The Trail Blazers made waves on Friday with a trade that shipped Norman Powell and Robert Covington to the Clippers for a return that centered around immediate salary cap relief. Justice Winslow, Eric Bledsoe, and Keon Johnson are the three players headed to Portland in return. Of that trio, it is clear that Johnson possesses the most upside.
Johnson, selected with the No. 21 pick in the 2021 NBA Draft, was a breakout player as a true freshman for Tennessee in the 2020-21 season. Listed at 6’4 with a wingspan that clocks in at 6’7, Johnson blossomed into one of the most versatile defenders in country during his time in Knoxville. Along with his stellar athleticism, Johnson’s defense-first mentality led to his billing as a first-round prospect and a place on the SEC All-Freshman team.
On the court, Johnson’s stellar defensive upside is rooted in his commitment to fundamentals. He has fluid hips, he closes out with purpose, and he excels when it comes to cutting off angles. Along with that foundation, Johnson balances careful defense with opportunity. At Tennessee, he averaged 1.7 steals per 40 minutes. That average does not leap off the page, but it is impressive when you consider that Johnson racked up those numbers while maintaining his on-ball assignments.
Offensively, Johnson’s lack of shooting and overall consistency pushed him outside of the lottery discussion. Johnson’s early run in SEC play in the 2020-21 season provided a plethora of tape where he disappeared from the action for long stretches. By the time he started racking up double-digit scoring efforts, a less-than-ideal consensus had formed around his reliability on that end of the floor.
Outside of the arc, Johnson attempted just 48 three-pointers as a freshman. He connected on a paltry 27.1 percent of those long-distance attempts. His shot form is functional, but a touch slow for a top-flight wing player. His accuracy from the free throw line, which is a common predictor for future shooting success in the NBA, finished at a serviceable 70.3 percent during his freshman year.
Johnson overcomes his lack of shooting on the offensive end with his ability to create chances off the ball. In a secondary role, Johnson shined as a cutter. According to Synergy Sports, he averaged 1.38 points per cut possession. That level of production placed Johnson in the 80th percentile on that play type, not bad for a 6-foot-4 freshman. Simply put, Johnson does not waste steps when he initiates a play.
Inside the arc, Johnson is a solid finisher at the rim. He can finish above the rim in spectacular fashion. In the post, Johnson owns a surprisingly effective arsenal of low-post moves. In a 27-point outing against Kentucky last year, he absolutely feasted on smaller perimeter defenders inside the arc.
Fast forward to the 2021-22 NBA season, and Johnson is still an unknown commodity. He has appeared in just 15 games with the Clippers. Along with those outings, Johnson was featured in seven games with the Clippers’ G League affiliate. Johnson upped his three-point volume in the G League. He is currently attempting 4.1 three-pointers per game and connecting on 31 percent of those attempts.
For the Blazers, Johnson’s appeal is clear. First, he is on his first year of his rookie-scale contract. Second, he is comfortable playing off the ball on offense. Finally, Johnson is an engaged defender with positive athleticism. Yes, he is only 6’4. But he fits the mold of an impactful defender in both one-on-one and team assignments.
Johnson should receive an extended run of playing time to finish out the 2021-22 season. The wing rotation is wide open for the Blazers after this trade and injuries. When it comes to his ability to hit the ground running, a transition from the Clippers’ system to coach Chauncey Billups’ scheme should be relatively straight forward.