Our preview of the 2021-2022 Clippers season continues with a look at the Clippers’ first round pick of the 2021 Draft, Keon Johnson.
Weight: 185 pounds
Position: Shooting guard
Years in NBA: Rookie
Key College Stats: 11.3 points, 3.5 rebounds, 2.5 assists, and 1.1 steals in 25.5 minutes per game across 27 games played (17 started) on 44.9/27.1/70.3 shooting splits.
Contract Status: In the first year of a standard four-year first round rookie contract, with team options in the third and fourth seasons, making $2.5M this year.
Much like in the previews for Brandon Boston and Jason Preston, a key thing to note for rookies on good teams, especially those outside the lottery, is that expectations should be very close to zero. The same holds true for Keon even though he was the 21st pick in the draft. Just 19 years old and with a very raw game at the position where the Clippers are deepest, it’s very unlikely that Keon will crack the rotation this year, even with Kawhi Leonard out and Paul George shifted up a position to small forward. Garbage time and maybe a stint in Agua Caliente are what’s probable for Keon this year, which means any takeaways are accordingly limited.
Keon’s biggest advantage at the NBA level will be his athleticism, which is remarkable even for an NBA player. He famously set an NBA combine record at the vertical with a ridiculous 48’ leap, and that jumping ability could make him a devastating force in transition, as a cutter, and on designated alley-oop plays in the halfcourt. While the rest of his athletic toolset isn’t quite as exceptional as that leap, he should be a plus athlete in all facets of the game, which makes everything else that much easier.
Keon’s other key strength coming into the NBA is on the defensive end. His athleticism is of course a big reason for that defense being a plus, but other factors are at play too. Defense is at least partially about energy and effort, and Keon’s energy on the court is a constant. He’s always moving, hustling, and trying to make things happen, which is a boon on defense. Keon does also have plus instincts, which he uses to read passing lanes, rotate smartly, and even help around the rim. It’s very difficult for NBA rookies to be pluses on defense, and Keon is no exception, but he might be at least passable on that end early in his career.
Keon’s most significant weakness on offense is simple – he lacks skill and polish in almost every major offensive category. While he has some touch on his midrange jumper and could became a viable shooter in time, he didn’t possess three-point range in college, much less in the NBA. He has some ability to pass and make plays for others, but it’s not natural for him, and he’s certainly not someone who will create offense for others early in his career. Keon’s handles are raw, he doesn’t possess many one-on-one moves or counters, and isn’t an adept finisher despite his leaping ability. In short, his offensive value this season will come largely in transition or on broken plays, which is fine considering how limited his role will be on offense when he does play.
Despite his athleticism and physical traits, Keon is still a 19-year-old who spent only a single season in college, and weighs under 190 pounds as an off-guard. While more advanced than fellow rookies Preston and Boston, and with more natural strength, Keon will still be at a major disadvantage in that element on both ends of the court. He might be able to defend point guards and smaller guards, but will struggle against larger guards and wings, and might have finishing issues on offense despite his vertical ability.
Keon Johnson is an exciting prospect, but Clippers’ fans will probably have to wait at least another year before getting a real glimpse of Keon getting meaningful minutes. Between his raw play, his young age, and the Clippers’ hopes and veteran depth, Keon will probably sit most of this season on the bench barring rapid improvement or a ton of Clippers’ injuries. Still, he should make garbage time a bit more exciting this year.