LAS VEGAS — Two years ago, Keldon Johnson was a rookie for the San Antonio Spurs, playing in Summer League at the Thomas & Mack Center and showing that he probably shouldn't have fallen to 29 in the draft.
This week, he returned to the same arena after unquestionably the best year of his basketball career wearing the fruits of his labor around his neck in the form of a solid gold medal that weighs about 1.2 pounds.
Johnson’s teammates on the Olympic-gold-winning Team USA were a "who’s who" of NBA stars; Kevin Durant, Draymond Green, Jayson Tatum and Jrue Holiday were just a few notable names playing with the Spurs forward.
Needless to say, his repertoire on the court improved.
"I feel like decision-making was big,” Johnson said. “Decision-making was big. Being precise with every decision, every cut. I feel there was a real big emphasis on that.”
Johnson is already a terror on the court for opposing teams. His size, length, motor and passion for the game allow him to flourish. Now with learning from some of the league’s best, there is so much to look forward to from the Spurs forward next season.
“Even little movements,” Johnson said. “I just did those things.”
Johnson says he learned so much that he could talk all day about it. He said the lessons were just plentiful.
“Moving the ball. Playing off teammates. Seeing the play before it happens,” Johnson said.
Johnson became a starter for the Spurs in just his second season, and the muscular ball of childlike energy was named to the Rising Stars team with averages of 13 points and 6 rebounds per game. It was an impressive year, but nobody expected him to be named to the official 12-man roster for Team USA's pursuit of gold at the Tokyo Games.
With his improved decision-making skills, the Spurs could opt to use him in a point-forward capacity, where he can start the offense. If so, then his Spurs’ teammates will have to keep their heads on a swivel and eyes wide open for his passes.
But until the 2021-22 season begins, where he’ll have his chance to showcase his new skill set, he and his family will relish this special moment for the budding NBA star.
“My mom was screaming again. She was yelling. Jumping up and down,” he said. “My dad was kind of speechless. He really didn’t know what to say.”
Johnson's promotion from the select team to the final roster after a few players dropped off for various reasons was a pleasant surprise for Spurs fans and a dream come true for Johnson and his family.
It was also widely panned by critics of Gregg Popovich, who were out in force after a shaky start to exhibition and prelim play for a team who many believe is never supposed to lose. Players like Trae Young were left off the roster, and some accused Pop of nepotism.
After Team USA proved the doubters wrong, some of the world-beating superstars on that squad shouted out the coach who put it all together, and the motivated youngin who was a spark plug for the team.
Johnson is just 21 years old and has already accomplished more than most will in their whole lifetimes. He said this summer's experience will be invaluable as he continues to grow as a vocal leader and key piece for the San Antonio Spurs.
“It was pretty special,” Johnson said.