The Los Angeles Clippers traded up in July 2021 in the first round of the NBA draft to nab Tennessee’s human trampoline Keon Johnson. And on August 6, Clippers president of basketball operations Lawrence Frank announced that the team had signed Johnson to a rookie contract in advance of Monday’s start to the Clippers’ Summer League.
Further details were not initially divulged, per team policy, but according to Spotrac, the deal is 4 years, $12.5 million. Johnson is guaranteed to make just north of $2.5 million each of the first two years, with team options for years three and four.
With hair-raising athleticism, superb floor awareness and a motor built without an off switch, the Clippers believe that the 6-foot-4 Johnson, whose 48-inch max vertical leap was the highest ever for an NBA combine participant, already has what it takes to be a highly disruptive force defensively.
While Johnson’s ballhandling and overall offensive game need improvement — he committed a team-high 71 turnovers in his only year at Tennessee and his 44.9% from the field and 27.1% from behind the arc were not exactly mouth-watering — scouting reports have often highlighted his resilience and will to win, suggesting that those weaknesses will dissipate over time with some hard work.
Johnson, described by Frank as having a “great competitive streak” who “likes being coached hard,” is certainly no stranger to putting in the time. After all, it’s been his modus operandi ever since the age of 13, when a fireworks accident nearly ended his chances of a basketball career, not to mention his life.
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A Career That Almost Never Began
Fireworks kill or injure thousands of people each year, but back in June of 2015, such a thing was far from Johnson’s preadolescent mind. At his cousin’s house one evening, he lit the fuse to a powerful artillery firework after placing it into a mortar tube.
The fuse, however, was too short. And when the firework exploded too quickly, Johnson took the brunt of the impact, knocking him unconscious and all but decimating his left hand, according to Hope Magazine’s Nancy Humphrey, who recounted the incident years later when Johnson was a junior at The Webb School in Bell Buckle, Tennessee, and a top college recruit.
“Four of his fingers had open fractures (meaning the bone had come through the skin), and the breaks were so traumatic that the fingers were out of their normal positions,” wrote Humphrey. “The damage to the ring finger was significant. The blood vessels would have to be repaired to avoid amputation.”
As bad as that sounds, it could’ve been worse. Turns out Johnson’s cell phone, which was in his pocket, was in the right place at the right time.
“There was a lot of blood on his hand, his leg and his chest,” said Johnson’s mother, Conswella, who herself was a two-time All-SEC basketball player at Auburn. “His chest took some of the after-effects. He had little burns all over his chest. I was worried about his eyes, too. The whites of his eyes were blood red, and we didn’t know at first if his vision had been damaged, or his testicles. His cell phone definitely saved his groin area.”
Once the blood vessels to his ring finger were repaired and stabilizing pins were inserted in his other fingers, Johnson began the grueling ordeal of rehabilitation.
‘It Changed My Life as Soon as It Happened’
For eight weeks, Johnson underwent intensive physical therapy, described as a very painful process by Dr. Doug Weikert, the surgeon who worked feverishly to repair Johnson’s hand at The Children’s Hospital of Vanderbilt University hours after the incident. Weikert, coincidentally, was a scholarship guard at Vanderbilt during his undergraduate years in the early 1980s and his son Drew is a walk-on senior with the Commodores.
The elder Weikert applauded Johnson’s resilience and unwillingness to let his mistake get him down, putting his praise into terms that should make Clippers fans optimistic for Johnson’s progress on the court:
He rehabbed it and played through it. He didn’t let it get the best of him. He didn’t feel sorry for himself. He knew he made a mistake. He owned up to it and took it upon himself to rehab through all the pins sticking out of his fingers and the pain that goes along with that injury and the scar tissue. He recovered. He got over it.
You never know what you’re going to get with a teenager in terms of handling things like that. I’ve had three of them. Some just don’t know what to do. Others are coachable. He was certainly coachable.
For his part, Johnson has not attempted to forget the incident entirely or keep it from informing the way he views life. Quite the contrary.
“It changed my life as soon as it happened,” Johnson said in 2019, per Humphrey. “There’s no question I put my life in jeopardy. I found out right after my accident there was another kid who had the same accident and passed away. This made me more humble. I don’t know where I’d be without basketball, and especially my hand.”
Right now, that’s with the Clippers, who can’t wait for Johnson to create some good kind of fireworks on the court.