Arguably the greatest NBA coach of all-time is a big fan of one former Kentucky Wildcat.
San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich was talking up rookie Keldon Johnson earlier this week for his impressive performances during the early stages of the NBA’s Bubble restart down in Orlando. The future Hall of Fame coach referred to the energetic Johnson as a “Mustang”.
“They still have mustangs out West?” Popovich jokingly asked reporters on July 28. “He’s [Johnson] one of those kind of guys. He’s kind of wild and very energetic, very aggressive, takes no prisoners, sticks his nose in, likes contact. All-in-all, he’s a very competitive individual.”
— JeffGSpursZone (@JeffGSpursZone) July 28, 2020
Johnson had spent most of the 2019-20 season in the G League before making his way up to the San Antonio Spurs in early March where he finally started to make his mark. He appeared in just 10 games before the season was suspended on March 11 and was particularly key in the final four games beforehand when he averaged 7.0 points and 2.8 rebounds while shooting over 62 percent from the floor in nearly 17 minutes per outing. Down in Orlando, Johnson’s game has elevated to another level and Popovich is just one of the first to give him the credit he’s deserved.
In three exhibition games, Johnson averaged 13.3 points, 5.3 rebounds, and 2.3 assists while shooting 13-21 from the floor overall (61.9 percent) in 20 minutes per game. His most impressive game was a 21-point effort against the Indiana Pacers. In the Spurs season re-opener on Friday–a 129-120 win over the Sacramento Kings–Johnson shined once again, dropping eight points, six rebounds, two assists, and one steal in a season-high 30 minutes. His offensive motor has earned him some recognition, but it’s been his efforts on the defensive end of the floor where he provides the most immediate impact as a 20-year old ball of potential.
“We would much rather have to try to rein somebody in energy wise than try to pump them up,” Spurs assistant coach Will Hardy said about Johnson, according to Jeff Garcia of Spurs Zone. “It’s definitely one of his best traits right now as a young player.”
The sample size is still small, but Johnson looks the part of a legitimate NBA player and a potential steal of the 2019 NBA Draft. The Spurs are playing him major minutes in the absence of injured starters and he’s taking full advantage of them. San Antonio might not end up making the playoffs once the seeding games are finished, but they appear willing to see what they have in Johnson. So far, he’s exceeded his expected value. He’s added muscle and increased his confidence to the point where they have no choice but to put him on the court.
Johnson and the Spurs will take the floor again later on Sunday at 4 p.m. against the Memphis Grizzlies.