Spurs Coach Opens Up On Keldon Johnson Benching

Gregg Popovich, Keldon Johnson, Spurs, NBA
Jan 2, 2024; Memphis, Tennessee, USA; San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich (left) talks with forward Keldon Johnson (3) during the second half against the Memphis Grizzlies at FedEx Forum. Mandatory Credit: Petre Thomas-USA TODAY Sports

The 2023-24 NBA regular season has been difficult at times for San Antonio Spurs forward Kelson Johnson. For the first time since his rookie season in 2019-20, he has not been a regular part of the starting lineup.

That in itself is an adjustment for a player. Having to find a way to make an impact in a smaller role off the bench is challenging for some players. Johnson has found a way to produce sporadically, but he hasn’t taken that step in Year 5 the franchise was likely to see from him.

In the early stages of a rebuild around the No. 1 pick in the 2023 NBA Draft, Victor Wembanyama, the Spurs knew this season would have some challenges. Development was their No. 1 goal, as Gregg Popovich and his staff are trying to show a young team how to become winners.

NBA NEWS & RUMORS: Keldon Johnson, Mitch Johnson, San Antonio Spurs Updates

There are a lot of ways a coaching staff can show a player how to develop. For the Spurs, they took the tough-love approach with Johnson on Sunday evening against the Utah Jazz, who reached a new low.

Johnson subbed into the game at his regular spot in the first quarter. He would play four minutes, committing an egregious foul on Kris Dunn, who was setting a screen for Lauri Markkanen to shoot a 3-pointer.

It was something the coaching staff was not happy with, so they opted to send a message to Johnson. He didn’t go back into the game after that miscue, as Popovich opted to give his minutes to Sandro Mamukelashvili, a second-round pick in 2021 out of Seton Hall.

After the game, assistant coach Mitch Johnson went into more detail about the decision to bench Johnson after only four minutes of play. It seems as if the message the coaching staff has been sharing is not getting through to their fifth-year forward, so Popovich changed how to share that message.

NBA NEWS & RUMORS: Keldon Johnson, Mitch Johnson, San Antonio Spurs Updates

In Johnson’s place, Mamukelashvili had a very good game. He was the only Spurs player to finish with a positive plus/minus, finishing +8 in his 14 minutes. The Seton Hall product scored eight points with one rebound, one assist and two steals.

If the message doesn’t get through to Johnson after being benched, bigger changes could be on the horizon. The Spurs are evaluating who should be considered building blocks around Wembanyama in the future and not buying into the plan will assuredly result in a one-way ticket out of town.

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