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2021 NBA Mock Draft: Jaden Springer, Keon Johnson projected as lottery picks

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

Tennessee is struggling on the basketball court, but that hasn’t really seemed to hurt the stock of five-star freshmen Jaden Springer and Keon Johnson. The two have been in the first round mix since before they even stepped on campus at Tennessee, and according to SBNation’s own Ricky O’Donnell, both could be off the board in the top 15 picks.

O’Donnell projected Springer to go 8th overall to the Raptors, while Johnson landed at 13 with the Spurs. Below is his analysis on both selections.

8. Toronto Raptors - Jaden Springer, G, Tennessee

Springer is a bully of a 6’4 guard who thrives overpowering his opponents on both ends of the floor. The Tennessee freshman is a bulldozer going to the basket with the ball in his hands, where he can create space for himself by absorbing contact and dishing out body blows near the rim. Springer has always been impressive defensively dating back to his days at Florida prep powerhouse IMG Academy, showing a lockdown ability on opposing guards in isolation situations and also good help instincts off the ball. He is a big part of a suffocating Vols defense that ranks No. 2 in the country and is posting a solid 2.9 steal rate so far.

There remain questions about Springer as a shooter even after starting the season 9-of-16 (56.2 percent) from three. Scouts will want to see if he can turn up the volume from deep this season, and if his jumper extend to NBA range. While it’s been tough to evaluate Springer’s offense in Rick Barnes’ unimaginative system, he is one of the youngest players in this draft — not turning 19 years old until September 25 — and has plenty of physical tools to bet on.

Of the two, there’s no question that Springer has been the more polished player to this point. He just brings a little more offense to the table with his ability to slash and find open teammates. Springer has been more consistent as a shooter, although as O’Donnell points out, the volume isn’t quite there. An ankle injury has cost Springer a few games as of late, but he appears to be back to full strength now.

13. San Antonio Spurs - Keon Johnson, F, Tennessee

One of the best pure athletes in the class, Johnson is an explosive leaper and high-upside defensive prospect who is still learning how to pick his spots on the floor. Johnson is mostly an off-ball player for Tennessee as a freshman, looking for cutting lanes to the basket and attacking closeouts off spot-ups. Johnson’s above the rim finishing will be his offensive calling card, and it’s helped him make more than 50 percent of his two-point field goals so far. Strangely, he’s ranking only in the 14th percentile in transition opportunities, which is curious for a player with his physical gifts. Like Springer, Johnson is a big part of Tennessee elite defense. The NBA team that takes him will have to work to develop his outside shot.

Honestly, it’s surprising to see Johnson remain so high in mock drafts, but it’s a good representation of how the NBA evaluates players. They’re making bets on upside and athletic ability, which Keon has gobs of. Defensively and athletically, Johnson has shown out this season, but his offensive production is pretty clearly lagging behind.

Johnson is averaging nine points per game on 44 percent shooting from the field. He’s proven to be a capable finisher at the rim, but that hasn’t resulted in big time offensive production. His three-point shooting has been suspect, hitting just 6-23 from long range to this point. His shooting, especially in today’s NBA, will be a project for the organization that takes him.

Elsewhere around the mock draft world, we’ve seen Yves Pons as a popular second round projection. The senior forward is a unique player, but should fit in to the current NBA landscape as a three-and-D type wing.

We’re in for an interesting offseason for Tennessee basketball this spring and summer. A few draft decisions will shape next year’s team, while the NCAA’s freezing of eligibility for this season will leave guys like John Fulkerson and E.J. Anosike with decisions to make. It could also open up the transfer market even further, with guys searching for one last opportunity for playing time.