"Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it." - Edmond Burke
The reason we look back on prior drafts and prospects so much isn't to conveniently make comparisons between former and current prospects. It's to learn from some of the scouting mistakes we've made. As a decision-maker or scout with influence in a room, the personality trait needs to be of competitiveness and selflessness. In essence, care not about celebrating your successes but be bothered enough by your failures to ensure they don't happen again.
In 2016, one of my first years diving into video on draft prospects in long form, I had Jaylen Brown rate out as the 8th-best prospect on my board, behind the likes of Jakob Poeltl (7th), Henry Ellenson (6th), Dragan Bender (5th) and Kris Dunn (4th). While I felt comfortable back then (and still do now) with my top-three of Ben Simmons, Brandon Ingram and Jamal Murray being on a tier of their own, Brown was the evident undervalue in that group. With Brown, the concerns of his shooting were enough to talk me into placing him below that group.
In one year at California, Brown shot 29.4% on 3.0 attempts per game, but it was the ignored context that told most of the story. He existed in a vacuum of zero spacing, a poorly-fitting roster which accentuated his turnovers and prevented assist numbers from climbing. The shooting concerns wouldn't have been major if Brown had a positive assist to turnover ratio, or at least much evidence of playmaking off the bounce.
Look where Jaylen is now, an All-Star who is a great slasher, proven jump shooter and capable passer. Steady improvement has gotten him there, but top-notch athleticism, solid work ethic and certain traits he demonstrated at Cal were evident that he was the gamble worth taking. At the very least, we should have seen this: if the shooting does come along, Brown is a top-notch two-way player.
I'm determined not to make such a mistake again. That's part of the reason why I'm so high on Keon Johnson out of Tennessee. His natural traits are A+ quality (supported by his shattering of max vert records at the combine), and the flashes he's shown impressive. He's like Brown in the sense that the Volunteers' system didn't accentuate his strengths well, nor show what he'd look like in a pro-style offense. I keep asking myself the same question with Johnson: if the shooting does come along, will he be a top-notch two-way player?
The answer is unequivocally yes, which is why Johnson has been placed inside the top-nine on my draft board this year.
It may seem far in the rear-view mirror, but Brown's time at Cal was rocky at best. His roster was talented but ill-fitting under Cuonzo Martin: Tyrone Wallace and Jabari Bird, two future NBA players, made up the backcourt. Wallace (29.8% from 3) got most of the on-ball reps, while Bird joined wing Jordan Matthews as the floor-spacers. Ivan Rabb, a hybrid 4 or 5, played both spots but was 1 of 2 from deep on the year.
Coach Martin started another non-shooting big in 17 of their 34 games, one of Kameron Rooks or Kingsley Okoroh. There was no shooting off the bench, two bigs clogging the paint and a non-shooting threat at the point in Wallace. As a slasher, Brown really struggled to pop in the half-court, and his lack of 3-point prowess stood out like a sore thumb as teams dared him to shoot.
When Brown would get the ball in transition, cutting to the basket or with a head of steam and momentum to attack, he was borderline unstoppable. That's where he claimed enough value to be a top-3 pick: really strong defense but flashes of what he'd become in a scheme that spaced the floor around him and let him handle on the wings:
Just placing Brown in a different offensive system wouldn't save him. He was still very raw. The jump shot was stiff and needed mechanical tweaking. His body seemed too rigid off the catch in a way that made him easy to predict if he was going to shoot or drive it. He wasn't a high-usage pick-and-roll player, had a ton of turnovers and didn't convert when he got to the free throw line (65.4%) even though he got there all the time.
As a lifelong Celtics fan, I'd obviously like to think Brad Stevens' offense and player development plan is what led to Brown's breakout. Truthfully, most NBA teams would be able to offer Brown the type of system that fits well for his game to pop. There's more shooting, more spacing, increased opportunities to handle in transition, shooting coaches to work on the shot who are the best in the world and much more work on the mental aspect of the game. That's an area where Brown has always thrived.
There are many similarities to the usage at Tennessee for Keon Johnson. The 6'5" slashing wing shot under 30% from 3, had more turnovers than assists, wasn't used in the half-court as a primary creator, played in an offense that wasn't spacing-optimal when it came to shooters and popped in all the same areas. That isn't to say Johnson and Brown are the same type of player and will have similar careers, but when it comes to evaluating Johnson, the lessons learned from Brown make it hard to hold those strikes against the Tennessee product.
First off, the spacing and system is worth discussing. To steal a line from my dear friend Nekias Duncan, this isn't Rick Barnes slander. Barnes is a hell of a coach, produces NBA talent, only recruits high-character kids and is a great teacher of fundamentals and defense. Over the last few years at Tennessee, he's morphed his offense into a mold out of the Davidson motion schemes from Bob McKillop. McKillop's offense has thrived because it is read-and-react heavy where players have options as cutters and there is more ball movement than dribbling. It requires high-IQ to play in and can be a bitch to guard (trust me on that... I've spent the last few years of my life trying to stop a McKillop disciple at the D3 level who coached the #1 team in the nation).
