Keon Johnson was the 28th ranked prospect in the 2020 high school class .
In his one year at Tennessee, the six-foot-four off guard averaged 17.8 points per 40 minutes on 51.9% true shooting in 686 minutes across 27 appearances.
The Volunteers started the season ranked 12th in the country but went on to win just two-thirds of their games and got bounced in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. Yet, Johnson’s draft stock has risen into lottery status, above the level of performance of his team, based on his combination of athletic ability and effort on defense.
His level of competitiveness really pops on video, and he proved himself quick enough to check opposing point guards consistently.
His physical profile is underdeveloped for someone with his height and it costs him some in the more physical areas of the game, which should keep him from being a real option to check some of the power wings found in the pros. His length and his reach are only average too.
But the 19-year-old is tenacious enough to harass smaller players all over the floor and quick off the ground to contest shots effectively. The hope is that, even if his body doesn’t develop further and he doesn’t become strong enough to guard bigger wings, he’ll at least be a legit ace defender against scoring guards.
Point guard defense is often devalued nowadays but can play a role in the structure of an elite defense, as Johnson averaged 25.5 minutes per game for a team that ranked fifth in the country in adjusted defensive efficiency .
However, I think it’s fair to say he is currently ranked ninth on ESPN’s top 100 in account of what some dream to be his potential on offense.
He exceled in transition, both as a threat to attack the goal against opponents running back and as a threat to play above the rim as a target for lobs filling the lanes.
In the halfcourt, Johnson generally struggled to get all way to the rim in a position of strength and to space the floor away from the ball but showed quite a bit of potential for getting into mid-range and creating good looks for himself in isolation, out of the pick-and-roll and by taking smaller defenders into the post.
Despite his 26.6% usage rate, it’s hard to say Johnson influences the game much positively in the halfcourt. He is turnover prone when taken away from one-on-one matchups, is underdeveloped as a passer on the move, and can be left open from three-point range. His .476 effective field goal percentage and his average of 4.1 turnovers per 40 minutes are both bottom 15 marks among all players on ESPN’s top 100.
The appeal with Johnson is as a tenacious on-ball defender who can envelope smaller point guards at the point of attack and elevate the level of the offense in transition, while holding some potential to become more physical by his late-20s and maybe developing enough skill to become a more capable ballhandler in the halfcourt, with the absolute dream scenario someone like Russell Westbrook, a sick athlete who developed just about enough skill and court vision to run offense in the pros.
Johnson hustles back in transition in a way that stands out and manages to apply his explosive leaping ability to pick up the occasional chase-down block and overwhelm smaller opponents who try to finish through him – playing a role in Tennessee ranking in the top-third in the country in opponents’ effective field-goal percentage in the first 10 seconds off the shot clock off a steal .
His level of competitiveness stands out in the halfcourt as well. He bends his knees to get down in a low stance, can be tenacious enough to heat up opposing ballhandlers full-court when asked to and has the lateral quickness to stay in front of guards who look to operate east-and-west.
Johnson plays with active hands to try poking the ball or reaching around for steals and can contest pull-up jumpers fairly well against smaller players.
He is prone to getting beat on the first step by speedsters who are more consistently looking to operate north-and-south but usually doesn’t give up on plays and, if properly aided by the help, manages to contest from the behind at the release point thanks to his explosive leaping ability.
Against the pick-and-roll, the Knoxville native bends his knees to get down in a stance, gets skinny over screens at the point of attack fairly well for someone his size, hustles in pursuit, and makes an impact contesting from behind.
He has a thin 184-pound frame in the context of his six-foot-four height, though, and doesn’t play with much physicality. He doesn’t often chest up to contain dribble penetration through contact and lacks the strength to hold his ground.
Johnson plays with his arms up within the lane but has an eight-foot-one standing reach, lacking the reach to truly effect wings with his contests, when he’s kept ground bound.
He has shown the competitiveness and the tenacity needed to front the post up and boxing out bigger players on switches but doesn’t figure to be an asset for those strategies in the pros up until he becomes stronger, thus projecting as more of a guard defender early on.
Johnson was a bit of a mixed bag away from the ball.
He puts in the effort to leverage his combination of size and athleticism in ball-denial, chasing around screens and disrupting dribble-handoffs.
In the strong-side, despite his average six-foot-seven wingspan for someone with his height, he was often seen playing with active hands executing stunts and clogging driving lanes to make plays on the ball from the side or deflect passes – averaging 1.7 steals per 40 minutes.
He is a decent off-ball defender on the weakside, reasonably reliable to execute the scheme; switching on the fly to make up for breakdowns against people movement or baseline out of bounds sets and rotating to pick up the roll man.
Johnson isn’t always down in a proper stance, though; prone to get caught ball-watching and losing his man drifting to the corner.
While capable of jumping a pocket pass in rotation, he is usually not much of a contributor in terms of standing in the way, challenging shots via verticality, acting as a willing charge drawer and hasn’t yet developed the timing to leverage his supreme 48-inch vertical into acting as a consistent threat to block shots – picking up just 12 blocks in 688 minutes at Tennessee, with almost all of them coming in transition or defending on the ball.
He is sometimes seen joining scrums to boxout bigger players but not that often and disappointed with his contributions helping secure rebounds – collecting just 10.9% of opponents’ misses when he was on the floor last season.
