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After Making One Giant Leap at the Combine, Keon Johnson Prepares For the Next Step
The prevailing word on Isaac Okoro coming out of Auburn last season was that he was polished defensively, but that his offensive skillset was still a work in progress.
Okoro was tabbed with the 5th overall pick by the Cavaliers, and he proved to be polished on the defensive end. And on the offensive side, he indeed was a work in progress. He worked, he progressed, and he finished the season netting double-figures in 12 of Cleveland’s final 13 games – averaging 15.7 points per over that stretch, including a career-best 32-point outburst in an overtime thriller against the Western Conference Champs, the Suns.
Hailing from Bell Buckle, Tennessee, (pop. 589), Keon Johnson comes into this year’s Draft with a similar scouting report – a hard-nosed, versatile defender whose offensive game is just scratching the surface.
The 6-5, 186-pounder was named Tennessee’s Mr. Basketball twice before a single standout season with Rick Barnes and his home state Volunteers – being named to the SEC All-Freshman Team, leading Tennessee in field goals made and attempted and helping them advance to the NCAA Tourney, where they fell to Oregon State in the opening round.
But there was a moment years earlier that almost kept Johnson from reaching those heights – or playing basketball at all for that matter.
Two months before he began high school, Johnson suffered a horrific fireworks injury that left him with four open fractures on his left hand. Johnson was knocked unconscious by the explosion and also suffered injuries to his leg and chest. Emergency surgery and then months of excruciating rehab followed, but he eventually regained the full use of his hand – and less than five years later he finds himself as a likely Lottery pick in the 2021 NBA Draft.
So, before Keon Johnson ever steps on an NBA floor, he’ll already have proved his toughness and determination. And he recently proved – in emphatic fashion – that he’s arguably the most explosive athlete in this year’s class, shattering the Draft Combine’s vertical leap mark (45.5) that had stood for two decades, posting a 48-inch leap last week in Chicago.
Johnson won’t have to wait long to hear his name called on July 29, and whichever team calls his name will know that they’ve gotten a determined young man who knows what it’s like to nearly lose it all.
STRENGTHS Johnson is a dynamic wing player with good size and unbelievable athleticism; scouts already knew he could jump out of the gym before his eye-popping elevation in the Windy City. But he also puts that athleticism to excellent use on both ends of the floor.
He’s an instinctive defender who can explode into passing lanes and is a one-man fastbreak when he gets his hands on the ball. But Johnson’s not just flashy on the offensive side. He’s a tough defender with an aggressive mentality who takes charges, fights through screens and is an outstanding rebounder for his size.
Offensively, Johnson – whose mother, Conswella Sparrow Johnson, was a two-time All-SEC performer at Auburn – is more of a slasher than a shooter at this point. He has good footwork and body control and, with some added muscle, could live at the line at the pro level. He attacks the rim and can finish through contact.
In terms of intangibles, Johnson’s been praised for his mental makeup, toughness and ability to make winning plays. He has very good upside and improved as his freshman season progressed – averaging 16.5 ppg, 9.0 ppg, 3.5 apg and1.5 spg through Tennessee’s two SEC Tournament games in Nashville.
WEAKNESSES While he was able to maximize his freakish athletic tools against college competition, Johnson will be forced to diversify at the next level.
For starters, NBA defenders will make him prove that he can score from outside – something he struggled with at Tennessee, connecting on less than 45 percent of his field goal attempts, including just 27 percent from beyond the arc. He didn’t connect on a pull-up three-pointer all season.
Johnson will also need to tighten up his handle at the pro level and improve as a decision maker – he can be turnover prone and has a habit of over-dribbling or dribbling into the teeth of the defense at times.
HOW HE'D FIT In today’s NBA, you can never have enough wings – especially ones that willingly and skillfully defend the ball.
But today’s NBA also demands that wings can step out beyond the arc – especially for a Cavaliers team that’s finished at or near the bottom of that category over the past few years. Isaac Okoro improved from deep over the course of the campaign; there’s no reason to think Johnson couldn’t do the same.
The 19-year-old Johnson has the raw talent, intangibles and upside that NBA scouts drool over. Whether it’s enough to get him up into the top 3 is something that the Cavs Brass will decide upon over the coming weeks.