Is Keldon Johnson The Best Three-Point Shooter In The NBA?
No...but his ceiling is significantly higher now than it was just months ago
Keldon Johnson is leading the league in 3P%
Keldon Johnson is a third-year forward for the Spurs. He’s a strong, straight-line driver with decent defense, good rebounding instincts, a high motor, limited handle, and virtually no passing ability. He’s a bowling ball with some hops.
Overall, Johnson’s scoring 15.3 points per game for the Spurs (up from 12.8 last year), and while he hasn’t quite met the high hopes people had after he was invited to the Olympic team this offseason, he has made one massive improvement.
KJ went from shooting 33% from three last year on 2.6 attempts per game to a blistering 47.2% on 3.3 shots per game this year. He leads the entire league in 3P%. Even that doesn’t tell the whole story, however. Here are his splits by month:
Johnson spent much of the summer reportedly working with famed Spurs shot doctor Chip Engelland (the one responsible for Kawhi Leonard’s deadeye shot, among many others) to improve his shot form. After a slow start, it seems like that work is paying off.
But will it sustain? FT% is highly correlated with 3P%, yet KJ remains a below-average shooter from the charity stripe (just 70%). On the other hand, he is an above-average shooter from the mid-range this season, suggesting his shooting improvement may be more fundamental.
Despite the mechanical work he put in, when I look at videos of him shooting from the past versus his shooting form today, I don’t see a significant difference that could account for Johnson’s uptick in deep accuracy. His shot might be a little smoother and a little flatter, but the basics of it haven’t changed, and his foot positioning while shooting is inconsistent.
Keldon is a hard worker has improved his shot variety in his third season. He’s added a floater to his game, which will be a nice complement to his usual rim charges, and he’s reduced his turnover percentage despite an increasing offensive role each year.
Johnson’s clearly become more comfortable behind the line, but almost every three he takes is still labeled as “open” or “wide open” by NBA.com. His ability to shoot off the dribble is nonexistent, and the vast majority of his threes are simple catch-and-shoot:
That’s not a bad thing! Players around non-shooter Spurs point guards Derrick White and Dejounte Murray need to be able to hit these exact shots. Johnson also has shown the ability to hit from all areas around the arc, not just the corners, which is an encouraging sign. Many low-volume shooters are stuck in the corners waiting for a pass. Johnson’s comfort from everywhere makes him more dynamic without the ball.
Teams still treat Johnson like a non-shooter, and he hesitates to launch with defenders anywhere in his zip code. By nature, he’s a heads-down attacker. You’ll never catch Johnson moving sideways or dancing around the arc. Decisiveness is a good thing in a player without robust dribbling abilities, and upon catching the ball, he shoots or goes to the hoop immediately:
Notice how open Johnson is when he catches the ball. If he keeps shooting this well, teams will be forced to defend him closer, which should make it easier for him to finish at the rim.
No one in the NBA is a 54% shooter from deep, so some regression is inevitable. The millions-and-millions-dollar-question for the Spurs: where will he eventually level out at?
Johnson’s next step should be dabbling with taking slightly more contested threes. The Spurs are just 14-19 and 10th in the West. This season is more about development than anything else, and players only grow when they stretch into things they aren’t good at yet. I’d love to see KJ take some shots that aren’t in his wheelhouse and start to push himself a little more.
High-volume, middling-accuracy shooters are more valuable to an NBA team than low-volume, high-accuracy shooters. The threat of the three brings defenders closer, which opens up the drive and spaces the floor for other players. Defensive game-planning for specific situations is more challenging if a player threatens to shoot from anywhere on the floor, even when guarded well.
If Johnson ends up a 38% shooter from distance while increasing his volume to five or six attempts per game, he will be an extremely valuable player. If he settles back down to 35% or lower, or can’t increase his volume, his fit on the court for the Spurs becomes much more difficult.
Regardless, Johnson’s shooting is arguably the thing to watch for San Antonio going forward. The Spurs have many talented young players, but it’s difficult to see who could be a core piece on a contending team besides blossoming star Dejounte Murray. Johnson’s three-ball could be the key that unlocks that role for him.
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