Do you think Keldon Johnson will play next to a traditional power forward or next to a combo forward next season?
Marilyn Dubinsky: With the additions of Isaiah Roby and Jeremy Sochan (whom I expect to spend little if any time in Austin), the Spurs now have multiple traditional power forwards to play next to Keldon. As a result, I don’t see the need to force him into a position where he is constantly at a size disadvantage anymore, so I see him playing next to a traditional power forward at least 50 percent of the time, with the exception being when he’s either sharing the court with Doug McDermott or the Spurs choose to go with four-out or micro line-ups.
Mark Barrington: I think that Jeremy Sochan is the power forward of the future, and I don’t think the Spurs are playing Keldon the big bucks to have him be consistently overmatched by much taller players in the paint. In my opinion, the eventual plan is for him to play small forward. I mean, to the extent that there are even positions in modern basketball, he’s a wing/big combo, but he’s going to be more effective playing with two conventional bigs—for rim protection on defense and better rebounding on both ends. But when the season starts, I expect Keldon to be the starting power forward until Sochan moves into the four spot, probably by mid-season, depending on how conservative Pop is with his lineups. Roby is another viable option at PF, and he could be ready to start on opening day, so it’s conceivable that Johnson gets moved to the three well before midseason.
Bruno Passos: It feels like a coin flip between running it back with him as the de facto 4 or inserting Isaiah Roby there and slotting Johnson one spot down. Given the muted stakes, I’m not sure I mind either route now that the goals for next season have changed. Start Roby and you get someone who can help them win on the boards and still stretch the floor some, but you then have at least three players between him, Johnson and Poeltl who don’t excel at shot creation. Start Johnson alongside McDermott or one of the young guards and you once again put a ceiling on the defense but can lean into the style of play you’ve been building on the past few years. You’re not necessarily set to win too many games either way but, as we’ve seen from this summer’s moves, that may not be as big a priority as before.
Jesus Gomez: I feel like he will start the year playing next to McDermott —assuming Dougie isn’t traded— and finish the year at small forward next to Sochan or Roby. In the first few months he could benefit from having some continuity and playing with a dangerous off-ball threat to distract the defense. Eventually it should be a priority to move him to the wing and seeing if a pairing with a more traditional power forward can work, but it’s fine if it’s done slowly since the Spurs are in no rush now.
J.R. Wilco: For me, it all depends on how much Sochan is able to contribute. Another way of saying that is: it depends on how ready the organization is to stink while the youngsters develop out in front of everyone in San Antonio instead of with a limited audience in Austin. If the kids play with the big club, then it’ll be KJ and Sochan. If it’s Austin, then we’ll get a replay of last season.
Do you think Johnson’s role will change dramatically next season in terms of usage and shot creation?
Dubinsky: The usage may not be too much higher just became I don’t see him being the main ball handler or the one bringing the ball up the court that often, but he might see a lot more plays drawn up for him and be the finisher more often. If he can continue to expand his offensive game more while keeping up the three-point touch he showed last season, he has a prime opportunity to establish himself as the Spurs go-to guy (that a lot of defenses probably won’t catch on to), and with this being a rebuilding season, they will be more than happy to let him play and learn as he goes.
Barrington: There is so much roster turnover, I expect everyone’s roles to change this season. I expect that Pop will find out if Keldon can have the ball in his hands more on offense to take some of the load off Primo being the primary ball handler. That’s going to be a huge change in his role, so it’ll be interesting to see if he can develop that skill set. Hopefully he can become a better distributor while still keeping up with his scoring, because if he’s more of a threat as a passer, he will get more open shots, and he could be deadly on the pick and roll if the team can force defenders to guess who will end up with the rock.
Passes: I think some evolution would’ve always been the goal (or hope) heading into next season, and we saw the Spurs kick the tires on that at the beginning of last year. They dumped the ball into Johnson in the post for some face-ups and isos and shifted gears after limited returns, and I expect some attempt at increasing his role again this year. It’ll be interesting to see how much that resembles the previous approach or if they try to get him into a few more pick-and-roll scenarios or other creative sets. With Murray and Walker gone, there’s no shortage of touches and opportunities for Johnson to eat.