What it needs to be lethal, though, is shooting. There are ton of screen-away moments, slip-split action and curls around the elbows that are only effective if there's worry that going underneath them will lead to a team getting punished. The 2020-21 iteration of the Volunteers shot only 33.1% from deep as a team, with 100 of their 178 makes coming from two players. Like Cal, they played two non-shooting big men in John Fulkerson and Yves Pons. Johnson's lack of shooting, combined with the team's lack of desire to lean upon him as the primary creator, made his life a struggle in the half-court.
Where Johnson popped was in the open floor, finishing in transition as someone who can handle and sprint the wings. He's proven capable of pushing tempo after a rebound and has a pretty slick hesitation dribble. His speed with his frame at a young age is a threat to really knock some guys backwards early, and he gracefully navigates traffic to get himself to the basket:
Much like Jaylen at Cal, Keon was best at getting himself downhill quickly. Whether it's catching on the move into one violent bounce or cutting without the ball, Keon understands how and when to pick his spots to attack the basket. He projects as a guy whose athletic tools allow him to blow past guys with the ball in his hands simply because he does enough work before the catch to quickly maximize any advantages from poor defensive positioning.
From the wings, he's a great catch-and-rip option or someone who can sprint through the ball when reversed to him. From corners, as well as from wings, back cuts are importance. He reads his man well and would be great in a system that utilizes the 45-degree cut on the wing that often accompanies a pick-and-pop.
Frankly, it's that ability to attack quickly off the catch that entices me most about Keon's ability to play off-ball. A lot is and will be made about his shooting. He can negate that, or someday compliment it, by keeping these quick movements in his arsenal.
Jaylen instantly becomes a great player for him to study because of how intentional and polished Brown has become with his pre-catch footwork. His quick rips, changes of direction and ability to run through the pass are ideal models for Johnson to follow.
If he becomes this effective in the half-court, his basic level of offense will be fairly impactful.
As a baseline, Johnson is long enough, thick enough and explosive enough to be more of a slashing wing if the self-creation and on-ball offense doesn't materialize. To me, the floor is decently high where he becomes a defensive, slashing guy who guards 1 thru 3.
I'm one of the highest on Johnson's offensive potential as a scorer among draft analysts. Part of it comes from the assessment that his ability to attack the rim will force defenders to back off a half-step more than they normally do. He'll have a little larger of a cushion to rise up into dribble jumpers as a result.
Johnson has a ton of polish to add: he's a poor shooter off the bounce from 3, struggles to get into his pull-up going left and still looks stiff in many ways. But he's a comfortable threat from the right elbow, has a solid turnaround in his arsenal (the same one Jaylen possesses) and was efficient in that area at Tennessee. Add to it the size, physicality and comfort in posting mismatches on the block and there's bits and pieces of that alpha offensive mentality already evident:
Perhaps it's my experience as a D3 assistant that colors my glass-half-full perspective on scouting. We'd frequently recruit guys who Division I schools passed on because "he can't do this" or "he's not quite good enough in this area". I always saw those as a great opportunity to add "yet" to the end of that statement, or focus on "he'll be this good once he adds this piece to his game."
With Johnson, the emphasis is the same. So many want to focus on the lack of shooting range to 3. In relativity to other skills, becoming a solid, league-average shooter from deep is common to add. Instead of thinking about how Johnson's game isn't complete and is flawed because he doesn't have a jumper to 3 right now, I instead frame it around how good he'll be once he has one. A threat to torch defenses on three levels, a freak athlete who crushes teams with a runway, his game is the one that will absolutely pop at the next level.
That's a large part of the reason I'm incredibly high on Johnson. He's shown enough self-creation in the mid-range, is a solid passer and is only a 3-pointer away from effective scoring on all three levels. At the very least, his ceiling is higher than many other risky prospects because his defense is already so damn good. I envision him in a Marcus Smart shutdown role on the perimeter, guarding 1 thru 3.
We aren't saying Johnson doesn't come with risk. There's a chance the jumper never materializes, he doesn't wind up knocking down shots in the mid-range and is a slashing defender taken higher in the draft than many other useful offensive prospects. He isn't a pure lead guard, and he's a little small to be a full-time 3 in the NBA.
But I'm determined not to miss on a guy like Johnson. I'm a believer that his ceiling is quite high, his floor is higher than many give him credit for thanks to the defense and the traits that he's shown on the offensive end give faith that he can cobble together effectiveness. If it all clicks, he resembles Jaylen Brown with his versatility and impact in a hybrid on-ball/ off-ball role.
There's a firm top-six in this draft, and Johnson hasn't done enough to get quite up to that level. At 7 through 10, I can't think of a great reason to pass on him. His stock seems to fluctuate all over the place right now, and he's got everyone's attention with the 99th percentile athletic testing he put up at the combine. He's more than just a raw athlete: he's a raw, high-upside prospect who has already shown glimpses at the type of offensive player he can become.
âJust like Jaylen Brown once did.
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Adam Spinella, Head Boys Basketball Coach at Boys' Latin School (MD)