The L.A. Clippers have jumped the line to get the highest jumper in the 2021 NBA draft.
Originally slated to select 25th in the first round, the Clippers traded that pick and a 2024 second-rounder to the New York Knicks for the right to draft Tennessee’s air-walking shooting guard Keon Johnson at 21st.
The 6-foot-5 Johnson, considered by some to be the best pure athlete of the incoming crop, played one year as a Vol before declaring for the draft, and never was his incredible athleticism more apparent than at this summer’s NBA Draft Combine.
Johnson set a max vertical leap record with 48 inches, topping the previous best (Kenny Gregory in 2001) by 2 1/2 inches.
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At the time of the record-setting combine jump, The Athletic’s Sam Vecenie projected Johnson as a Top 10 pick, noting his “burst as a driver” and describing the 19-year-old as an “elite defender on the ball already.”
In 27 games last season, Johnson averaged 11.3 points on 44.9% shooting, 3.5 rebounds, 2.5 assists and 1.1 steals. He was particularly effective over Tennessee’s final 12 games, averaging 14.4 points 4.3 rebounds and 3.0 assists, including 27 points in a win over Kentucky in early February. Johnson was named to the SEC All-Freshman first team.
Johnson Must Improve Shooting and Ballhandling
While there’s no denying Johnson’s athletic prowess, there are questions about his shooting and overall offensive game.
Last season at Tennessee, Johnson shot just 27.1% from behind the arc, which would have put him dead last amongst Clippers who took over 18 3-point attempts in 2020-21. And, despite his ability to rise up over practically anyone, he has shown little in terms of catch-and-shoots.
Additionally, Johnson is a below-average playmaker, in part because he is a sub-par ball-handler who is relatively weak with his left hand. In college, he severely favored driving to his right but was able to overcome such predictableness through sheer athletic superiority. At the next level, however, he could have trouble maintaining possession on drives if teams can force him left or if he’s not strong with the ball in the lane. As it is, Johnson had a negative assist-to-turnover ratio last year at Tennessee.
Not Expected to Immediately Contribute
It’s somewhat surprising that the Clippers, who advanced to the Western Conference finals last season, traded up to get Johnson. Many analysts expected him to go to a team looking to rebuild and willing to wait for Johnson’s offensive skill set to catch up to his raw talent.
Indeed, back at the time of the combine, Vecenie suggested that Johnson would be an apt fit for a non-contender like Orlando or Oklahoma City, writing that it could “take a little while for him to cut down the turnovers and to rework his shot mechanics.” Vecenie even floated the idea that Johnson could spend some time in the G League.
But a demotion from the big squad is less likely given that the Clippers spent draft equity to get him. Of course, with star forward Kawhi Leonard sidelined at least half the season (assuming he re-signs), the Clippers are already behind the 8-ball defensively and could try to use Johnson right off the bat in a Ron Artest-like role, his primary benefits coming defensively and on hustle plays all over the court.
Problem is, Leonard’s absence will also require the Clippers to find a great deal of additional scoring, and Johnson doesn’t appear ready to pick up that kind of slack. It seems more probable therefore that L.A. will use Johnson sparingly in his first season — as they did with Terance Mann his rookie year — and hope that he’ll emerge in a year or two as a viable threat offensively.
As The Athletic’s John Hollinger put it, shortly after the pick: “[Johnson] will have a chance to quietly develop at the back end of their roster.”