs Way”?

Yeah, definitely. It’s a culture here. Each and every day, we’re held to a certain standard. Some things, when you walk around here, you know it’s just Spurs culture. I feel like, as far as the standard and how we are and looked at, it’s no different.

Last season was somewhat of a transition period for you guys, obviously now fully entrenched in a rebuild. How did you see your role change? As a rookie coming up, there were different guys around you who had been in the league for a long time. Now that you’ve taken on a bigger role as leader, how has that process been?

Last year, I definitely was growing. I feel like I grew as a leader. It wasn’t the role that I expected to have; we unfortunately made some trades. But I took that role in and was ready to learn and work. It definitely came with ups and downs, but I mean, that’s in any NBA season. But I feel like I grew so much from last year, and I continue to grow now. Transitioning into this season, I’m here to definitely show what I can do, but I’m here to win some basketball games. We don’t really know how that looks as an offense, but whatever position I’m put in, I’m gonna go out and compete and be ready to win. I definitely feel like I’m a big part of this team on the court and off the court leadership-wise. I’m just ready to get to work.

Statistically speaking, most advanced metrics point to the Spurs’ offense being better with you on the court over the last three years. You operated in somewhat of a point-forward role last season, having the ball in your hands. Is that how you envisioned your role in the NBA? And if not, how did you grow into that Swiss Army knife role?

The year before last year, I played a lot off the ball — I had Dejounte Murray as a point guard, an amazing point guard, he was like my big brother. And I just kind of transitioned over (to a different role). My teammates, we had guys out. We had an unsteady lineup last year, and I just adapted. If I needed to handle the ball, I did that. If I needed to make plays, I did that. I just continue to grow. I feel like it helped me out a lot being able to show the dimensions of my game, me being able to handle the ball, play off ball and do whatever my team needs me to do to win.

It seems like folks outside of San Antonio might not be as privy to your impact as the team’s engine. Does that come with winning? And if so, do you feel any need to prove anything this season to “doubters”?

I definitely always have a chip on my shoulder to prove, because I feel like every year, it’s always ‘something else that Keldon can’t do’ and I always prove them wrong. Same thing this season, I’m not worried about the media. The only thing I worry about is the guys I step on the court with, my teammates, on the court and in the locker room. That’s the only thing I worry about. They can say what they want to say, my teammates know I work hard and they know that I want to win. So regardless of media speaking, it doesn’t bother me. If anything, it just makes me more ready for the season. It makes me hungry. It keeps that fire lit.

Victor Wembanyama has come in as the No. 1 pick with a lot of expectations on his shoulders, but it’s on people like yourself to help get him integrated into the system and acclimated to San Antonio. As a leader, how has that process been with the first few days, first few weeks with him on the court? 

It’s amazing, man. He’s probably one of the most humble people I’ve ever been around. There’s a lot of hype around him, but I feel like that doesn’t bother him. That doesn’t change who he is as a person. Every day, Vic’s smiling, happy, ready to go out here and learn and play, and there’s no complaints. And I feel he’s going to make us better, not only on the court, off the court as well. He’s a great human being.

Jeremy Sochan and Keldon Johnson

Keldon Johnson defends Jeremy Sochan at Spurs training camp. (Photo courtesy of the Spurs)

You mentioned earlier not really knowing what the offense will look like this season. As far as your role is concerned, have there been any discussions with the coaching staff on how you’ll be used? 

We’re still figuring it out. We’re learning, they’re learning each and every day on how we’re going to be playing. But expectation-wise, I’m ready for whatever. I feel like I put in the time and hard work this summer to adapt to any situation I need to be in, whether it’s on the ball or off the ball. Just plug and play, whatever I need to do and I’m prepared. I’m prepared to do that.

Are there any other players’ games you watch on film? Was this summer specifically about focusing on your own game, or do you take bits and pieces from your colleagues as well?

There are definitely players I like to watch. I like to watch Russell Westbrook, his passion for the game, the engine that he has going up and down the court is undeniable — he won’t be denied. But I’m my own player, in a way, and I lock into that, get in my zone. I definitely break down a lot of film myself and try to improve on the things that I didn’t do too well last year.

So when you watched your own film, what’s one thing you didn’t do so well last season?

I feel like defensively, I was out of place a lot last year. I got caught in an upright position, standing flat-footed and not ready to move on the ball and make plays. And I feel like that’s going to be a big change for me this year.

This coming season, between yourself and Devin Vassell, there’s going to be a lot of scoring responsibilities on your shoulders. I know you led the team in scoring last year, and although San Antonio had a rough year, you showed real potential as a go-to scorer. But how confident are you in assuming that role if it necessitates it?

I’m definitely confident. That’s what I work hard for, I strive for. Fortunately, I have an amazing, amazing shooting guard Devin Vassell. It’s always good to know that when I don’t have it going, I have somebody that can pick it up for me. And when he necessarily doesn’t have it going, I can do the same. We play off each other a lot. But I feel like I put in the time and make the appropriate sacrifices to where if I need to be put in a position to be a go-to scorer, I can do that as well.



Victor Wembanyama delights Spurs fans during scrimmage: ‘I’m here because of Wemby’

(Top photo: Scott Wachter / USA Today)

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