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2021 NBA Draft: Keon Johnson scouting report

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Words, pictures and videos on Keon Johnson — Organized into segments!

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Oregon State at Tennessee Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

When Keon Johnson got to Tennessee, we (Vol fans) were all pretty certain that we’d have to catch the main event, because the encore was unlikely.

And indeed, Johnson declared for the NBA Draft after his lone season at UT and then went on to post some insane numbers at the combine.

But, while a 48-inch vertical might help get him drafted, it’ll undoubtedly be how he uses those physical tools that ultimately decide his place in the NBA.

I don’t typically write scouting reports, as I’m not a scout, and I don’t really have a great grasp of projecting college players to the NBA. But, I reckon we’ll segment this out, for organization’s sake if nothing else. I’ll go through his combine numbers and measurements then get to his tape further down. Obviously, if you don’t care for any of the Combine numbers, just scroll on down.

STRENGTH AND AGILITY

  • Lane agility: 11.45 seconds (1)
  • Shuttle run: 3.20 seconds (2)
  • Three quarter sprint: 3.0 seconds (3)
  • Standing vertical: 41.5 inches (4)
  • Max Vertical: 48 inches
  1. Run, side shuffle, back-pedal, side shuffle then repeat in serpentine order around the sides of the lane. Measures acceleration, speed, coordination and change-of-direction agility. Keon’s 11.45 seconds was the ninth-fastest of SGs, just .01 faster than Springer and a full second slower than Scottie Lewis’ first-place time. 15 forwards (SF or PF) recorded quicker times than Johnson.
  2. The shuttle run is a bit different because it adds lights that, well, light up when the player is supposed to change directions, measuring a player’s reaction time. Johnson posted the 11th-fastest time for SGs in this drill, with listed PF Greg Brown having the fastest time of 2.98 seconds.
  3. Here is when we start to see Johnson’s uncanny athleticism start to show through. His 3.0 three quarter sprint tied for second-best of any player at this year’s combine. Vol fans might remember Jordan Bone running the third-quickest time at the ‘19-’20 combine with a 3.08 mark.
  4. Keon’s 41.5 standing vertical set a new NBA Combine record and demolished the competition as the next closest player’s number was 37.0. Naturally, Johnson’s max vertical didn’t disappoint either, breaking a 20 year-old record with ease and setting the new standard at an eye-popping 48 inches. (Second place: 44.5)

PHYSICAL MEASUREMENTS

The whole measuring thing kinda comes off as weird to me, and probably to you, too, but I’m not endorsing it. I’m just going to take you through Keon’s figures with a little on how he compares to other rookies in his class.

  • Listed height: 6-5
  • Actual height: 6-4.75 (1)
  • Height w/o shoes: 6-3.5 (2)
  • Weight: 184.8 (3)
  • Body fat %: 4.40 (4)
  • Hands: 9.0 inches (5)
  • Standing Reach: 8-1 (6)
  • Wingspan: 6-7.25

A few notes:

  1. His height checks in just fine — the average NBA player is 6-6 an 50 percent of NBA SGs measure between 6-4 and 6-5. He’s a full inch shorter than Moses Moody and the same height as James Bouknight.
  2. Not real sure why they measure players without their shoes. Freeze tag?
  3. 184.8 makes Keon the third-lightest SG at the combine.
  4. Tied for sixth-smallest body-fat percentage of the entire draft class.
  5. Hand size is middle-of-the-road for this class. He can palm a ball — not sure if this matters outside of that.
  6. So far, his weight is the only real outlier, and while it seems a bit light comparatively, he’s just 19 and will surely fill out. And if he doesn’t, it’s no biggie. Y’all remember the jokes about Kevin Durant not being able to bench 135 pounds? Nah, you probably don’t because it didn’t matter. So I’m not worried there.

But his 8-1 standing reach has some practical application concerns. Johnson’s standing reach is the fifth-shortest in the draft and lowest figure of any SG (next lowest after him is Springer at 8-3 — a two-inch difference).

