Keyontae Johnson’s Hot Start Leading The Way For Gators

After Keyontae Johnson’s productive freshman year that saw him burst onto the national scene with insane dunks and a propensity for grabbing contested rebounds despite being undersized in the frontcourt it should be no surprise that he’s taken another leap coming into the 2019-20 season. In a college basketball world of old-and-done stars and 5th year graduate transfer free agency the second-year player is often forgotten but with the way Johnson has been playing on both sides of the court he won’t be ignored.

In clinching the MVP at the Charleston Classic he established himself as a leader and someone opposing defenses need to be aware of and considering the deserved hype of Kerry Blackshear Jr., Scottie Lewis, Tre Mann, and Andrew Nembhard his dominance early has given the Gators a glimpse at just how high their ceiling could be this year once things come together and everyone is playing their best basketball.

Here is a bit of what has made Keyontae Johnson so effective to start the season.

Usage Rates

Kerry Blackshear Jr. leads the Gators in usage rate at 23.3% but Keyontae Johnson isn’t far behind at 22%. Before the season if someone said Johnson was going to be a player utilized offensively nearly as much as Blackshear you would have thought they were crazy but Johnson’s efficiency on that end has commanded touches. He actually leads the Gators in percentage of field goals taken while on the floor with 22.3%, a stat that Blackshear would probably lead in if it accounted for the attempts where he got fouled in the act of shooting, but it still shows just how much of the load Johnson is taking offensively and how much he is trusted by Coach White. Used last year primarily as a floor spacer and an offensive rebounding threat his game has been vastly developed and we’re seeing just what he can be as a scorer.

Efficiency Numbers

Looking at some of the traditional percentage markers for a player Johnson is sitting pretty. He’s 58.5% from the field, a tremendous number built on the grounds of his 40% three-point stroke and 64% from two, both truly admirable numbers. One thing that hasn’t come along yet is his free throw shooting which currently sits at 60% but considering the way his jump shot is falling from behind the arc the charity stripe will hopefully be an area we see improvement. Johnson did struggle from the line last year with an only marginally better 64.3% so rapid improvement in that area probably shouldn’t be expected but considering how much he has grown in other areas of the game there’s no reason why free throw shooting couldn’t be the next skill he develops.

Shooting so efficiently has helped him become one of the Gators’ most valuable players this season but how is he putting points on the board so easily on a team that hasn’t always been potent offensively this season?

Attacking Closeouts

A skill in basketball that doesn’t get talked about enough is attacking closeouts. The ball moves from one player to another and a defender has to take multiple steps towards the player with the ball to defend the threat of the jump shot. As the defender is moving towards the player who just caught the ball he’s vulnerable as all his momentum is going forward, and a quick move to either side can be extremely difficult for the defender to match.

Keyontae Johnson is a master of attacking closeouts. Last season I became a fan of his excellence in this area but this year he’s gone to another level. Sometimes he simply goes in a straight line by his defender closing out, banking on his superior first step to explode by his man. Other times he’ll use a jab to one side before crossing over to the other. Sometimes, he’ll use multiple jabs to leave his defender guessing before bursting by to whatever side he seemingly chooses. Whatever the case, he’s getting into the paint with regularity due to his ability to attack the closeout, something also set up well by the fact he’s a 40% three-point shooter defenders need to respect, and it’s collapsing opposing defenses and either allowing Johnson to score himself or get the ball moving to one of his teammates.

When catching the ball on the perimeter and either taking an immediate jumper or attacking a closeout Johnson is shooting 50% from the field with 1.095 PPP, making it one of the most efficient offensive options the Gators currently have. That number also doesn’t account for the way defenses start to scramble when Johnson has gotten penetration and forced help into the paint and some of Florida’s best offense has come from him breaking down the defense.

Finishing At The Rim

You don’t shoot 64% from inside the arc without being an elite finisher inside and Johnson has shown a variety of ways to score at the rim that have made him a terror to guard. With his muscular frame he can take contact and finish and with long arms he can create angles you wouldn’t expect that allow him to get the ball around shot blockers, particularly with his now-patented reverse scoop layup where he uses his right hand to finish on the left side of the rim.

