The Clippers had the second-oldest roster in the NBA last year, a natural consequence of a team stocking veterans for a title run. The only team that was older was the Lakers, another team on a similar championship pursuit. Not surprisingly, the Clippers covered the second-least ground in the league and had the 27th-ranked average speed.
That meant one of the goals of this year’s NBA draft was to add to the team’s young talent base to help retool the Clippers for years going forward. It would also be an additional boon if said young players had some speed and bounce to help add to the group’s overall athleticism.
In Keon Johnson, the Clippers may have found one such player.
Johnson’s most eye-popping trait is his athleticism. He jumps out of the building — his max vertical of four feet was the best at the combine by 3.5 inches — and he dunks with some real aggression.
Despite the potential for some eye-popping finishes on the offensive end, Johnson’s burst manifests itself on defense first. The Volunteers put him on the opposing lead ball handler even though Johnson probably projects more as a wing in the pros, and he was able to check smaller guards. That experience gave Johnson practice reading the point of attack and navigating screens.
“I’m defensive-minded first. Defense opens up my offensive game. The more stops that I get on defense, the more that I fuel on the offensive end,” Johnson said after the game. “I feel that my defensive ability is what brought me to the league. But I also believe that within the league I’ll be able to guard multiple positions and fit in anywhere on the court with the Clippers.”
President of basketball operations Lawrence Frank echoed that sentiment.
“He’s one of the highest-level athletes in the draft,” Frank said. “He’s a defensive first guy, has a great competitive strength, motor, likes being in the gym, likes being coached hard. Very driven by winning.... I think athletically, he just — he just increases our overall versatility and he was one of those guys we had ranked very, very high on our board and we’re trying to target him as we saw as the picks kept on running down. I thought we were really fortunate to trade up to get him.”
Given his defensive tools and build, there had to be some reason Johnson fell into the 20s for the Clippers to select him, and there was some uncertainty about Johnson’s feel for the game on offense. This is where the Clippers will lean on their player development system to help mold Johnson into a productive rotation player.
Johnson found success barreling his way to the basket to score. He took 23.5 percent of his field-goal attempts directly at the rim and an additional 36 percent in the paint. That distribution is more in line with a big than a guard, but that type of tunnel vision towards the hoop can be harnessed positively by a Clippers team with loads of spacing but in need of some rim pressure.
In order to get to the basket, Johnson will have to improve his handle to get past NBA defenders or just work more off the ball. Even though Johnson played point guard in high school and had a 26.8 percent usage rate in college, Frank says they envision Johnson as a wing who isn’t doing all the creating. That will help leverage Johnson’s cutting ability, where his athleticism could help turn the rookie into a lob threat. It’s a similar development arc that the Clippers have charted with Terance Mann, who transitioned from being a point guard into a secondary creator and did well to attack closeouts in his second season.
Like they did with Mann and Amir Coffey, the Clippers also plan to adjust Johnson’s shot, since he only made 26.1 percent of his threes and 70.7 percent of his free throws.
But at 19 years old, Johnson’s flaws aren’t nearly as important as his overwhelming gifts. He has so much promise that the Clippers couldn’t help but move up to get him, even it meant sacrificing another Detroit second-rounder from the Luke Kennard trade (for reference, the Clippers have already used three of the four picks). The front office has an eye on winning immediately, but they also want to find players who can be the foundation for team in years to come. They see that capability from Johnson.
“I think we look at it as we’re still going to be very, very competitive just like we have been the previous years,” Frank said. “And the goal is not just to be good for a one-year cycle. The goal is to be good for a long time, and in order to do that, you have to have a really good mix of guys at different stages in their career, and we really take a great deal of pride that we have really good veterans, we have some young guys now that have shown that they are quality NBA rotation players with an upside to be even better. And we just want to be both not just short term but long term have a continuous cycle of talented players that fit our DNA.”
Over the past few seasons, that DNA has come to mean tough, defensive-minded players who don’t back down from any challenge. Keon Johnson has the opportunity to prove that he belongs in that lineage.