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Buzzworthy Picks 2021: Keon Johnson

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The super athletic wing with a ton of raw potential

Tennessee v Oregon State Photo by Jack Dempsey/NCAA Photos via Getty Images

The next Buzzworthy Pick is Keon Johnson out of Tennessee. He is a 6’5” wing projected to be drafted anywhere from the mid-to-late lottery.

Johnson is from Shelbyville, Tennessee, and played high school ball at The Webb School. He absolutely dominated his competition, taking home Division II-A Tennessee Mr. Basketball honors two years in a row as a sophomore and junior.

Before high school even started, Johnson went through a very traumatic injury to his hands. He suffered open fractures in his fingers and was thrown over 10 feet in a fireworks accident. Surgery saved his fingers from being amputated, and it took him eight weeks of intensive physical therapy to fully recover.

In addition, Johnson suffered a meniscus injury which caused him to miss most of his senior season. In the four games he played in, he averaged 30.5 points, 10.5 rebounds, and 5.8 assists per game.

Perhaps the most notable fact about Johnson is that he did not play organized basketball until he got to high school. The fact that he was able to dominate in the manner that he did is all the more impressive. He’s already a lottery-level talent and has only been playing organized ball for about five years.

College

Johnson chose to play for his hometown college. He turned down offers from other major schools such as Ohio State and Virginia. He was a five-star recruit out of high school despite his lack of playing experience.

In his one season with the Volunteers, Johnson averaged 11.3 points, 3.5 rebounds, and 2.5 assists. He shot 44.9% from the field and 27.1% from deep. Johnson played with Jaden Springer at Tennessee, who is also expected to be drafted in the first round this year.

The two freshmen led the Vols to an 18-9 record and a five-seed in the NCAA March Madness tournament. Unfortunately, they were upset in Round 1 by Oregon State.

Upside

Johnson’s raw potential has NBA scouts foaming at the mouth. The fact that he didn’t start playing basketball until high school and is already this talented is insane. With the right training and coaching, he could develop into a young star very quickly.

His natural athletic ability is one of his strong suits. Johnson set an NBA record at the combine this year, recording a 48-inch vertical. The only other player who has come close was Zach LaVine in a pre-draft workout with the Lakers back in 2016. LaVine is one of the bounciest players in the NBA, so it’s not hard to imagine how ridiculously athletic he is.

The place Johnson puts this athleticism to use the most is on the defensive side of the floor. He continuously gets up for blocks that he has no business getting. Whether the offensive player is in front of him, to his side, or even behind him, Johnson can find a way to block the shot.

In addition, he’s super quick and can jump passing lanes with ease. He’ll constantly chase down passes that seem like a sure thing. It’s this aggressiveness that allows him to thrive on the defensive end.

Both his on-ball and off-ball defense are already at an elite level. As mentioned, he’s always active on that end of the floor, almost to a fault. The player he’s guarding is never going to have an easy route to the basket. He moves his feet well and has the potential to be a special perimeter defender.

Offensively, Johnson has more of a raw skillset. His quickness allows him to run the floor with amazing speed. He pushes the pace extremely well in transition and he’ll be one of the fastest players in the league right away.

In the halfcourt, Johnson’s go-to move is the mid-range shot. He loves to get to his spot, spin around, and pull up from that range. He’s extremely confident from that area and relatively consistent at knocking them down. He also loves to drive to the basket due to his athleticism but needs to put some work in at finishing once he gets there.

Despite his low assist numbers, Johnson has shown the ability to be a solid playmaker as well. His best asset in this regard is the ability to find the big man at all times. Whether it’s in the pick n’ roll or on a drive, he always manages to find the big man in the dunker’s spot. It’s uncanny and a great skill to have at the NBA level.

Lastly, his rebounding and hustle are above average for sure. He’s always moving and sneaks his way into the lane to steal rebounds away from much taller players.

Downside

As much as his raw potential can be considered a good thing, it also means he could struggle at first in the NBA. He needs to improve his overall game sense and fundamentals. Teams are attracted to his potential, but those looking for immediate production might find better options elsewhere.

Johnson tends to turn the ball over too much on the drive. Johnson loves to be aggressive on offense but can lose the ball in the process. He has all the makings of a great ball-handler but just has to tighten things up a bit.

His mid-range game can be lethal, but it might not translate well to the NBA. In a league where teams value three-point shooters, he does not fit the bill. He’s shown the ability to hit shots, but not at a consistent rate. Johnson prefers to get to the mid-range rather than work behind the three-point line. He’ll have to adapt to shooting more threes if he wants to stick around for a while.

As well as this, his shot seems to have a weird hitch in it. Sometimes it looks more fluid, but other times it seems as though he pauses at the top of his release. Smoothing out his jump shot should be a top priority once he gets the chance to work with NBA coaches.

While his defense is one of his biggest strengths, it can also turn into a weakness. He’s so aggressive and active that he sometimes gets lost. Whether this is as simple as going under screens or chasing a steal, it can result in open looks for the other team.

On those same lines, he often gets caught “doing too much.” He’s all over the place, normally in a good way, but it can lead to stray fouls at times. It also means he sometimes favors chasing a steal instead of sticking to his man. Aggressiveness is a great asset to have on defense, but it has to be controlled.

Comparison

It’s tough to find an exact comparison for Johnson, as his skillset combines so many different aspects of the game. Immediately his mid-range game screamed DeMar DeRozan, but he has the potential to be a much better defender. He also seems to have similar mid-range moves to Chris Paul, but he’s nowhere near that level of deadly.

Derrick White also stood out, as did a skinnier Eric Bledsoe, but nothing was perfect. Neither is quite the defender or as freakishly athletic as Johnson is. His raw potential makes it very hard to find a player to compare him to.

Kevin O’Connor of The Ringer compared him to Latrell Sprewell, Kentavious-Caldwell Pope, and Gary Harris. These are all solid, but Sprewell is by far the best. Pope is a much better three-point shooter, and Harris doesn’t have the mid-range game.

Sprewell had a ton of potential when he entered the league, and though off-court issues got the best of him, he still managed to live up to some of the hype. He was a four-time All-Star, solid defender, and was never a great three-point shooter. O’Connor really hit the nail on the head with this one.

Summary

This would certainly be a risky pick. The Charlotte Hornets already have LaMelo Ball and Terry Rozier in their backcourt and Miles Bridges and Gordon Hayward on the wing. Adding another small wing might not be the best idea.

Johnson is projected to go before the 11th pick in most mock drafts. Many mocks have him going around picks seven to nine. That being said, it could be hard to turn down Johnson’s defensive potential if he does make it to pick 11.

His lack of three-point shooting ability is definitely a concern. Putting good shooting around Ball should be a priority for the Hornets. With that being said, putting Johnson’s great defense next to Ball in the backcourt could be an ideal choice as well.

It would be a tough decision depending on who’s available at pick 11, but the upside with Johnson could be impossible to turn down. He has some of the best upside in the draft, but due to how raw of a player he is, it might not be worth it. Johnson needs to improve his fundamentals, but it will be an interesting scenario to watch unfold if he is available at pick 11 for the Hornets to select.