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How Keon Johnson can hit the heights for the Clippers

Keon Johnson’s youth and physical tools suggest he has much room for improvement.

2021 Las Vegas Summer League - LA Clippers v Milwaukee Bucks
The LA Clippers’ Keon Johnson shows off his hops
Photo by Bart Young/NBAE via Getty Images

Welcome to our 2021-22 Clips Nation season preview series, where we’re digging into something that interests us about each player for this coming season. Next up, can Keon Johnson make a mark in his freshman year?

I tend to use the 2002 World Cup as a barometer of age, telling people that it’s the first big sporting event I can remember watching in my life to give them a point of reference (and sometimes to mock older people). This has since turned around on me as I meet more and more fairly grown up people who weren’t even born when the tournament took place. This hit me like a train when reading through the Los Angeles Clippers training camp roster, as my attention was grabbed by the mention of 2002 in the date of birth section next to Keon Johnson.

In spite of my momentary existential crisis, I did think about how exciting that is for this franchise and the player himself. To have somebody on the team who has so much life ahead of him, so much more to learn and so much potential to realise. Where better to achieve that than an organisation that already appears to be starting to set their sights on the future?

Johnson is a player who particularly excited me when the Clippers were listed as a potential destination on mock draft boards, with his record breaking 48-inch vertical leap alerting everybody to the sheer athleticism he possesses. That’s something I’ve particularly looked out for in the handful of times I’ve now seen him pull on a Clippers jersey, so you can imagine the smile that spread across my face off the back of his alley-oop link up with Jason Preston during the Summer League game against the Utah Jazz.

Freakish athleticism is a big part of the NBA these days, but it’s another thing to find young players who aren’t solely reliant on that and know how best to weaponize it. While it’s still early days for Johnson, he and the organisation are saying all the right things when it comes to making more of the other areas of his game.

Before training camp, president of basketball operations Lawrence Frank said, “Focusing first on probably his on ball defense and having an impact on the ball, working through over the course of time for him to be a consistent, 3-point shooter with his feet set. He, in transition, his ability to get out on the break and finish at the rim, and making all those tougher and hustle, effort, and energy plays but it’s starting with a small box and then widening it.”

It seems like a lot to work on, but you get the sense Frank wouldn’t mention those areas of his game if the front office didn’t think Johnson could realistically make the necessary improvements. The Clippers can certainly help him in those areas too. He wouldn’t be the only player to have arrived in Los Angeles as a below average shooter and then find much more success with the added spacing and level of ball movement that this team can offer. His shooting is certainly one of his biggest areas with room for improvement having shot just 27 percent from deep and 70 percent on free throws during his time at Tennessee. Of course, the Clippers were the best free-throw shooting team in league history last year.

The defensive schemes Ty Lue can draw up are also likely to limit how much Johnsons can be exposed by other teams in a similar vein to when Luke Kennard is on the floor; we’re certainly not wanting for elite wing defenders on our side of STAPLES Center. Johnson’s physical attributes do at least give him a solid platform to build on in that sense too, so long as he’s prepared to put in the same effort that his teammates have become known for off the back of their first Western Conference Finals appearance last season.

It will be interesting to see how adaptable Johnson’s game can be, especially given the extra emphasis that has been made around versatility during the offseason and training camp. He was seen running point and going through plays with Lue during training camp, and it may be that the 1 position is something they see as more plausible given his size. At 6’4, he’s on the shorter side of wing players in the NBA, but what he lacks in height he can more than make up for in hops, and his ability on the boards could be a big plus for a team that doesn’t have a great wealth of rebounding at guard.

It remains to be seen what kind of roles the rookies will play this season, though it’s likely to be a reduced one even with Kawhi Leonard set for time on the sidelines. However, time is something that Keon Johnson has firmly on his side. He might make you feel old for now, but if he can realise his potential in L.A., he could have us all feeling young again in no time.