There were times this past year that the Kentucky Wildcats didn’t have that “it” factor guy down the stretch. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander slowly became the most consistent player on the team, and Kevin Knox found his way as a dominant scorer, but it took a while to find those identities. Some would argue that “it” factor was never found, and it held the team back.
With Kentucky signee Keldon Johnson, the “it” factor for the 2018-19 season has already been written in stone.
“I came here to dominate, kill and when I go back to Oak Hill I’ll have the same mindset: dominate and kill,” Johnson said of his competition this week at the McDonald’s All-American Game in Atlanta.
With the game on the line in tonight’s All-Star event, it wasn’t Zion Williamson, RJ Barrett, Cam Reddish, or any other “superstar” participating getting the praise. It was Keldon Johnson’s name being uttered over and over again. He looked at No. 1 recruit and Duke commitment RJ Barrett in the eyes with that dominate and kill mindset and did just that. He shut him down with the spotlights on.
Down by four, Johnson had a single stretch of taking a charge on Barrett (yes, Johnson took a charge in an All-Star Game) and then followed it up with a crisp assist on the other end leading to a three-pointer to cut the lead to one.
Up by one with less than 30 seconds to go, Johnson was the first person on the West squad to jump out on arguably the top recruit in all of high school basketball, forcing Barrett to fumble the ball on a shot attempt at the rim. After regaining possession, Johnson let out some emotion the BBN should be pretty excited for. Killer instinct.
Love the emotion from Keldon Johnson. This is an all-star game. John Calipari has to be excited to get him on campus. pic.twitter.com/06k95VNUU4
— Shawn Smith (@gbbcountry) March 29, 2018
On the next time down the floor, Johnson picked up Barrett yet again and swatted his shot in the game’s final seconds.
— BLACK SPORTSCENTER (@VersaceBoyEnt) March 29, 2018
Again, this is the same RJ Barrett that finished the day with 26 points on 10-14 shooting and completely dominated the event. There wasn’t a thing anyone could do to shut him down… until Johnson came along.
The 6-foot-7 Kentucky signee wasn’t able to find his groove in the scoring department, finishing with eight points on 4-8 shooting and 0-2 from three. But still, he did whatever it took to win the game for his team in an overall meaningless exhibition match. Because his motor never stops.
And made a few highlight dunks in the process, with this coast-to-coast tomahawk slam being the big one:
Keldon Johnson coast to coast: pic.twitter.com/O2gjSYXnqu
— TheCatsPause247 (@TheCatsPause247) March 29, 2018
It was refreshing. Watching Johnson take pride in his game every second he was on the floor was similar to Jarred Vanderbilt’s emergence in conference play this season. Watching Vanderbilt play basketball has been a joy to watch because he is relentless on the glass and his passion for the sport is contagious. His offensive skills aren’t there yet, and he was frustrating at times as a result, but not once did you want Vanderbilt to leave the court this season.
For Johnson, he has a similar intensity, defensive potential, and ability on the glass for a wing. But his offensive game is there, and it will continue to grow. He wasn’t hitting jumpers tonight, but his shot will absolutely fall at Kentucky, and his efforts in transition, off the dribble, and in the midrange will make up for it if he hits a cold spell. He is constantly shifting his game and trying new things to find the perfect recipe for success. Think Michael Kidd-Gilchrist in terms of workhorse, do-it-all prospect with a killer mindset to put the icing on the cake.
As we saw tonight, he doesn’t need to score in large quantities, take a surplus of shots, and see nonstop minutes to be happy. He played just 20 minutes, didn’t start, took just eight shots, and single-handedly won the game for the West squad with the game on the line.
The Cats were fun to watch this season, but you can argue they didn’t find a true identity until Jarred Vanderbilt put the heart and soul back in the team coming back from injury. They had their moments before, and even struggled when he returned (four-game losing streak), but the smiles and overall enjoyment of the game slowly came to fruition with this team with Vanderbilt’s presence.
Johnson will bring that same impact from day one, and there’s a chance both Vanderbilt and Johnson will share the starting lineup to kick off the season if the Wildcat freshman returns. Two contagious personalities and overall players to push the rest of the players to follow suit. If PJ Washington and Quade Green return as expected, two players with big personalities and mean streaks of their own, we’re talking four starters with larger-than-life mindsets. It can lead to a special season with a lineup of dogs.
“I definitely want to bring energy and help everybody get going,” Johnson told KSR this week. “I’ve always been vocal. I’m trying to emphasize being more vocal on defense because it’s going to win most of our games at the next level.”
Kentucky fans wanted a player with a killer mindset and that “it” factor. Before even taking a step on campus, they got one.