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2021 NBA Draft Prospect Profiles: Keon Johnson

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Athleticism, aggressiveness, and an awesome attitude define why Keon Johnson is a highly rated NBA Draft prospect.

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Syndication: The Knoxville News-Sentinel Saul Young/News Sentinel via Imagn Content Services, LLC

Over the next month, GBB will be profiling various players the Memphis Grizzlies may target in the 2021 NBA Draft. This year we will be breaking it up in to three sections - five to likely trade up for, five potentially available right around pick #17 where Memphis is slotted to pick, and five that surely will be there or perhaps the Grizzlies could even trade back and still select.

Others in this “trade up category”: Scottie Barnes of Florida State player profile.

Moses Moody of Arkansas.

Josh Giddey of NBL — Australia.

James Bouknight of Connecticut.

Next Up, Keon Johnson of Tennessee.

KEON JOHNSON, GUARD/WING, UNIVERSITY OF TENNESSEE

  • 6’3”, 185 pounds, (6’7” Wingspan), 19 years old, Bell Buckle,TN
  • One Season at Tennessee- 25.5 minutes per game, 11.3 points per game, 44.9% from the field, 27.1% on threes, 70.3% from the free throw line, 3.5 rebounds per game, 2.5 assists per game, 1.1 steals per game
  • STATS OF STRENGTH (per Tankathon): Defensive Rating (94.7), Defensive Win Shares (.081), FTA Rate (.409)
  • STATS TO IMPROVE: Offensive Rating (97.7), Turnovers (3.7 per 36 minutes), 3PFG% (27.1%)
  • ACCOLADES AND AWARDS: 2020-2021 ALL-SEC Freshman Team
  • CURRENT BIG BOARD PLACEMENTS: 15th overall (Tankathon), 6th overall (The Ringer), 10th Overall (ESPN), 13th Overall (CBS SPORTS), 9th Overall (Bleacher Report)

The wing/forward position has certainly and logically been the most talked about area for the Memphis Grizzlies to focus on this offseason in terms of their present and future. Specifically, bigger wings that can shoot are a more concentrated need in terms of a player profile that makes the most sense in terms of fit for the Grizzlies. University of Tennessee guard Keon Johnson is neither a big wing nor an accomplished shooter. However, he offers significant upside as a critical fit in one area the Grizzlies could use: a long-term backcourt mate for Ja Morant.

When it comes to Johnson, perhaps the most enticing aspect of his game is that he likely is one of the first noticeable talents that literally jumps out to an observer due to his athleticism. Being an elite natural athlete is what allows Johnson to have the ability to make a difference on both ends of the court. His aggressiveness and impressive IQ at his age creates the opportunity for him to have “functional athleticism”, which allows him to be a disruptor on defense and a valuable cutter and high-flying finisher on offense.

However, despite his high level of obvious talent, Johnson remains a significant work in progress. Though Johnson is usually found among the top 8 or 12 prospects on any 2021 NBA Draft Big Boards, it could take him longer than other lottery talents to consistently make a significant impact. His upside as an impactful defender outweighs his offensive outlook at the moment, mainly due to his inconsistent ability as a shooter. Along with being smaller than many other prospects with similar profiles, Johnson may not be a fit in as many situations as true wings might be.

Regardless, Johnson’s combination of athleticism, aggressiveness, and a determined attitude should make him an attractive lottery target for any team.

What He Does Well

Jump. Leap. Float. Levitate?

Johnson’s athleticism rightfully is the most appealing part of his profile as a prospect. He is one of the best athletes in this class, and as the tweets above show one of the best pound-for-pound leapers in NBA Draft History. However, simply being able to leap high into the air is not what makes a player skilled. In Johnson’s case, it is what he does in the air that separates him from many prospects.

Defensively, Johnson’s leaping ability allows him to impact the game in a variety of ways. First, it allows for him to have an elite ability to alter and block shots at a high rate for a guard. Johnson’s explosion provides a plethora of possibilities-

  • one-on-one opportunities to block or alter a jump shot
  • trailing in transition
  • recovering if beat off the dribble
  • providing off-ball help to alter or block shots, especially at the rim

The depth at which Johnson can impact a game with his leaping ability allows for him to have a solid base to become an elite defender most prospects his age do not have. His leaping and jumping ability allows for him to be relevant support as a rebounder. As the NBA continues to trend toward smaller lineups, having a guard that can provide reliable rebounding is a clear advantage for any lineup.