His closeouts were extremely inconsistent as well. He hustles to closeout to the three-point line with good urgency and had some good moments contesting within the shooter’s personal space, but rarely managed to run the shooter off his shot, got blown by when he did, and at times employed an unorthodox two-handed contest technique that didn’t seem particularly effective.
Johnson was not a volume rebounder at Tennessee but showed a knack for hunting opportunities to speed up the pace of the game in transition, either on grab-and-go’s or when he was the first pass off the board.
He is a dynamo pushing the ball up the court, acting as a legit threat to run past everyone and go up with power off one foot off a head of steam – averaging 0.87 dunks per 40 minutes , with most of his unassisted scoring at the rim coming in transition.
Johnson is also an option to play above the rim as a target for lobs on give-and-go’s or running past the ballhandler to fill the lanes.
He is, however, fairly turnover prone and hasn’t yet developed much versatility to his passing on the open floor – flashing the occasional pass ahead to a teammate running past the last line of defense but rarely showing long bullets on outlets, hitting shooters sprinting to the wing or the corner, and lobs for alley-oop threats sprinting past him.
Johnson rarely ran middle high pick-and-roll against a set defense late in the shot clock but had quite a few opportunities to run side pick-and-roll within the flow of the offense. His handle is not very refined, but he flashed some craft manipulating his man around the ball-screen; in-and-out dribbles, low crossovers to change directions once past the pick, hesitation moves.
It was rare to see him being able to turn the corner or play downhill decisively, though. Most of the players knew where to stand more often than not but Tennessee generally struggled to space the floor properly – ranking 205th in the country in three-point percentage, 240th in three-point attempts and 246th in three-point makes.
When he did manage to get all the way to the goal, Johnson showed to be a very explosive leaper off one foot with a clear path to take off, as well as off galloping into two-foot leaps with space to bounce up, but acted as more of a rim-level finisher in traffic who hasn’t yet developed many resources to deal with a rim protector parked between him and the goal.
He can hang and adjust his body in the air but hasn’t yet developed enough core strength to complete most of his more acrobatic attempts, struggles to finish through contact and had a hard time with his touch around the basket in his one year in college – converting just 52.7% of his 72 non-dunk finishes last season.
Johnson can execute pre-arranged reads hitting the roll man over the top or the strongside shooter if the help defender overcommits, assisting on 20.6% of Tennessee’s scores when he was on the floor, but isn’t very adept at adjusting on the fly when the first window is taken away, hasn’t yet developed the touch to toss up lobs on the move, and often struggled to hit the weakside corner. His handle is fairly loose in traffic too, as he turned it over on almost one-fifth of his possessions.
One-on-one, Johnson has a quick first step out of a live dribble, can muscle through smaller guards, and showed enticing flashes of being able to maneuver his way through tight spaces, including a quick spin to weave his way through the crowd, but isn’t as quick out of a dead dribble, isn’t especially fast on straight-live drives and struggles to maintain his balance through contact against opposing wings.
Both in pick-and-roll and isolation, Johnson is currently more productive while looking to get into his spots to pull-up from mid-range, having shown decent footwork to create separation and tremendous bounce to shoot over the top of the contest consistently.
He is very smooth employing low crossovers, has phenomenal body control to stop on a dime and rises with great balance for stop-and-pop pull-ups – shooting 40.8% on 103 two-point shots away from the rim, which accounted for 41.7% of his live-ball attempts .
Johnson has also shown a knack for taking smaller opponents into the post, operating with a patient approach when given the chance and launching hiked-leg, turnaround fadeaway jumpers.
Given his limitations in terms of being able to create for others and the fact that his skillset in the halfcourt is more oriented towards getting a shot from mid-range, off multiple dribbles and with a hand in his face, Johnson seems like a long-term project as a ballhandler.
As is, the easiest way to project him on offense in the near future is as a spot-up shooter but his catch-and-shoot three-point stroke is probably the most underdeveloped aspect of his skillset for now.
His release does not seem particularly broken or anything but probably needs all sorts of adjustments to become more consistent and repeatable on an-every attempt-basis, especially if contested.
Johnson needs only an average dip for rhythm, gets little elevation off the ground but fully extends himself for a high release, and has a fairly quick trigger.
But the ball didn’t go in much last season, as he missed 72.9% of his 48 three-point shots, at a pace of just 2.8 such attempts per 40 minutes. His 19.4% three-point rate is the lowest mark among players listed as shooting guards on ESPN’s top 100.
His touch on mid-range pull-ups offers hope that a breakthrough in terms of reliability on open spot-ups could be just around the corner, but the causes for skepticism could be just as a strong, as his worst misses tended to be to the side, and he hit just 70.3% of his 101 free throws.
He flashed enough footwork for the occasional catch-and-shoot three-pointer drifting around the wing to sustain proper spacing, but Johnson is not any sort of real option to take shots on the move at this point of his development.
With that as the case, his most capable way of contributing to team-oriented offense was as a threat to catch-and-finish near the rim, as Johnson has shown to be a smart cutter, not just attacking space behind the defense on the weakside and offering himself as a target to play above the rim as a target for lobs who does not need to load up to go up, but also cutting across the lane and on decisive diagonal cuts off entering the ball to the post – with 41.1% of his 56 makes at the rim assisted.