Addition of Spurs' Keldon Johnson already paying off for Team USA

by 24USATVJuly 19, 2021, 11 p.m. 15
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If there were rumblings about Keldon Johnson’s fitness for Team USA duty, he never heard them.

If there were those who believed the U.S. Olympic team could do better for a last-minute roster replacement than a 21-year-old second-year Spurs forward who has never so much appeared in an NBA playoff game, Johnson all but shrugs them off.

“Everybody is entitled to their opinion,” Johnson said. “I can’t control what somebody else thinks. It’s not going to deter me from going out there and doing what I’m supposed to do for my team.”

Sunday in Las Vegas, Johnson found a way to silence the naysayers he didn’t know he had.

In his first appearance with Team USA since being added to the roster in place of Bradley Beal, Johnson was an unlikely ringleader of an 83-76 comeback victory over Spain in the United States’ final tune-up before departing for Tokyo.

Johnson scored 15 points — second on the team to Damian Lillard’s 19 — to help boost Team USA past the defending World Cup champion Spaniards.

He had 10 of those points during a madcap third quarter in which the Americans took control of the game for good.

If this was Johnson’s attempt to prove he belonged in the same breath and same locker room as the top players in the United States, well, it only looked that way.

“I’m not trying to prove anything,” Johnson said. “I know who I am as a player. I know what my teammates expect from me. It’s not like I’m trying to do something I’m not comfortable with.”

Johnson’s elevation to Team USA last week, in the wake of Beal’s forced withdrawal from the team amid COVID-19 protocols, drew eyebrows in some corners of the basketball world.

To be fair, it surprised Johnson as well.

“It’s a dream come true,” he said.

Unlike other members of the star-studded U.S. group, Johnson hasn’t been an All-Star, or an NBA MVP, or a scoring champion or a title-winner.

Outside of San Antonio, where his star is on the rise among Spurs fans, Johnson isn’t much of a household name.

His addition to Team USA relied in large part on expediency: With a roster spot open eight days before the scheduled Olympic opener against France on July 25, the squad needed someone who was available, still in game shape and had some clue of how the U.S. team wanted to play.

Having worked out against Team USA as a member of the U.S. Select Team since the start of camp in mid-July, Johnson checked all those boxes.

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It is tempting for some pundits to view Johnson’s promotion as a matter of nepotism. After all, Team USA is coached by Gregg Popovich, Johnson’s NBA coach with the Spurs.

The choice, however, was not Popovich’s alone. Johnson was the consensus choice of the bulk of Team USA’s staff, including USA Basketball director Jerry Colangelo.

“It says a lot, because Pop’s not the only coach here,” Johnson said. “There’s a lot of people that have input on the decision. That’s big, that other people see it and it’s not just Coach Pop or the Spurs organization.”

It is true that if a raft of NBA All-Stars had been beating down the door to make an unscheduled, last-minute trip to Tokyo, Johnson probably would not be an Olympian.

Sunday against Spain, however, Johnson showed the value of being a solid role player, even on a team as star-powered as Team USA.

“Keldon Johnson just played a really solid basketball game,” Popovich said. “He made shots. He made cuts. He had a really, really good night.”

If Team USA indeed makes a run to Olympic gold in Tokyo, it will be behind the likes of Kevin Durant, Lillard and Jayson Tatum.

Johnson might not remain in the rotation once Devin Booker, Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday arrive at the conclusion of the NBA Finals.

This much is true, however: Team USA would not have won its exhibition Sunday against a powerful Spanish club without him.

Johnson helped energize Team USA after a sluggish start with a second-quarter block of Spain’s Pierre Oriola, preventing what seemed to be a sure basket.

Then came the third quarter, when Johnson broke loose.

Only one of his five baskets in the decisive frame came of his own making, a driving jumper in the paint.

The others came from his All-Star teammates finding him open near the rim, including a fast-break feed from Lillard that ended with a thunderous dunk.

Johnson ended the night 7 of 9, with a shooting percentage he had surpassed only once in 86 NBA games.

“I just play my game, try to make it easy for my teammates,” Johnson said. “My teammates trust me and give me the ball in the right spot. I know my role on the team. I feel like my coaches have my back and my teammates have my back.”

If there were questions about whether Johnson belonged on a team as star-packed as the one the U.S. will take to Tokyo, he answered them Sunday.

Even if he never heard them in the first place.

“Obviously, the team knows what I’m capable of, and I know what I’m capable of,” Johnson said. “Whatever people think, that’s their opinion. I just go out there and play.”

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