His wingspan, 6-7.25, also falls on the narrow end of the spectrum for this draft class, though not as starkly as his reach. There’s only three non-PG players who have shorter wingspans, but SG/SF AJ Lawson’s is a half-inch shorter and several guys come in somewhere between 6-7.25 and 6-8.25, meaning Keon isn’t off the norm by that much.

It’s important to consider the real-life implications of these measurements: grabbing rebounds, getting a hand up contesting a shot, blocking shots, getting a fingertip on the ball in passing lanes, so on and so forth. I’ll say it’s encouraging that Keon was one of the leaders for Tennessee in pass deflections last season and showed prowess grabbing steals as it indicates he’s maybe not so limited by his limited reach. His strikingly-quick first step and 48-inch max vertical definitely help there, too, but I’m sure there’s concern about if those traits will translate to the League where he won’t have such an inherent athletic advantage.

OFFENSE

OUTSIDE SHOOTING

He scored just 11-ish points per game, which was disappointing for the Vols considering the preseason expectations coupled with flashes of more promising scoring potential. The main inhibitor was his unreliable outside shooting. It’s also the single-most important aspect of Keon’s game in terms of predicting his future success. With that in mind, be warned that I’m gonna spend alotta words here.

Johnson shot just 27.1 percent (13/48) on 3s and 27.3 (20/73) percent on attempts outside 15 feet, according to CBB Analytics. Looking at the graphic below, the red areas represent attempts inside 15 feet and the blue represents his FG% beyond 15 feet.

CBBnalytics.com

In 27 games, Keon made more than one 3 just twice, and both of those times, he made just two. Broken down into averages, Johnson made .5 3s per game on fewer than two attempts per game. Something of note, though — as the season progressed, for whatever reason, Johnson started at least taking more shots from deep. During the year’s first 18 games, he didn’t take more than three 3s in any game and averaged just 1.4 attempts per game. He took six 3s the next game against LSU and averaged 2.6 tries in the season’s final nine games. His percentage dropped, from 28 to 26, but I still like the idea of him getting more comfortable taking those shots later in the year. Doing something you’re not great at sucks sometimes. I dig that Keon leaned into it at the end of the season.

MECHANICS

It’s tough to get a good bead on any given player’s shooting mechanics from typical game film — the camera just isn’t angled or centered with specific or granular inspections in mind. I’m no shooting coach, but here’s some footage from one of Johnson’s pre-draft shooting workouts anyway.

That’s a good looking stroke. Sometimes, guys whose off-hand action looks like this struggle with consistent accuracy, but I’m being pretty nit-picky here. It’s ideal to keep the non-shooting hand engaged longer — it’s called the guide hand because it guides the ball out of the release. Let me show you a still of what I mean. I’m apologizing in advance for the quality.

His left hand’s fingers are pointed up, and his thumb is pointing behind him. That’s all good. But — Keon’s guide hand is already off the ball. Now, he’s pretty near his release point, so like I said this isn’t a huge deal. But it’s worth discussing for a guy who shot 27 percent from long range.

(For context and thoroughness: Keon shot 26 percent (33-127) his sophomore year, 38 (64-167) percent his junior year and 32 percent (9-28) his senior year from 3 in high school, via MaxPreps.)

When trying to predict whether or not a player will improve as a long distance shooter, folks typically assess a player’s ability to shoot elsewhere on the court. Shooting is a skill, and it’s reasonable to think if somebody can shoot from one or two specific distances that he or she could at some point do so from another specific distance.

