Nineteenth century French author Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr famously coined the phrase “the more things change, the more they stay the same.”
Upon embarking on one of the more critical off-seasons in recent franchise history, the Orlando Magic organization is once again finding itself in a familiar situation: change (and lots of it).
Orlando’s top executives, led by Magic President of Basketball Operations Jeff Weltman and General Manager John Hammond, made franchise direction-altering moves this past March, trading All-Star center Nikola Vucevic (nine seasons with the Magic), starting forward Aaron Gordon (seven seasons with the Magic), and starting wing Evan Fournier (seven seasons with the Magic) prior to the league’s trade deadline. After appearing in the playoffs for two consecutive seasons from 2019-2020, Orlando’s front office decided to change the organization’s course - at least partly due to the significant knee injuries suffered by Markelle Fultz and Jonathan Isaac (which caused the Magic to fall considerably in the Eastern Conference hierarchy).
If that wasn’t enough change (or maybe because it was too much), the Orlando Magic organization will also be searching this offseason for their sixth head coach in the last eight years. On June 5th, an announcement was made that the team and former head coach Steve Clifford had “mutually agreed to part ways”. Clifford, who was an assistant in Orlando under Stan Van Gundy from 2007-2012, compiled a 96-131 record leading the Magic over the last three seasons. It is widely believed that the Orlando organization’s new blueprint- with so many young players on the roster - doesn’t align with a veteran coach such as Clifford’s timeline.
So here we are, with a turned-over roster full of 20-somethings, and a new lead coach yet to be hired. But with so much change, why do things in Orlando still feel the same?
The draft. Once again, the Magic organization is embarking on a critically important draft - and they have to get things right. The mainstays from recent Orlando past are gone, the team is in full rebuild mode, and much of what the franchise has done over the last year hinges on hitting a homerun during this draft process.
So I’m back for my fourth consecutive offseason, putting together a series of scouting reports on players the Magic will likely be targeting, either with their first round pick or Chicago’s pick (which Orlando acquired in the Vucevic deal). Chicago’s first round pick this year will be conveyed to Orlando as long as it doesn’t land in the top-4.
Some important dates in this process to keep in mind between now and the end of the summer are: June 21st-27th (the NBA Draft Combine), June 22nd (the NBA Draft Lottery), and July 29th (the NBA Draft).
In this series, I have compiled scouting reports that include film observations, loose player comparisons, talking points, Magic-specific potential fits/needs, and more. Next in this series is an athletic wing with a very raw set of skills - Tennessee swingman Keon Johnson.
11.3 points, 3.5 rebounds, 2.5 assists, 1.1 steals (25.5 minutes per game)
51.9% TS%, A/TO ratio: 0.94
Film study: Eye in the sky
-Athleticism is the first thing that jumps out on film, very bouncy; easy leaper off one and/or two feet
-Crafty finisher around the rim; can also finish through contact (and will get stronger)
-Release on jump shot looks smooth (results weren’t always there), holds follow through, high release
-I like him more shooting off movement than in wide-open catch and shoot spots
-Wiry strong, defenders seemed to bounce off of him despite his lean frame
-Kind of a throwback game - as a guard, often operated in post-up situations
-Uses athleticism to cut with purpose, can wreak havoc working the baseline
-Has the feet and quickness to be an excellent on-ball defender in the NBA
-Two-way potential, and will probably be able to help on the boards at the next level once he adds some bulk
His game resembles...
Latrell Sprewell - I have to give credit to Kevin O’Connor (The Ringer) for this one. This comparison seems to really fit. Sprewell was more of a prolific scorer than I think Johnson will be (and he shot it more efficiently in college). But bodies, playing styles, and athleticism are eerily similar here.
Terance Mann - Mann has shot the basketball extremely well over the first two years of his career in the NBA, but it was a struggle (like Johnson) at the collegiate level until his senior season. Both players are tenacious defenders who hustle and utilize their athleticism to make things happen on the floor
Derrick Jones Jr. - I’m making a connection here because of the leaping ability; Johnson possesses that kind of athleticism. Obviously, if you’re taking Johnson in the lottery, you hope his ceiling is a bit higher than a Jones Jr. outcome. I do think Johnson will be able to make more of an impact on the defensive end
Best games/films of the season
February 6th vs. Kentucky: 27 points (9-16 FGA’s), 4 rebounds, 3 assists
March 12th vs Florida: 13 points, 9 rebounds, 6 assists
March 13th vs Alabama: 20 points (8-16 FGA’s), 9 rebounds
Video Credit: The Scouting Rapport
Video Credit: Tremendous Upside
Resume & By the numbers
- Two-time Tennessee Mr. Basketball (2017-18, 2018-19)
- Named to the SEC All-Freshmen Team (2020)
- Ranked 9th in the SEC in Defensive Rating
- Marched to the free throw line six or more times in a single game on nine occasions this past season
- Recorded at least two steals or blocks in a game on ten occasions in 2020-21
Whatever team ultimately drafts Johnson is going to need to be very patient with him. This is a young man who just started playing organized basketball in high school. I think his offensive game at the NBA level will be a little bit behind his potential defensive contributions, mostly because he struggles shooting the basketball.