Gomez: Someone is going to have to absorb some of the offensive possessions that were going to Murray, and Johnson makes as much sense as anyone for the job. He struggled with creation and vision at times last season, so I’m not sure if making him a traditional focal point will make sense, but he should be fine if the playmakers find him when he’s already in motion or if everyone spaces the floor when he catches the ball in the mid-post and attacks after a power dribble or a simple post move. It might take him a while to get comfortable as a big-time ball handler, but if he can get hone some of that Kyle Kuzma/Jaylen Brown-like combination of aggressiveness and physicality, he could be able to up the percentage of unassisted field goals he gets.
Wilco: On a team that’s lost such a large percentage of its offense —by usage rate— from last season’s opener, it would be really odd for a guy to get the extension KJ just signed, and NOT see his role change dramatically. Then add in the fact that he’s a dead-eye shooter now, and I expect to see him featured, or at least see him get far more touches.
True or false: Unless his defense improves greatly, Johnson will be overpaid once the extension kicks in.
Dubinsky: False, in the sense that being forced to guard traditional power forwards has constantly put him at a disadvantage in the past. We have yet to see what he does against players more his size and if he has the speed to handle more perimeter defense. In my opinion, it’s too early to judge his defensive ceiling since he still doesn’t even know what position he’ll be playing. Even if he’s roughly the same player as last season, his extension seems like the right price, and if he improves it will be a bargain.
Barrington: Johnson’s defense will be greatly improved once he’s playing his real position. At a generously listed 6’5”, he can’t defend players half a foot taller than him on the block. He is a strong dude, but a 6’10” guy or taller can just shoot over him or draw a foul once they get into the paint. He will have a problem guarding quicker players on the perimeter, but I think having a pair of great rim protectors like Poeltl and Sochan behind him will help to erase the advantage that players gain if they get by him.
I don’t think contract value is a problem either way because his biggest cap hit is in the first year in a rebuilding season for the Spurs. Since his contract is front-loaded, the cap hit will be smaller each year and will look like a bargain in the final two years as the NBA salary cap keeps growing. I don’t think that Keldon is particularly overpaid or underpaid; in fact the total amount seems about right to me, but the way it’s structured is very favorable to the team becoming more competitive in the final years of his contract.
Passes: I’ll say ‘false’, and only partially because I reject the premise of the question. If you really pressed me to overlook the fact that the Spurs have a clean balance book and shouldn’t be too worried about competing in 2023-24, I’d say Johnson will probably be playing more or less at value thanks to his outside shooting and ability to pressure the rim, and trending the right way as a better-rounded player. But given those factors and especially given how the contract is reportedly structured — only $74 guaranteed, descending salary — Johnson will be getting 6th or 7th man money and coasting into his prime as the league’s salary cap continues to rise, and that outlook should be baked into how the contract is perceived from the early days. I do expect his defense to improve as he continues to learn the NBA game and as the Spurs refine his role around his strengths and weaknesses, but even if he doesn’t make huge strides there, he still has so many ways to improve offensively on the ball, as a finisher and maybe as a screener and short-roll piece that this signing should age quite well.
Gomez: The contract is reasonable enough that as long as Keldon can hit outside shots, help on the boards, and get to the bucket semi-regularly, he won’t be overpaid. But for the contract to become a bargain, he will have to improve significantly on at least one end, and he simply has more room to grow on defense. He’ll never be a stopper, but he should get better on the ball against guys who rely on strength instead of quickness, and that’s all he’ll need to do to slate nicely between Devin Vassell and Jeremy Sochan, assuming those two reach their defensive potential.
Wilco: I want to see him play excellent defense, and will be disappointed if he can’t at least reach what I’d call solid defender status by the time the extension kicks in. That said, I have a pretty high bar for using the term “overpaid” and don’t think he’s likely to slip into that territory.