Let’s say Player A shoots 30 percent from 3-point range, but hits 80 percent of his foul shots, 45 percent of his 2s and also displays finesse and touch in his shots around the rim. Well, you’d probably expect Player A to, eventually, if the other factors hold true, figure out the deep ball and become at least a competent 3-point shooter. Luck is also a factor in all this, though it’s harder for my smooth brain to explain how luck can be expressed or predicted with maths. “Outcome = skill + luck,” — Michael Maubossian

FREE-THROW SHOOTING

Keon shot 70 percent from the FT line in his one season at Tennessee which puts him in about the 39th percentile, or the bottom half, of all NCAA players, on 101 attempts. Let’s check the form.

Consistent form, rhythm and good balance. Uses his legs instead of trying to bully the ball to the rim with just his arms. Extends his shooting arm and hold his follow through. His FT shot mimics his jumper. Free throws should be mostly muscle memory for NBA players, and there’s no way that kinda baseline consistency across his deliveries is bad, right?

The season-long percentage wasn’t great, but looking at his game logs, Johnson hit just 65 percent on 3.8 attempts per game through the season’s first 13 games. He started three of those games. In the last 14 games of the year, he nailed 75 percent on 3.7 attempts and started in each contest. Per 40 minutes, for the season, he ranked in the 91st percentile averaging 5.9 attempts per game. NBA GMs like guards who get to the line.

Alright — so his 3-point percentage was bad, though the form looks solid. His free-throw numbers were fairly average, but improved later in the season, and his motion there looks positive.

Let’s move inside, where his post-game shooting and pull-up jumpers add evidence to the theory that Johnson can, at some point, become a competent NBA 3-point shooter.

POST GAME

Johnson’s playing ball in the wrong era. He entering a run-and-gun league with the modern NBA, where for years the rules have been fiddled with and tweaked to encourage scoring. His peers are now dudes like Dame Lillard and Steph Curry and Trae Young. Guys who are threats to score from half court and in.

That’s not Keon’s game. Instead, he lives in the paint. His mail goes to the lane and his mom leaves him messages there if she can’t reach him on his cell.

CbbAnalytics

Looking at the graphic above, we see that 36 percent of Johnson’s total shot attempts came in the paint and 23.5 percent of his attempts came at the rim. So nearly 3/5s of Johnson’s shots came from somewhere within 15 feet of the hoop. Also of note — Johnson’s shooting percentage on shots in the paint is 50 percent and nearly seven percent higher than the average of the rest of the players in the NCAA.

CbbAnalytics

POST SCORING VIDEOS

He’s sensational at using his athleticism to create space and get off his shot. He scored .89 points per play (PPP) in the post last year, fitting him in the 60th percentile for NCAA players. The question — will it translate to the NBA? He’s a bit undersized and a bit lean, but he’s really good at manufacturing space to put distance between him and the defense.

This time he advances the ball full court after a miss. He gets to his spot, creates contact with the defender and then goes up falling away from the basket to maximize the distance between his defender and the shot attempt.

Here he fakes left, and jump stops into a jumper. This was a good defensive effort, but it’s nearly impossible to effect this shot with Keon’s elevation and high release point.

PULL-UP GAME

So he’s great in the post. But even with his supreme ups, his work in the post is only going to get more difficult in the NBA, where everybody jumps high. Keon’s pull-up game isn’t as established as his post game, but it’s good enough and has the makings of at least a baseline-level skill in the League.

Keon was assisted on 100 percent of his made 3s last season, but teammates got assists on just 24 percent of his 2s that weren’t at the rim. He’s comfortable creating for himself inside the arc, and it’s reasonable to believe that he could extend that confidence to his long-distance shooting at some point in his career.

By the numbers, he wasn’t a great shooter from deep during his year at Tennessee. But his form looks good. His free-throw motion looks good, too, and he showed advanced touch on shots in the post and in the paint. Also, for the season, he hit around 47 percent of his unguarded, catch-and-shoot chances. Maybe I’m reaching, and maybe I’m biased, but I see the bones of an eventually-decent NBA shooter.