A team is going to start from scratch with Johnson and completely re-work his shooting stroke, but like I mentioned above - I don’t think it’s a form that is broken. He utilizes a high-release and holds his follow through; there is work to be done with his lower-half however. Johnson connected on just 27.1 percent of this three-point attempts during his freshmen season at Tennessee (51.9 true shooting percentage). He was able to use his wiry strength and plus-athleticism to get to the free throw line at a decent rate, but he only converted 70.3 percent of his free throw attempts.
Johnson didn’t get the kind of volume and “run” on offense early in his career that you would think a five-star blue chip freshmen would receive- the Vols had a veteran-laden squad who head coach Rick Barnes entrusted to run the offense through. But the keys to the offense were turned over to Johnson and fellow freshmen Jaden Springer as the calendar tuned to 2021, often with mixed results.
One of my biggest concerns with Johnson, other than his perimeter shooting, is his decision-making with the ball in his hands. He committed four or more turnovers in a single contest on eight separate occasions in 2020-21, a number that is rather high for someone who averages just over 25 minutes per games (3.7 turnovers per/36).
Of course, the NBA has transformed into a league where outside shooting is a skill that is more common (and required of a player) than ever, and that’s another area of Johnson’s game that has a long way to go. From January 1st through the conclusion of last season (21 games - SEC play, SEC Tournament, NCAA Tournament), the five-star freshmen made more than one three-point field goal in a game on only one single occasion (2 for 6 3PTA’s against LSU on February 13th). In catch and shoot situations, Johnson will let it fly if left open, but he showed virtually no ability to create his own perimeter shot off the dribble. He was a lot more comfortable using physicality to create for himself in the post and/or mid-range against smaller defenders.
2) Two-way potential
Of course, teams are also forever on the look-out for wing players that possess “two-way potential”. If Johnson can go to a team that helps him develop his shot, handle, offensive awareness, etc. - then you will probably have a pretty solid player on your hands.
Because I think he will be able to defend. Johnson is an incredible athlete with elite NBA-level run and jump ability. He seems to play with passion, tenacity, and hustle that is requisite of elite defenders in the league. That aggressiveness led to Johnson being a bit foul-prone (committed three or more fouls in 14 of 27 games) last season, but the athleticism is something that can’t be taught.
Johnson gets his hands on the ball defensively some (I wanted him to be more instinctual at times), but he is a guy that can produce steals by jumping passing lanes and swallow up an occasional block helping off the ball.
I think Johnson will eventually find success in the NBA defending shooting guards in “on-ball” situations, because of his lateral quickness, size, and agile feet. Again, it’s just going to take some time.
Making a case for the Magic to draft Keon Johnson in the ‘21 draft
|Does Johnson fit the Weltman/Hammond archetype?||Not really|
|Would taking Johnson in the lottery be considered a BPA/value selection?||No (Magic pick)
Yes (if the Chicago pick falls towards the end of the lottery)
|Would Johnson provide the Magic with depth in a needed area?||Yes|
This is a strange spot, because I don’t really feel like Johnson fits the model of the kind of prospect Weltman and Hammond have targeted in the past (plus-positional size, lengthy wingspan). And he certainly wouldn’t be in consideration for Orlando’s own pick, which will likely fall before Johnson is projected to be picked.
But with that Chicago pick (if it conveys, remember - top four protected), now Johnson comes a little bit more into the picture. Depending on which industry site you look at, the Tennessee native is projected to be drafted anywhere from just outside the top five, to towards the back end of the lottery.
ESPN has Johnson ranked 8th on their “best available prospect” board (as of June 17th). Sam Vecenie of the Athletic ranks the young wing 17th on his Big Board 3.0 (updated June 3rd), while O’Connor has him sitting at 6th on his board (NBA Ringer Draft Guide. updated May 6th). And Jonathan Wasserman (Bleacher Report) has Johnson coming off the board 7th in his latest mock draft (June 15th), one spot before the Magic pick (via Chicago).
It will be interesting to monitor Johnson’s stock throughout this pre-draft process. If some of these projections hold true, then Johnson (while not necessarily fitting the mold of what Orlando’s top executives usually look for in a prospect) may just represent a “best player available” on the board type situation, where the Magic pull the trigger and take on the project.
But yes, I do think the bouncy former All-SEC Freshmen Team member is a significant long-term project. And with as young as Orlando’s roster already is, perhaps this wouldn’t be the spot to take a big cut at a “home run” prospect. “Doubles” are good too, even in the lottery. Okay, enough with the baseball analogies.
The Magic do have Terrence Ross on the wing signed for two more years, and Gary Harris heading into the last year of his contract. Neither of those veterans seem to fit into Orlando’s new timeline, so you could certainly make the argument that the Magic need more depth on the wing. They acquired R.J. Hampton last season, and he’s probably better suited to play the wing than a lead guard position right now, but there are still potential minutes in the future available.
Still, I think the Magic would be better served looking for a long-term piece with more shooting upside to pair with the pieces they already have in place. Due to his athleticism, run and jump ability on the break, and defensive two-way potential, I think Johnson makes a lot of sense for some teams in the lottery.
I’m just not sure Orlando is one of those teams.
Aaron Goldstone has been writing for Orlando Pinstriped Post since 2017. You can follow him on Twitter at @AaronGoldstone.
Also, check out Aaron’s other scouting reports in this series: Scottie Barnes, Franz Wagner.