It’s time to raise some eyebrows about expectations for a former Tennessee basketball player given what happened Thursday night in the NBA Draft. This Vol could be in line to replace one of the biggest stars in the game.
Keon Johnson was taken with the 21st overall pick by the New York Knicks and then had his draft rights traded to the Los Angeles Clippers for the 25th overall pick, Quentin Grimes and a future second round pick. While both are 6’5″ guards, Grimes is more of a scorer, as he averaged nearly 18 points a game last year with the Houston Cougars and shot over 40 percent from three.
On the other hand, Johnson is a clear wing. Los Angeles’ decision to trade up for him comes amidst rumors that Kawhi Leonard, their star wing, is set to leave. Making things even more interesting, Johnson said in his NBA Draft profile video before the night began that he models his style of play after Leonard.
So let’s break this down. The Clippers are in danger of losing Leonard, and they traded up to take a player who is trying to become a replica of Leonard? Who would look at that and not think that LA is preparing for life without Leonard going forward.
We should note that although Johnson is two inches shorter than Leonard, his 48-inch vertical make him just as valuable of a wing defensively. If you compare their college production, Leonard did play two years with the San Diego State Aztecs and averaged 15.5 points and 10.6 rebounds his final year there.
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Johnson only averaged 11.3 points and three and a half rebounds. However, it’s worth noting he was sharing time a lot more, and he played in much tougher competition. Also, rebounding isn’t a focus of what either player does.
Both players averaged between one and one and a half steals a game and around half a block a game. Given what we know about Johnson, his perimeter defense is the one part of his game that is certain to rival Leonard.
Offensively, though, Johnson was actually more efficient than Leonard in college. Don’t forget that in two years, Leonard failed to shoot 30 percent or above from three, and Johnson was actually better as a freshman at 27.1 percent than Leonard was at 20.5 percent. Meanwhile, both players have identical field goal percentages at 44.9 for their college years.
A clear difference is free throw shooting, where Leonard finished his career 74.4 percent while Johnson was 70.3 percent his one year. However, that difference is not insurmountable, and while Johnson is a project, he could be the guy to replace Leonard in the future.
Heck, even if Leonard does stay on for a few more years, LA could spend that time developing Johnson so he’ll be ready to go. He won’t be the first former Tennessee basketball player to do that over the past 10 years.
Remember Josh Richardson? He was a second-round pick in the NBA Draft in 2015 and had replaced Dwyane Wade at shooting guard by his second year. Could Johnson do something like that? It’s possible, especially given Leonard’s injury history.