CUTS

Most are betting on Keon’s game being a few years away from NBA ready. Well, sooner than that, he can make an impact with his cutting ability. He scored in the 80th percentile last season with a 1.38 PPP figure on cuts. In the right situation, this is the area where Keon has an opportunity to make an impact quickly.

Here’s a simple give and go. Keon’s defender helps off to trap Fulkerson in the corner and Keon absolutely takes off for the rim. And then what he does to this poor Georgia defender would be an all-time embarrassment for teams in most places, but things really just never go well for any sports organizations in Georgia, so this is just kinda standard.

BODY CONTROL

One more — but this one also segues into my next section: Keon’s body control. Lots of guys are athletic, especially in the NBA. But not everybody can make their bodies do what Keon makes his do. He’s special at in-air contortions.

Keon shows off his handle here going the length of the floor with the ball. He’s got a two-on-one, but the Auburn defender holds his ground, not committing to stopping Keon’s drive. Johnson’s mid-air dexterity allows him to finish around the defender.

HANDLES

He’s not known for having the tightest of handles, partly due to his 2.6 turnovers per game. But I think that’s a bit of a conflation of his weaknesses. His turnovers were more due to poor decision making than an overt inability to handle the ball, but more on that later.

Like a lot of areas in Keon’s game, his handles have a decent foundation on which to build. Below, he brings up the ball, gives the defender a quick in-and-out dribble and then passes out of the trouble for a secondary assist.

He wasn’t a point guard at Tennessee, and didn’t take up that mantle at the end of the Vols’ season, when they really needed somebody to. Still — he had the highest usage rate on the team and absolutely has some go-to moves — the in-and-out dribble from above, and this hesi-dribble coming up. The mob would be jealous of how he put this cat in cement shoes.

TURNOVERS

That usage rate I mentioned above: 26.8 percent, according to sports-reference dot com, is higher than Springer’s or Santi Vescovi or returning All-SEC players John Fulkerson and Yves Pons. Typically, coaches want the ball in the hands of their best players the most, right?

To a degree, with higher usage, more turnovers make some sense, and I think Johnson’s problems there stemmed from a mix of a couple things. Here, he’s maybe just trying to do too much, and perhaps overestimating what he can get away with using his natural athletic gifts.

Next, he’s bringing the ball up, and drives into traffic, and turns it over mid-spin move instead of pulling back and initiating the offense.

These are correctable errors. And for a 19-year old in the toddler stages of his basketball career, I’d say the high TO figures is pretty reasonable. One would think that decision making can and will improve as the player plays more ball, gets more comfortable and grows his awareness. Still — the TOs will give some NBA teams pause.

PASSING/ CREATION/ FACILITATING

At first glance, Keon’s 2.5 assists per game don’t do a 48-inch max vertical jump off the page. He’s not a PG, so you wouldn’t expect him to tally tons of helpers, but it’s not like he’s a possession ender, either. He’s a capable passer and for the most part, understands when to try and score and when, instead, to find an open teammate.

DEFENSE

Johnson projects as a high-level NBA defender despite his relative, sub-standard standing reach and fairly typical wingspan. Johnson’s functional athleticism stands out defensively and gives his defense the juice necessary to be a top-level defender even with his slighter build and frame.

He was regularly Tennessee’s point-of-attack defender, so he was often tasked with guarding other team’s PGs, and as such, he was frequently checking guys smaller and quicker. Johnson posted a 95.5 defensive rating that ranked him fifth (of regular contributors) on Tennessee’s roster.

I guess this is as good a time as any to talk about Johnson’s attitude and approach to the game. You’ve probably seen lotsa adjectives describing it — fiery, emotional, passionate, so on and so forth — and those are accurate. He’s got a 5th-year walk-on’s demeanor in a 5-star’s body. There’s not a whole lot of players who will outwork him, because not everybody is wired like he is. Tons of guys talk the talk, and Keon runs the walk. This is absolutely something teams will notice and appreciate as it sets him apart from other players in the class. But, it’s also not an end-all, be-all. Remember the commotion made about Anthony Edwards’ comments on how he didn’t “love,” basketball? It didn’t seem to matter much in his rookie season — he scored nearly 20 a game with a 50-ish eFG%.

