2021 NBA Draft: Could Keon Johnson be the next Vince Carter?

NBA Draft prospect Keon Johnson (John Reed-USA TODAY Sports)
NBA Draft prospect Keon Johnson (John Reed-USA TODAY Sports) /

2021 NBA Draft prospsect Keon Johnson could be the next Vince Carter. 

Tennessee freshman star guard Keon Johnson was arguably the team’s best player this season, helping lead the Volunteers to an 18-8 record, a trip to the SEC tournament semi-finals, and a spot as a fifth seed in the Midwest Region of the upcoming 2021 NCAA men’s basketball tournament.

Johnson, alongside fellow freshman and NBA prospect Jaden Springer, led a veteran-laden Tennessee team in scoring this season and was one of the most entertaining duos to watch in the country. Both have shown pretty substantial growth in their games throughout the year and have cemented their draft stock amongst most people’s eyes, but it’s been Johnson who has separated himself from the pairing as having a legitimate shot at being a top-five selection in the 2021 NBA Draft.

He started the year being viewed as an explosive athlete who can thrive in transition and lockdown opposing players on the defensive end but is someone who has a limited skill set offensively.

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That showed to be true as he went through growing pains early on, averaging only 7.4 points and 2.0 assists per game on 44.2 percent shooting from the field and 18.2 percent shooting from beyond the arc in the first seven games of Tennessee’s 2021 campaign. The last 11 games of the season have told a different story for Johnson’s offensive capabilities though, a stretch that has seen his playmaking ability on full display and his scoring arsenal grow side by side with his confidence.

The Shelbyville, Tennessee native averaged 14.4 points and 3.1 assists per game on 46 percent shooting from the field and 29.2 percent shooting from the 3-point line. Now with the perception of his proverbial ceiling needing refinement and his offensive skills flourishing at a fairly rapid rate, Johnson has broken out of the box some analysts put him in early on.

The most common pro comparison I’ve seen associated with Johnson is to Boston Celtics swingman Jaylen Brown, which is a fair one given where Brown was as a prospect coming out of California as the Pac-12 Freshman of the Year when he entered the 2016 NBA Draft. He was an elite defensive dynamo who possessed raw offensive ability and had real questions as a shooter, a position Johnson finds himself in similarly now in 2021.

Brown’s grown into one of the best shot creators in the league, improving his ball-handling skills, and developing into a 37 percent three-point shooter for his career so far, while being named to his first All-Star team this year. There’s similar hope that Johnson can have that same growth curve at the next level, but I think a former legend of the Great North is a much more interesting comparison for the Volunteers freshman guard.

Vince Carter went on to become an eight-time All-Star during his 22-year NBA career after being drafted fifth overall in the 1998 NBA Draft and bursting onto the scene with the Toronto Raptors after a draft-day trade landed him with the team. He provides a career trajectory, more similar skillset, and player archetype for Johnson than Brown or really any other player in my opinion.

Every comparison comes with its flaws and there’s no doubt the Carter to Johnson one has its own, maybe to you, it has as many holes in it as a piece of swiss cheese. So I wanted to go back and watch for myself to see how valid this comparison was, but I didn’t and don’t really like doing what seems to be the trend these days of watching YouTube highlights for ten minutes to define a player or player comp.

Instead, I chose to dive into the rabbit hole that is a great resource in YouTube and searched for full games of Vince Carter’s time at the University of North Carolina and his first two seasons in the late ’90s with the Toronto Raptors to make the timeline’s match up closer with where Johnson is at currently in his skill development barely being 19 years old.

The similarities between the two jumped off of the screen after breaking several game tapes of Carter’s down, especially when looking at where he was at a similar age as Johnson. You can’t start analyzing how the two mirror each other without talking about their eye-popping athleticism and leaping ability. Carter is without question not only one of the greatest dunkers the game has ever seen but also one of its most influential.

His performance in the 2000 NBA Slam Dunk Contest is still arguably the greatest in the All-Star weekend’s events history, and his reputation as an in-game dunker might be unmatched. However, Carter’s blistering poster dunks came way before he got to the association and were on full display during his time at Chapel Hill.

Saying anyone is on the same level athletically or as a leaper as Vince Carter is a big claim and I’m not going to tell you Keon Johnson is going to be the same kind of dunker, but he’s every bit as explosive as the former Tar Heel.

