TUALATIN — Rookie guard Keon Johnson is by far the most intriguing piece of the Portland Trail Blazers’ trade with the LA Clippers on Friday.
The Blazers failed to land a coveted future first-round pick in the deal that saw Johnson, veterans Eric Bledsoe and Justise Winslow, and a 2025 second-round pick go to Portland for Norman Powell and Robert Covington .
However, last summer, the Clippers selected Johnson with the 21st overall selection in the 2021 NBA Draft. Thus, the Blazers effectively landed a talent considered first-round value, albeit with some holes.
Johnson said he was a little shocked when the trade fell, but added he believed God was in control and the move would give him the opportunity to show what he is capable of on the pitch. .
“It’s just a great moment for me to show what I can do,” Johnson said after his first practice with the team on Monday.
Johnson, of Tennessee, is hampered by an ankle injury and won’t see the field for the Blazers (21-33) for about two weeks. When healthy, Johnson should get plenty of playing time on a squad that is now filled with young players eager to make a name for themselves while the veterans are either on the injured list or traded.
What will Blazers fans see?
Well, for starters, if Johnson gets the ball in the open field, prepare for a high-flying act. Johnson last offseason broke the 20-year NBA Combine record with a vertical leap of 48 inches. He also achieved a standing vertical leap of 41 ½ inches.
Tennessee’s 6-foot-4 Johnson’s standout video showcases his ability to rise above defenders and dunk. But he mostly described himself as a very intense defender and a growing attacking player who works on his shot, which was seen as his weakness. He shot just 27.1 percent from three for the Volunteers averaging 11.3 points per game.
In limited action this season with the Clippers (nine minutes per game over 15 games), Johnson has shot 33.3% from the field and 27.3% from three. But that’s a very small sample size (51 attempts in total).
Blazers coach Chauncey Billups said the hope was that Johnson could develop offensively.
“I really like what our staff have been able to do from a development perspective,” Billups said after training Monday at the team’s facility. “And so, we’re taking Keon back and trying to develop that as well. He has the physical gifts as good as anyone, athletically. Now you have to start adding elements to his game. But first of all, I have to see what his game is.”
Winslow said Johnson showed promise while the two were with the Clippers.
“He’s a monster athlete,” Winslow said. “Like playing in the mid-range. He is a hard worker. He had ups and downs. But he works hard.
As Johnson continues to work on his offensive game, Billups said he’s eager to see what the rookie does on the defensive end. Billups said he is looking for defensive-minded players as the team rebuilds the roster and he praised Johnson for his willingness to give it his all at this end of the field. Now Billups wants to make him an elite defender who can help a team that desperately needs perimeter defenders.
Johnson said his defensive mindset developed at a young age.
“Whenever I learned the game, my mom and dad always told me that if you can’t play at both ends of the court, you shouldn’t be playing to compete in general,” Johnson said.
As for expectations for the rest of the season, Johnson said Billups told him to just play free.
“He’s seen what I’m capable of and he thinks I can come in and have an immediate impact with this group he has now,” Johnson said.
Johnson described his rookie season so far as being up and down. But he said he thought it would be like that. But he added that his time in the G League helped boost his confidence.
Now he has said he hopes more playing time will help him develop his shooting so his game on offense can match his game on defense.
“I feel like the more reps I get, the more comfortable I’ll be on the court,” Johnson said. “Just keep working and representing everything every day.”
There are expected to be intense dunk battles in practice between Johnson, rookie Greg Brown III and reigning NBA dunk champion guard Anfernee Simons. But Johnson stopped short of saying he could take Simons to a dunk contest.
“We’re both athletic guys,” Johnson said. “I feel like we’re all capable of competing for a dunk championship.”
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