Offensively, Johnson’s leaping ability creates an advantage for him to be in ideal target as a transition finisher, lob threat, and cutter. He can quickly and effectively transfer power in his legs to transition from being on the move to skying above almost any defender to finish a play. His jumping ability also allows for him to be a contributor when it comes to offensive rebounds, either in put back situations or to extend plays.

Along with his general athleticism and leaping ability, Johnson consistently displays fast and effective footwork. It helps him to stay in position to limit space and driving opportunities in one-on-one situations. It allows for him to aggressively pursue angles to disrupt off-ball movement, and also for him to quickly recover if he were to get beat. Offensively, Johnson displays a keen awareness of quickly identifying cutting lanes and areas of space. This sets him up as an effective finisher for a dunk or high percentage look close to the rim or have the ability to quickly get off an accurate shot from distance.

Finally, Johnson’s basketball IQ may well be an underrated part of his game. Though his shooting is certainly a work in progress, he also found success for stretches this season. According to barttovik.com, Johnson was one of only five freshman to shoot 40% or better on far twos this past season. This shows Johnson was able to find some sort of balance as a shooter and scorer beyond just being an option as a cutter.

Johnson’s awareness and intelligence allow for him to significantly impact the game in more ways than most prospects his age. Johnson was one of only seven freshman to produce an assist percentage of 20% or better, a steal percentage of 2.5% or better, and a block percentage of 1.5% or better. This shows that Johnson’s ability to make momentum shifting plays on defense and finding ways to setup his teammates up for scoring opportunities on offense is a consistent part of his game. As the highlight above shows, he can even flash as a primary facilitator at times in transition off a rebound to create a fast break opportunity. In other words, Johnson is one of the best prospects in this class when it comes to making an impact in multiple ways beyond scoring.

Where He Can Improve

Without a doubt, there is plenty of natural ability for NBA teams to work with when it comes to Johnson’s overall game, especially for a 19-year old. However, as with any prospect at his age, there are also many areas of needed improvement for him to realize his full potential at the next level. The main areas are his fouls, turnovers, ball-handling, and shooting.

On a per-40 minute basis his freshman year, Johnson averaged 4.1 turnovers and 3.7 fouls. In his 27 games at Tennessee, he committed 3 or more turnovers in 15 games and 3 or more fouls in 14 games. The fouls are logical, as with the energy, quickness, and aggressiveness that Johnson consistently plays on defense, he likely is prone to ref whistles. As he matures as a player, discipline should help his foul rates decline. Obviously, the turnover rate shows Johnson’s decision making is a work in progress as well. While he will likely never be a primary playmaker over extended stretches for a team, he has some potential as a secondary facilitator. As he gets more confident in his ability to shoot and score, Johnson should become more confident in working off that ability to make the right reads on is passes to help others score.

Of course, another area where Johnson certainly needs to show improvement is in his ability to create off the dribble. In some games, such as the highlights above, he clearly shows the ability to create his own shot off the dribble. However, in others, he also had stretches where he really hurt the Volunteer offense with multiple turnovers in a small time frame.

Early in his career, Johnson will likely be better on catch-and-shoot opportunities or in situations that require just one or two dribbles. Each of his 48 three point attempts at Tennessee were assisted, indicating a limited ability to create shots off the dribble. It will likely take time for Johnson to get comfortable consistently creating his own shot in isolation or running an offensive scheme. Johnson’s ability to improve his ball-handling to combine with his tremendous leaping ability to become a threat as a pull-up shooter is a critical area of development in his potential as a two way difference maker.

Many of the areas of improvement listed above are areas of Johnson’s game that will naturally improve with time. The most pertinent factor in Johnson’s long-term potential and overall production as a player is his ability to shoot. In 27 games at Tennessee, Johnson shot 27.1% from three on 48 attempts and 70.3% on 101 free throw attempts. While these numbers are not horrible, they also are not highly encouraging that Johnson will be a respectable shooter as a rookie, especially with all of his three-point attempts being of the catch-and-shoot variety. However, as a few of the videos above show, there is plenty to work with when it comes to his mechanics and form. The key for Johnson is to develop the feel and confidence to consistently repeat an effective shot as he matures.