Johnson doesn’t have anywhere near the resume of dunks Carter has, but his ability to defy gravity as a gifted two-footed leaper is just as special and the in-game dunk he had against Georgia earlier this season is pretty VC-esque if you ask me.

Digging deeper than the surface level and most obvious shared trait the two have with their capabilities to deliver highlight-reel dunks, Johnson’s mid-range shooting, and offensive post-up game mime Carter’s scoring approach to attacking opposing defenders.

From 20-feet in, Carter was a nightmare to guard given his combination of elite athleticism, deadly touch with his jumpers, and the multiple attacks plus counters he had to dissect whatever unfortunate soul had the assignment of guarding him on any given night.

This is interesting to see from a young player, but mainly from a guard in today’s era of basketball that has seen the evolution of the game put heightened importance on the 3-point shot, and young players following the trend modeling their games after pro’s like Steph Curry. Johnson has opted for more of an “old school” line of thinking with the way he attacks a defense, valuing mid-range jumpers more than deep 3’s.

I think this is refreshing and promising to see from a young prospect who is clearly focused on what works best for his current game, rather than what’s the trendy thing to do. His polish in the post is far ahead of most players his age, even some big men, and although his arsenal of moves isn’t as diverse yet as Carter’s, he utilizes the same set-ups or tricks such as the way he loves the quick turnaround jumper over the left shoulder usually off of quick spin moves in the post just like Carter did.

Carter didn’t just use the post for turnaround jumpers though, as I said earlier he had multiple attacks to utilize to breakdown a defender just like a great counter-puncher in fighting does. He wasn’t just looking for quick turnaround’s when operating on the low block, Carter had a great faceup game he could go to and the conundrum it would be for his man, would be quite the problem to solve defensively.

Because of his effectiveness as a jump-shooter, Carter could just get quality looks off effortlessly when facing up out of the post, and had a great power hop step to create space to elevate for his shot if a defender chose to crowd him heavily.

If the defender accomplished the feat of taking away the jumper from Carter, then off of the face-ups he would just display his elite athleticism once again and first-step quickness to beat defenders off of the initial bounce.

Add in that he could finish above the rim on pretty much anyone plus had great body control to contort to finish through traffic or contact and you could see why Carter was such a nightmarish matchup for opposing guards to deal with in the post area.

Again the diversity of Johnson’s overall scoring repertoire isn’t the same as Carter’s was, but as his confidence has continued to grow alongside his skills, you’ve seen Johnson showcase more of what he can do offensively while fine-tuning his post-game scoring. The similarities with Carter continue to be hard to deny, Johnson loves using that same power hop to create an opening for a shot, and even mechanically his shooting looks eerily like Carter’s on the following fadeaway.

The last layer of connecting the chain of how Carter and Johnson score in a similar fashion with their mid-range shooting is how they both can hit those shots also off the dribble and the way they set it up behind the threat of their athleticism/quickness. Now there’s not a question in my mind that Carter has a more fluid handle and overall shooting mechanics than Johnson and both are the area’s he’s going to have to continue to work on to catch up to the 22-year veteran or reach that potential I believe he has to be a modern-day version of Carter.

There is just no denying that VC was further along as an offensive-scoring talent at the same point of his career as Johnson is at now, with the numbers also supporting the evidence for this.

Carter shot 34.5 percent from beyond the arc as a freshman at North Carolina, making 19-55 attempts during that 1995-96 season. Johnson on the other hand has only shot 26.1 percent from the 3-point line and made just 12-46 attempts from there this season. But Johnson’s assuredness as a shooter has improved and so has his ability to make shots off of the dribble.

Let’s also not pretend that Carter didn’t have some shooting woes and concerns early on in his career either, he only shot 29 percent from beyond the arc during his rookie season. Still, it’s very clear that Carter was just more of a natural at creating his own shot and looked more confident shooting off the dribble than Johnson has up to this point.

Taking away the post game from Carter on the offensive end did nothing but prolong the defender’s suffering, as Carter was a bonafide bucket-getter and might’ve been more dangerous shooting in rhythm off the bounce.

