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The Steady Rise of Spurs Rookie Keldon Johnson in Orlando

Freshman guard Keldon Johnson (3) goes for the layup during the game against No. 19 LSU on Tuesday, February 12, 2019 in Lexington, Ky. LSU defeated Kentucky 73-71. Photo by Hunter Mitchell.

The San Antonio Spurs arrived in the Orlando NBA bubble with a record of 27-36 and five games behind eighth seeded Memphis, becoming sort of an afterthought in the race to get into the playoffs. Now after two regular season games in the NBA restart, they find themselves just 3.5 games behind the final playoff spot in the Western Conference after defeating the Grizzlies and the Kings.

In fact, as of now the Spurs would be competing in a double elimination play-in series with Memphis in which they would have to beat the Grizzlies twice in a row to get into the playoffs as the eight seed since they sit within four games as the next team looking in, a spot in which not very many analysts saw San Antonio being in at this point.

A big part of the team’s success has of course been all-star forward DeMar Derozan who knocked down two free throws with one second left to beat Memphis 108-106 on Sunday, along with other experienced players including guards Dejounte Murray and Derrick White. An underrated key to the Spurs’ success, however, has been former ‘Cat and rookie Keldon Johnson.

Johnson spent a lot of this season pre-Coronavirus in the G-League working on his game as he transitioned to the NBA level before finding some playing time with the San Antonio Spurs in early March. He averaged 7.0 points per game and 2.8 rebounds per game in 10 appearances on the court before the season was suspended. The 2019 NBA Draft first-round pick was steadily gaining more minutes on basketball’s biggest professional stage.

Now in Orlando, we have seen Johnson flourish even more. He averaged 13.3 points per game on 61.9% shooting from the field and grabbed 5.3 rebounds per game in three scrimmages for the Spurs, proving his worth to the team. Those numbers and his work ethic led to San Antonio Head Coach Greg Popovich praising his motor.

“They still have mustangs out West?” Popovich joked with reporters back on July 28. “He’s (Johnson) one of those kind of guys. He’s kind of wild and very energetic, very aggressive, takes no prisoners, sticks his nose in, likes contact. All-in-all, he’s a very competitive individual.”

The combination of his increased productivity and reliable motor earned the former ‘Cat some playing time in the Spurs two regular season games so far in the restart, and he took advantage. Against Sacramento, Johnson scored eight points and grabbed six boards in 30 minutes of playing time as San Antonio won the game 129-120. He put up similar numbers in the team’s 108-106 win against Memphis on Sunday, totaling nine points and six boards in 25 minutes. All of that while still exerting a lot of energy to boost the team in those wins.

Here is a clip of Johnson stealing a pass, throwing the ball to one of his teammates as he saved it from going out-of-bounds, then grabbing the offensive board and getting a bucket on the other end against Memphis:

That is what you call hard work.

Johnson and the Spurs will look to continue their playoff push on Monday at 8 p.m. against the Philadelphia 76ers.

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