The Portland Trail Blazers are in no way wanting for extra guard help this season. The franchise will open the 2022-23 season with Damian Lillard, Anfernee Simons, Josh Hart and Gary Payton II as the obvious rotation pieces at the two smaller positions.
But what about Keon Johnson?
The young prospect arrived in the Norman Powell and Robert Covington deal with the Los Angeles Clippers in February and played a major part in the Blazers’ recent Summer League championship.
Over the past week, both Lillard and Coach Chauncey Billups have highlighted the 20-year-old as a standout in preseason workouts, calling out his development and his energy. Neither needed to drop Johnson’s name but clearly the young guard was deserving of the praise.
“Keon Johnson, to me has been the most impressive player from last year to this year, his development wise and the way he’s approaching the game.
“I think all the vets have noticed that he’s here and he’s trying to compete. He’s done everything I’ve asked him to do.”
Getting the former Tennessee product on the court this season will however be a challenge. Lillard and Simons are solidified as starters with Hart and Payton II locks to get decent minutes off the bench.
Despite this roadblock, Johnson does have workable skills to offer this team. At 6’4, the versatile guard boasts athleticism, explosiveness, scoring, defense and, in spots, the ability to handle and facilitate.
Johnson appeared to be high on the Clippers wish-list on 2021 NBA Draft night, prompting them to deal with the New York Knicks to move up four spots in order to secure the young shooting guard with the 21st pick. And why not? That 41.5 inch vertical leap at the combine would have prompted all 30 franchises to at least take a second look.
In 15 outings with the Clippers, Johnson saw a measly nine minutes a game, putting up stats that won’t contribute to this piece and shouldn’t be used to prove anything.
Dealt to the Blazers alongside Eric Bledsoe, Justise Winslow and a second round pick days before the deadline, the athletic guard was given opportunity as Portland’s tank started rolling. He registered 25 minutes, 9.7 points on almost 35 percent from the behind the arc, 2.2 boards, 2.1 assists and 0.8 steals in 22 games as the Blazers sunk down the standings.
With the Blazers season ending in mid April, Johnson got to work and by the time Las Vegas Summer League came around in early July, he was ready to go. Johnson contributed averages of 14.2 points on 33.3 percent three point shooting, 3.9 boards, 2 assists and 1.8 steals in what became the franchise’s second Summer League title.
Fast forward to Media Day on Monday where the sophomore shooting guard ran through his summer priorities, naming conditioning and improving off-court habits key to becoming a better professional. He worked on his body and defense, highlighting an emphasis on picking up players at 94 feet, using his natural instincts and 6’7 wingspan to corral opposing defenders at the point of attack.
It's all good and well to work hard in the off-season but how does this get him on the court?
Josh Hart on the Move?
One way Johnson might have an opportunity to see non-junk-time minutes is the potential mid-season trade of Josh Hart’s expiring contract. Hart appears to be one of the roster’s main candidates for trade. offering the other 29 teams a range of valuable skills.
General Manager Joe Cronin has to anticipate Hart not picking up his 2023-24 player option and the resultant pay rise he’ll be due the following summer. Consequently, trading Hart at the deadline for a small forward or center of consequence would clearly be the prudent option while also unclogging that guard backlog.
Just to be clear, I’m not for a second suggesting Johnson can fill the 20-to-25 minutes Hart will leave vacant. The majority of those minutes probably go to Payton II, perhaps Shaedon Sharpe or even Nassir Little. But it also opens a door for the Blazers' coaching staff to at least give Johnson a serious look.
While the Blazers have no clear starting small forward, they’re not exactly shallow at the position with Little, Hart, Justise Winslow and Payton II all capable of contributing. Problem is Hart and Payton II will spend time in the backcourt with Winslow potentially taking up power forward and even some center minutes as well.
This opens up time behind Little and while Johnson is undersized at the three standing 6’4, his aforementioned 6’7 wingspan and raw athleticism might be enough to fill the void at a pinch. But this is match-up dependent, you're not putting Johnson on LeBron James.
Injuries and Load Management
The subject no one dare broach, but injuries happen and if one or more of Lillard, Simons, Hart and Payton II go down — hopefully not for extended periods — doors may open. Last season, Johnson showed competence playing NBA minutes, even if the team was tanking, and if players temporarily fall to injury, Billups may look to the Tennessee standout.
Depending on how well the Blazers start the season, there may also be opportunities for 32-year-old Lillard to sit a game here and there. In this scenario, Simons may be pushed to point guard, vaulting Johnson into the starting unit, so as not to upset the rotation.
Sharpe vs Johnson
One of the main hindrances to Johnson playing meaningful minutes is the current state of the Blazers. It appears the franchise is keen to make last season’s tankathon an isolated incident with Cronin bringing in veterans Jerami Grant and Payton II to help Lillard battle with the Western Conference elite.
The prize yielded by said tank was seventh overall pick Shaedon Sharpe who is also vying for a similar role in the rotation and from all reports has also impressed. It’s unlikely a team trying to compete plays two raw young prospects unless they were able to get up to speed quickly.
Honestly, you’d have to assume Sharpe gets the initial shot at rotation minutes based purely on his reported skillset and the asset the Blazers used to snag him.
A note on Johnson’s own trade value
While Hart’s name will likely come up in trade discussions in late January and early February, Johnson’s rookie-scale deal may also be enticing to re-building franchises with gaps in their respective guard rotations. But he’ll probably need court time to ensure the Blazers get equal value in return, which suggests he won’t be moved any time soon.
Johnson’s meager $2.6 million deal (team options in 2023-24 and 2024-25) will almost certainly be restrictive with the Blazers unlikely to bring back a player of consequence at a similar price. Perhaps, pairing Johnson with Hart in a trade might be more successful but this kind of deal also transforms Portland’s guard backlog into a serious backcourt dearth.
Johnson will have a future in the NBA. Whether it’s with the Blazers or not is uncertain and while rave reviews about his progress at media day are promising, his road to real playing time will be a challenge.
An awful start for the franchise, injury, trades and an underwhelming Shaedon Sharpe appear his best avenues to playing time. Great for him, not so good for the Blazers.
But it’s also in the best interests for the franchise to get him on the court whenever they can to either have him contribute to winning or raise his own trade value as Cronin and the Blazers continue to build this roster.