Johnson’s potential as a shot creator and his shooting off of the dribble only became more promising as the Volunteers season progressed. As his skills have grown so have his assertiveness and confidence in his shot-making abilities. Although his dribble moves need a ton of polishing up still, Johnson has shown a beautiful float crossover as his go-to move of choice currently and it’s been enough to create the space he needs to display his effortless touch with his mid-range game.

Plus, now showing more competence as a pull-up shooter has continued to open up Johnson’s scoring weapons as well.

There are even more ways that the two are similar in my opinion and intertwined by the freakish athletic abilities both possess. Both are really good rebounding guards and have an innate ability to make a simplistic defensive rebound look like the most athletic feat ever, they score well on the offensive glass, and nothing but good things happen when either is on the open floor in transition.

So I could sit here all day and compare every little nuanced detail of why I think Keon Johnson projects or compares well to Vince Carter, but for the sake of your attention span and to not turn this into a 10,000-word scouting report, I want to turn my attention to the two areas of the game where I think Johnson is already better than Carter at, defense and playmaking.

Johnson is no doubt in my mind one of the premier perimeter defenders in this draft class, it was one of his calling cards going into the season and he’s lived up to expectations. His 94.3 defensive rating was good enough to be ranked ninth-best in the SEC this year and he’s got all the attributes you’re looking for in an elite defender having really good lateral quickness, awareness, and a motor that hardly ever gives out.

Carter himself wasn’t a terrible defender by any means and often still made plays on that end of the floor because of his otherworldly athleticism, but as is evident by his career 107.0 defensive rating, Johnson just is in another realm defensively already than VC ever got to.

He can do it all on the defensive end of the hardwood, Johnson can smother opposing players on the ball, create havoc off the ball, communicate rotations effectively as a team defender, closes out on shooters as hard as anyone I’ve ever scouted, creates turnovers in the open floor, and has the work capacity to stay a pest defensively for all 48 minutes.

Now showing you Johnson doing each one of these things again would take a whole other article with how much he does as a defender. I’ve got endless clips of him doing everything aforementioned above but in hopes again to keep this as digestible of a read as I possibly can, I just want to focus on one defensive play from Johnson.

This was from Tennessee’s 70-58 win over Vanderbilt back on February 24, for many of you this probably doesn’t seem like all that much but it embodies Johnson and his style of play defensively in my opinion so well. With his team up 12 points with only 52 seconds left in the game, a Vanderbilt player is cherry-picking in transition and instead of giving up the easy bucket in garbage time of an already decided game, Johnson hustles back down the floor to strip the Vanderbilt player and force a turnover.

That’s just a real indication of a guy who loves to win and will compete through the whistle, showing an effort that is rarely coachable.

The aspect of Johnson’s game and continued growth though that has me most excited for his potential in the NBA is his blossoming ability as a playmaker. His 21 percent assist percentage ranked 16th in the SEC and his per 40 minutes average of 4.0 assists per game are promising signs of what could be on the horizon for Johnson’s next step in his progression and unlocking another layer to his arsenal. I’ve already talked ad nauseam about the kind of athlete Johnson is and what he can do in transition, a facet of the game where his playmaking shines.

Now as he’s become more adept at making plays in the half-court, the confidence is bleeding over into his entire offensive game. One of the coolest things about scouting a young player is watching them have those eureka moments where they start to become more certain of themselves, seeing Johnson have several of those moments with his playmaking has been truly joyous to watch. His decision-making has a long way to still go and he’s never going to be a primary offensive initiator at the next level in my opinion.

But it’s almost as if Johnson has tapped into a skill he hasn’t before and has shown he can be a more than adequate ball-handler in pick-and-rolls, a very good secondary playmaker, and has a vision of the floor that I’m not sure even he knew he had.

Ultimately, I’m not sure Johnson is going to from day one electrify the league and a team in the way Vince Carter did with the Raptors in the late ’90s, early 2000s. He definitely has the potential though to do so and at the very least, become somewhat similar to the former King of the North.

Johnson’s freakish athletic traits, offensive post-game, mid-range shooting, versatile defensive skills, and now newfound playmaking potential will make for an interesting riddle for general managers and scouts to figure out in the coming months.

Next. NBA Trade Deadline: Biggest needs and targets for each West contender. dark

Keon Johnson is a player you should keep your eye on during March Madness and you should be thrilled if your team selects him later this summer in the 2021 draft.