Tennessee was a good defensive team, ranking fourth in adjusted defensive efficiency according to Bart Torvik and finishing in the country’s top-30 of points allowed per game, with several advanced individual defenders, like Yves Pons and Josiah-Jordan James. And still, Johnson’s defensive exploits regularly stood out.

SHOT BLOCKING

Johnson averaged just half a block per game, but managed a 2.0 block percentage (estimate of percentage of opponent FGs he blocked while on the floor) that ranked him in the 90th percentile for college players. Here, he uses unreal body control and spatial awareness to dodge his incoming teammate, stop his block attempt mid-gather, readjust and turn his body to then go up off two feet to block the ball that’s now behind him with his off hand. This is just incredible.

His man gets a step on him here as Keon over leverages to the side of the floor in anticipation of the screen. HIs man ends up having a step or a step-and-a-half on him by the time the shot goes up, but Johnson’s bunnies erase the deficit and he beats the ball into the glass.

There’s a downside here, though, too, that you can see in the video. He’s developed some bad habits on defense that are likely due, at least in part, to that same knack for erasing mistakes. He gambles on angles or overplays his leverage at times, and I just don’t think it would happen as frequently if he didn’t KNOW he can get back those couple of lost steps.

LATERAL MOVEMENT

I didn’t load any clips, but he’s great blocking shots from the weakside, too. He’s almost just intrinsically a threat to alter shots because of his leaping ability, but that’s not where he’ll have the most impact defensively. His inherent springiness translates into above average lateral movement, too, which makes him an on-the-ball menace.

He’s over-helping a bit early in the play, but that’s probably because how much ground he knows he can make up on the back end. He’ll get away with less of that in the NBA. But watch how he’s simultaneously dodging the pick and sliding his feet to stay in front of his man. He understands the angle and beats the offense to the spot, not allowing the ball handler to turn the corner.

HANDS

Next is my favorite part of Keon’s defensive skillset — his hands. He averaged about a steal per game, which sounds pretty ho-hum until you watch the replays.

Sorry for the quality here, but I promise you that’s Keon. His timing on his steals is fantastic. He’s particularly adept at what’s sometimes called a ‘dig steal,’ and that’s what we see in the clip below. This is one of my favorite highlights from Johnson’s season.

Dig steals are executed best when the dribbler’s head is down as he’s driving or while he’s looking away for a passing target. Then the timing of the reach has to be pretty precise, as it’s best if defender contacts the ball as its on it way back up from a dribble. Keon times his snare perfectly and then snaps the ball out of the air en route to a couple full-speed crossovers and a dunk. Goodness.

Another dig steal example:

His hands are disruptors on-ball, too.

It’s not right to highlight Johnson’s defensive strengths without mentioning his struggles, too. He had some poor games defensively.

This was Tennessee’s first game against Florida last season, and it was the Vols’ second loss of the young season. Florida took advantage of Johnson’s inexperience in this affair, getting him lost multiple times on screens.

Vols’ Head Coach Rick Barnes after the game: “Keon got lit up tonight defensively because he doesn’t understand ball-screen defense.”

This was early in the season, so I’m more inclined to give Johnson a bit of a pass here. Basketball IQ grows with more experience.

PROJECTION

Keon’s a tough prospect to project because we’re unsure how his shot develops, despite what appears to be a good foundation, and if his frame can handle the grind of an NBA season. Like most rookies, Johnson’s progression will be heavily influenced by the development infrastructure and patience of whichever club drafts him. In most circles, he’s seen as a high-risk, high-reward player due to his poor 3-point shooting percentage and subsequent fear that it won’t improve. I think he’s got a higher floor than most are giving credit for, I’m not a scout — I’m just here to collect the information and present it to you.