The fluidity that Johnson often displays with his movements on defense offers valid hope he can develop that feel and confidence with his shot on offense. There is plenty of effective intent with how quickly and aggressively Johnson moves to create plays on defense. That same quick and fluid motion is a big key to him finding his rhythm as a shooter. If he can fine-tune his shooting form to quickly catch and release his shot from distance, he will create a base to work with to balance out his offensive game.

From there, Johnson will then have a reference point to build off of to build confidence in his ability to mature as a shot-creator. It may take him longer than other lottery prospects to form a reliable shooting game that defenses must respect; however, Johnson has plenty of natural ability to form exactly that in time with proper coaching.

The Fit With The Grizzlies

Does this story not sound familiar?

A young player who offers more value on defense than offense many times due to an inconsistent offensive game, mainly as the result of an unreliable ability to shoot from distance.

Two summers ago, that exact description could logically described the abilities of Dillon Brooks, De’Anthony Melton, and Kyle Anderson.

Due to time working with Taylor Jenkins and finding their fits within his schemes and strategies, each one of these players just experienced career-best seasons in which their overall games gained significant value.

Obviously, the Grizzlies are attracted to these type of two way perimeter talents that are similar to Johnson’s skill set. In fact, since the 2009-2010 season, only 11 freshman guards have produced an assist percentage of 20% or better, a steal percentage of 2.5% or better, and a block percentage of 2% or better in a single season (min. 650 minutes played). A few notable names in this group are Lonzo Ball, Marcus Smart, and Alex Caruso. Melton, Anderson and Johnson are also included in that list.

Johnson obviously fits a profile both that the Memphis Grizzlies prefer and that Jenkins has been able to make the most of during his time in Memphis. However, the Grizzlies already have a surplus of players with Johnson’s skillset and that play his position as an off-ball guard/wing. Though Johnson likely has more long-term potential than any of the current Grizzlies mentioned above, using a valuable pick on a player that will take time to perhaps be better than multiple options you already have on the roster may not be ideal. Johnson could develop into the long-term backcourt option to pair with Morant; the question for the Grizzlies is how strongly do they feel Johnson could become that to select him over players with similar upsides but skillsets that are of greater need for the Grizzlies future.

NCAA Basketball: Georgia at Tennessee Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

The Verdict

When it comes to Keon Johnson, the main question is quite simple:

Do the Grizzlies feel his shooting potential will allow for him to become a two-way difference maker to pair with Ja Morant long-term?

It certainly seems the Grizzlies are going to need to have a strong conviction that is highly likely for them to target Johnson in a trade up situation over other targets. The shooting and scoring abilities of prospects such as Moses Moody, Corey Kispert, and James Bouknight make them more logical prospects for the Grizzlies to aggressively pursue, especially with Moody and Kispert as true fowards/wings. Johnson seems more logical as a fallback trade up option the Grizzlies could move up a few spots to get if he slides in the draft.

There is plenty to like about Keon Johnson’s potential as an elite defender and across the board contributor on offense. His development as a young player likely will not be far from how Melton has developed over time. However, since the Grizzlies already have Melton and other wings/guards locked into multiple year contracts, it seems a bigger area of need is a true wing and shooter. Though it makes sense for Memphis to target upside regardless of fit in this strong draft, they should place a preference on shooting and bigger wings to balance out their roster.

As a result, though Johnson would certainly be a fine pick for the Memphis Grizzlies in the 2021 draft, I feel there are more sensible options to pursue in a trade-up scenario. In the rare case that Johnson were to be a player who slides in the draft, whether it be at 17 or by trading up a few spots, he easily could become one of the best values in this draft over time due to the Grizzlies ability to develop players with his abilities.

It seems that Keon Johnson is likely to be picked in the 7 to 12 range in the draft. However, since he may take time to develop on offense, he could slip in the Draft. Though there likely will be a more logical target for Memphis to pursue in a trade-up scenario, if Johnson falls out of the lottery, he may be too good of a value to not take a chance on.

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