Using his full arsenal of finishing tools in close Johnson is shooting a magnificent 66.7% at the rim, a fantastic number that puts him near the best in the country for players that aren’t 6’8” or taller. What makes that number so impressive is that he’s done it on a great deal of volume in this early season. Out of the 65 field goal attempts Johnson has taken this year, 44 of them have been at the rim. That’s 6.3 shots per game at the rim so far for Johnson and that means 6.3 highly, highly efficient shots for the Gators per game. Any time Johnson gets the ball into the paint it’s a threat and one of the best things Florida can do for it’s offense and moving forward his ability to score at the rim is going to be a weapon for the offense.

Defense

Athleticism always lends itself to defensive prowess and Johnson has also shown strides on Florida’s side of the floor. Whether it be at the top of the 1-3-1 extended zone, sitting down in a stance guarding a perimeter player, or leveraging his low center of gravity on the block against a bigger player trying to post him up we’ve seen some excellent moments from Johnson defensively.

Advanced metrics can be shaky when it comes to evaluating an individual player’s defensive ability, I’ll admit, but there are definitely some positive ones in place for Johnson and you can take from them what you will.

When closing out to a player in the act of shooting Johnson is only allowing 33.3%, an important number given the fact that taking away jumpers is an important aspect of Florida’s defense. Some teams have tried to capitalize on their size advantage when Johnson is at the 4 by posting him up but he’s remained stout only allowing 40% while not committing any fouls, something important for one of Florida’s most important players.

One thing we haven’t seen yet from Johnson this season is his ability to generate steals, something he did excellently as a freshman. This could be part of a more conservative defense scheme or a scenario where there just haven’t been opportunities for him to shoot passing lanes but I wouldn’t be surprised to see him poke away a few balls in the upcoming games.

Rebounding

Last season Johnson established himself as one of the best rebounders in the country despite being only 6’5” as he would leap above the pack and come away with astonishing rebounds nearly every game.

On the surface level his rebounding percentages are down a hair. His 22.6% defensive rebounding percentage from last season has dipped to 18.8% (which is still a great number, 410th in country, just not as absurd of a number as last year) and his offensive rebounding percentage has gone down from 9.4% to 5.6%.

However, rebounding isn’t all about individual statistics and which teammate comes up with the ball. Sometimes a player is the best rebounder on the floor by identifying a man, boxing out, and letting his teammate grab the rock and I think we’ve seen that from Johnson. Last year the Gators struggled on the defensive glass allowing opponents to grab offensive rebounds on 32.2% of misses and this season that number has improved to 28.1%. Johnson has been diligent in blocking his man out and it’s often allowed Kerry Blackshear Jr. to come in and get the ball.

Johnson’s offensive rebounding numbers being down can be chalked up to the fact that he’s playing a lot more on the perimeter in the offense Florida is running and he hasn’t been in a premium position to attack the glass. With Kerry Blackshear Jr. and Omar Payne also on the team there are more guys to attack the offensive glass and Johnson hasn’t been relied upon as much in that area.

Even though Johnson’s rebounding percentages are down a bit they’re still above average numbers when you look at the national averages and watching the tape he’s been excellent in boxing out and what’s most important is that the Gators get the ball and it doesn’t matter who is the one to get it.

Johnson’s Importance

Last season a lot of Florida’s offensive woes were rooted in the fact that they struggled to get the ball into the paint with a drive. Often times when people think of how to get driving lanes they think of players using dribbles combinations to beat their man one-on-one or using a ball screen to free up space to make a move. Keyontae Johnson has showed that by attacking closeouts he can get into the paint at will and with that ability Florida’s offense has a whole new dimension. There are going to be teams that front Kerry Blackshear Jr. and don’t allow passes to get inside and teams that trap pick and rolls to keep Andrew Nembhard from being a playmaker but it’s really hard to contain someone like Johnson who can be a threat immediately off the catch by either shooting the three or blowing by his man with an instant attack. Some teams have tried to double Johnson when he gets the ball, but the thing is that he usually makes his move so quickly to attack a closeout that teams don’t have time to get there with the help and double him. Johnson is going to remain one of Florida’s most important offensive players and his unique offensive game is one of the major factors that gives this team such a high ceiling this year.

Eric Fawcett
Eric hails from Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. His blend of sports and comedy has landed his words on ESPN, Bleacher Report, CBS Sports, Lindy's and others. He loves zone defenses, the extra pass, and a 30 second shot clock. Growing up in Canada, an American channel showing SEC basketball games was his first exposure to Gator hoops, and he has been hooked ever since. You can follow him on Twitter at @Efawcett7.