Before the 2019 NBA Draft arrives, Peachtree Hoops will break down more than 70 available prospects with an eye toward what the Atlanta Hawks may look to do in late June.
This report focuses on Kentucky wing Keldon Johnson.
Keldon Johnson is one of the more boring prospects in the 2019 NBA Draft, even if that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. He’s a standard wing-sized player out of Kentucky who can shoot threes and play some modicum of defense, but there’s nothing particularly special about his game and he projects as a solid role player who could be a contending team’s fourth-best player if everything pans out.
It’s unlikely he’ll completely fall out of the league, but it’s possible that the three-point shot doesn’t translate and his defensive weaknesses become untenable against NBA athletes, leading to some level of downside. The team who chooses Johnson won’t be doing it as a swing for the fences; he’s a relatively safe pick who will help you win but isn’t going to be a true difference maker.
Johnson is the very definition of a floor spacer on the offensive side of the floor. He can knock down standstill three-pointers in spot-up situations and can occasionally attack a closeout if the defense has already been heavily compromised by one of his teammates. There’s very little diversity to his shot; teams aren’t going to be able to run him off screens early in his career and he doesn’t have a good enough handle or enough athleticism to create his own shot against a set defender. If he can be a high-level spot-up threat, then he’ll have a lot of offensive value, but if his shooting numbers dip below elite levels, he may be more of a bench player than starter.
The offense is essentially entirely his shooting at this point; he’s not a particularly athletic finisher at the basket and mostly plays below the rim. He has good touch on these shots and has a decent floater, but he’s not going to be able to create his own shot in isolation or pick-and-roll. Creating for his teammates falls the same way, as he doesn’t have good enough passing and vision abilities to be a secondary playmaker. He’s purely a play finisher, which is fine as long as he’s an elite spot-up shooter and can attack a closeout every so often to get to the rim.
Defensively, Johnson has the physical traits (6’6 height with a 6’9 wingspan, weighing in at 216 pounds) to be a versatile, switchy defender on the perimeter, with enough heft to his game to even play some small-ball 4 down the line. He’s stronger than he is quick defensively, able to hold up better against larger players than he is against quicker guards. He’ll put in a ton of effort on the defensive end and, in combination with his physical profile, should project to be a solid NBA defender.
He does struggle with some technique stuff defensively. Johnson theoretically should have the athleticism to slide with guards, but poor positioning and technique puts him behind plays too often. Some of this may have to do with the conditioning issues that have plagued him throughout his collegiate career. The hope for an NBA team is that they could cut out some of the conditioning issues in a professional training regimen, but it’s a concern at this point. He projects to be a good on-ball defender, but his off-ball focus and defensive IQ need a ton of work; he’ll lose his man far too often while he watches the ball and his guy either cuts to the rim or relocates along the three-point line for an open shot.
Johnson is going to have to shoot the ball at a high level to bring starter-level value to a team. He has precious little else to offer offensively to an NBA team, making the one skill he does have on that end of the floor all the more important. His defense is strong but not overwhelmingly special, though simply existing with his physical profile and giving the effort he gives should make him at least somewhat useful on that end, even if some of the conditioning and focus issues never get worked out. A lack of elite athleticism makes it hard to project that he’ll be a wing stopper, but he can be a useful part of a strong defense.
What will make or break his career occurs on the other end; can he be a 42% three-point shooter and therefore someone who has to start and play big minutes, or is he going to fall closer to 37% and be merely a bench rotation piece? That’s the question a team has to ask themselves before they draft Johnson in the first round in this year’s draft.