Spurs Offseason: 5-Year Veteran Keldon Johnson 'Wants to Stay' in San Antonio

Despite rumors swirling about his future in San Antonio, Spurs veteran Keldon Johnson wants to remain put as his teammates look to build a winning product for the future. But, does he still fit?
Mar 11, 2024; San Antonio, Texas, USA; San Antonio Spurs forward Keldon Johnson (3) during the second half against the Golden State Warriors at Frost Bank Center.
Mar 11, 2024; San Antonio, Texas, USA; San Antonio Spurs forward Keldon Johnson (3) during the second half against the Golden State Warriors at Frost Bank Center. / Scott Wachter-USA TODAY Sports
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SAN ANTONIO, Tx. — Gregg Popovich compared Keldon Johnson to a bull in a china shop when he first showed up in San Antonio.

Coming in as a freshman from Kentucky with a high ceiling and loads of talent, that made sense. Plenty of prospects have to take time to adjust to the NBA and its fast-paced style. Instances where these rookies let on the fact that they are, well, rookies, often get referred to as "Welcome to the NBA" moments.

But Gregg Popovich prefers a different term — one he uses quite often. He says they have to "learn to play."

"When (Keldon) first came to the NBA he was kind of a bull in a China shop," Popovich said of the forward. "Since then, he's gotten a lot more sophisticated. ... (Now), he's a more thinking, seeing player while he's driving through the china shop."

Indeed he has. Before Victor Wembanyama entered the picture, Johnson was the San Antonio Spurs' best player. Sure, he's dealt with accusations that his position at the helm of San Antonio's roster explained its lowly dwelling in the Western Conference, but he never let it affect him.

In fact, even when his team suffered 18 straight losses, he remained poised and accountable during a time where giving up seemed easiest.

He not only kept playing his game, but he maintained the same "goofy" personality that's made him such an entertaining player.

Mar 29, 2024; San Antonio, Texas, USA; San Antonio Spurs forward Keldon Johnson (3) reacts during the second half against the New York Knicks at Frost Bank Center.
Mar 29, 2024; San Antonio, Texas, USA; San Antonio Spurs forward Keldon Johnson (3) reacts during the second half against the New York Knicks at Frost Bank Center. / Scott Wachter-USA TODAY Sports

“I like to joke around. I’m goofy — it’s just me," Johnson explained to a media room after his Spurs had lost yet another game; the losing streak nearing San Antonio's previous franchise record of 17. "Keep it light in here, not so serious all the time."

"We’re getting better,” he added. “We’re losing, everybody knows that, but I’ll keep being myself, keep being energetic, because the tide will turn, and you know, I’m still going to be myself.”

How much Johnson helped his team by staying positive only he knows, though Wembanyama often attributed the word "positive" to his team's locker room.

If nothing else, it was clear that Johnson was a unique presence to have — in a good way.

And even clearer, he doesn't want to leave San Antonio.

'I hope not," Johnson said of him potentially being traded in the offseason, a source told Spurs on SI. "I want to stay here."

As much as the veteran would like to stay, his teammates want him around. But in a basketball-driven environment, there are situations in which that doesn't end up being the case. Thus, the question remains:

Does Keldon Johnson still fit with the Spurs?

Examining His Fit, Future Role

On paper, Johnson hit a decline during Wembanyama's rookie season. The fact that San Antonio's 7-foot-4 rookie was mentioned is only because he was the biggest reason for Johnson's decreased role.

Wembanyama didn't take any leadership responsibilities away from Johnson, nor did he force him to take a backseat, but the fact of the matter remained simple. With Wembanyama in the picture, the offense no longer revolved around Johnson.

But what does that look like?

Two seasons ago, Johnson averaged over 20 points per game for the first time in his career. He was playing nearly 33 minutes per game, grabbing five rebounds and notching just under one stock in each of his 63 appearances.

The next season? Johnson shot with the same efficiency with more appearances, but averaged less points on less minutes per game.

Suddenly, a season meant to give Johnson a chance to bolster his stats and find a ceiling even higher than when he was alone as the Spurs' best player was seemingly proof that he wasn't as much of a star-caliber player as originally expected.

Popovich only affirmed that after San Antonio faced a star-studded LA Clippers squad in November for the first time.

"When a team is (this) young, each (player) is hesitant," Popovich said. "Usually your leaders are your best players. And they're usually All-Stars. So, when games wind down, we're going to be all over the map."

November 24, 2023; San Francisco, California, USA; San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich (Right) talks to forward Keldon Johnson (3) during the first quarter against the Golden State Warriors at Chase Center.
November 24, 2023; San Francisco, California, USA; San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich (Right) talks to forward Keldon Johnson (3) during the first quarter against the Golden State Warriors at Chase Center. / Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

That was the Spurs' issue. They didn't have any All-Stars. Not yet.

"We're going to have to deal with that," Popovich continued. "(We're going to) have to rely on other things ... so that (opposing teams') All-Stars aren't coming after you while you don't really have that guy, yet."

Johnson might have reached an All-Star-caliber peak in his five years with the Spurs, and there's certainly not any telling what that could look like as he continues to develop. The bigger question is still whether or not he'll do that alongside Wembanyama.

The answer to whether he could, on the other hand, is an astounding yes. He isn't by any means a negative asset. He brings plenty to the table — especially in the locker room.

And he prides himself on that.

"We're a family at the end of the day," Johnson said. "(And) when we start winning, y’all will say ‘KJ, he was the same person win or losing,’ and that’s what it’s going to be. But, we’re going to start winning, so it’s only a matter of time. We’re learning, we’re getting better.”

That last little bit of assurance came at the tail end of the Spurs' 18-game losing streak. Despite the overbearing weight that came with losing night in, night out, Johnson remained the same person. And despite rumors surrounding his future in San Antonio, the same is true. He remains poised.

Johnson wants to stay in San Antonio.

Whether or not he will, however? That's a different question.


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Matt Guzman

MATT GUZMAN

Matt Guzman is a sports journalist and storyteller from Austin, Texas. He serves as a credentialed reporter and site manager for San Antonio Spurs On SI and a staff writer for multiple collegiate sites in the same network. In the world of professional sports, he is a firm believer that athletes are people, too, and intends to tell stories of players and teams’ true, behind-the-scenes character that otherwise would not be seen through strong narrative writing, hooking ledes and passionate words.