Draft preview: Kentucky’s Johnson could be long-term fit with Kennard on Pistons wings
AUBURN HILLS –Toronto will challenge Golden State’s reign in this year’s NBA Finals for one overriding reason: the 15th pick. If it hadn’t been the Raptors, it would have been Milwaukee and for the same reason: the 15th pick. Toronto’s Kawhi Leonard and Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo were both 15th picks two years apart, Leonard in 2011 and Antetokounmpo in ’13. Two-time MVP Steve Nash was the 15th pick in 1996.
Nobody else comes close to their class, though, among the 65 players drafted 15th overall since the NBA began seeding rosters via an amateur draft. Perhaps Al Jefferson
is the next most accomplished player, though he never made an All-Star team.
The Pistons have had the No. 15 pick four times in their history. Rodney Stuckey (2007) made the most immediate impact and probably wound up having the best career, though Phil Hubbard (1979), a great college player at Michigan before a catastrophic knee injury after his sophomore season, has a case.
The others taken with the 15th pick by the Pistons are Al Eberhard, back in 1974, and Austin Daye in 2009.
Last year’s 15th pick was Troy Brown, who played sparingly for the Washington Wizards. Brown profiles as the type of player most likely to be the pick of the Pistons this year: a teen with one year of college experience and little expectation of offering significant immediate help.
The four No. 15 picks prior to Brown were Justin Jackson, traded from Sacramento to Dallas in February, who shows promise as a rotation player heading into his third season after a three-year career at North Carolina; Juan Hernangomez, who’s shown flashes of promise but has yet to establish himself as part of Denver’s rotation in three NBA seasons; Kelly Oubre, who’ll be a restricted free agent after being traded from Washington to Phoenix at the trade deadline; and Adreian Payne, out of the NBA after being drafted by Minnesota out of Michigan State.
Our draft preview series continues today with a profile of Kentucky freshman wing Keldon Johnson.
FIRST-ROUND CANDIDATE: Keldon Johnson
ID CARD: 6-foot-6 wing, Kentucky, 19 years old
DRAFT RANGE: Ranked 19th by ESPN.com, 19th by The Athletic, 21st by SI.com
SCOUTS LOVE: Johnson has solid size for a wing at 6-foot-6 and 216 pounds with a 6-foot-9¼ wingspan. He plays hard. And he shoots it well at all three levels. That’s what you’re getting with Johnson: a guy who’ll compete and provide shooting and spacing while not presenting defensive mismatch problems at his position. Johnson hit 46 percent overall and 38 percent from the 3-point arc as a full-time starter in his only season at Kentucky out of prep power Oak Hill Academy, where he earned McDonald’s All-American status. He projects to help as a rookie as a catch-and-shoot type who can put the ball on the floor effectively to attack closeouts and find open teammates when defenses rotate. Kentucky has three players who could all be drafted in the top 20 picks, so Johnson arrives to the NBA already with a sense of how to fit among other talented players – and NBA scouts have a strong basis to evaluate how Johnson will be able to assess his ability to fit into a role.
SCOUTS WONDER: What other skill can Johnson develop in order to become more than a just-fit-in guy? He’s not regarded as an explosive athlete – there’s no dynamic first step or above-the-rim finishing with Johnson, as opposed to, say, North Carolina’s Nassir Little. As yet, he hasn’t developed much in the way of off-the-dribble creation of scoring chances beyond the two- or three-dribble, straight-line drives to get to a favorable shooting spot. Johnson looks capable of taking the next step offensively in a number of areas, but there are no guarantees he’ll become especially proficient, let alone elite, at any of them. He moves well enough off of the ball and likely will discover the value of becoming a more focused and decisive cutter off as he matures, but it’s not a trait that inevitably develops. If Johnson makes incremental improvements in all of those areas – gets a better than average handle, becomes more consistent with off-the-ball movement, improves his athleticism even marginally – he could readily make the leap from a floor of solid contributor to a ceiling of above-average starter. But there’s a lot of projection in there. At the other end, there is nothing to suggest Johnson will be either a stopper or a player who needs to be camouflaged defensively.
NUMBER TO NOTE: 23 – On a night in front of more NBA eyeballs than likely saw any other college basketball game of the 2018-19 season, that’s how many points Johnson scored to lead Kentucky when the Wildcats met Duke in the season opener. It became the game that stamped Zion Williamson as the likely No. 1 pick as he scored 28 points on 11 of 13 shooting in leading the Blue Devils to a 118-84 win. But Johnson also left an impression in his first college game, hitting 8 of 16 shots to go with four rebounds, two assists, a steal and a blocked shot with no turnovers in 30 minutes against a team with three likely top-10 picks.
MONEY QUOTE: “A lot of people say that I really can’t create my own shot. Of course, I’m going to disagree with it, but hopefully I go into workouts and show NBA teams otherwise. Just be myself and I think I’ll be fine.” – Keldon Johnson on what he’ll need to do in the days leading to the June 20 draft to improve his draft stock
PISTONS FIT: Johnson reported meeting with the Pistons at the NBA draft combine last month and it would be surprising if he wasn’t one of the players brought to Auburn Hills for a workout. If that doesn’t happen, it likely means Johnson’s been given some indication that he’d be drafted in the lottery. If he makes it to 15, the Pistons will take a long look at Johnson as a potential long-term fit on the wing alongside Luke Kennard and the three rookies from last season – Bruce Brown, Khyri Thomas and Svi Mykhailiuk. Johnson’s best skill at present – shooting and scoring – would help elevate a Pistons offense that could use all the 3-point threats they can add.
BOTTOM LINE: If you were placing a bet on at which college the player the Pistons pick at 15 played, Kentucky would be the play. Not only Johnson, but Tyler Herro and P.J. Washington are all considered likely to be drafted somewhere from 11 to the early 20s. Johnson is seen as a high-floor, low(er)-ceiling type, but at 19 there are still several areas where improvement should be expected. Johnson has a competitive edge and a 3-point stroke that could grow from above average to elite before he’s halfway through his rookie contract. If he gets there, Johnson on one wing and Luke Kennard on the other would look pretty good in a Dwane Casey offense.