Keldon Johnson proves worth in the wake of Julius Randle, rising stars’ Olympic snub

Many fans raised their eyebrows when Team USA selected 21-year old Keldon Johnson and journeyman center Javale McGee to replace Bradley Beal and Kevin Love in the Team USA.

On Team USA’s final exhibition game Sunday against world no. 2 Spain, Johnson silenced the doubters.

The second-year San Antonio Spurs’ forward came off the bench and provided the spark Team USA needed to fend off Spain in the second half for an 83-76 win.

Johnson poured in 10 of his 15 points in the third quarter, where the Americans wrested full control of the game after a closely fought first half. He shot 7 of 9 from the field and added two steals while having the best plus/minus rating (+18) in the night.

Damian Lillard, who led the Team USA with 19 points and six assists, praised Johnson for rising to the occasion.

“He played great. There is a reason why — once a few guys weren’t able to continue with the team — he was asked to stay,” Lillard said.

Team USA coach Gregg Popovich looked like a genius for picking up his young Spurs player despite fans’ clamor for other rising stars to be added instead of him and McGee.

“Keldon Johnson just played a really solid basketball game,” said Popovich. “He shot if he was open, he made cuts to the bucket. When he did go to the bucket, he was very physical. And he was solid in the half-court defense. So, he had a very, very good night.”

Johnson, who played for the Select Team, which practiced with the Team USA, was the most conditioned player in Las Vegas. He was lost for words when he became an official member of the Olympic roster.

“It’s a dream come true. I’m definitely proud to be able to represent my country,” Johnson said. “This was a dream you have when you were a child watching the great players who came through and played for the United States. Just being able to do this, it’s kind of hit home. Given this opportunity, you know a lot of people trusting me to put this jersey on and play. This is big!”

Johnson’s energy on offense and defense rubbed on the whole team as the Spaniards got rattled in that pivotal third quarter.

“Just being active, being a spark,” said Johnson of his performance which included an emphatic slam in the second half. “I’m here to be the energy guy and bring life to the team whenever we need it. In the third quarter when I came in, we needed a spark.”

While there were doubts and questions about his inclusion, it didn’t eat him up as he was ready for the moment. He was comfortable with his game and trusted the work he put in that he felt there was really no need to prove his worth.

“I don’t really go on social media to read like that, to be honest. Everybody is entitled to their opinion. I can’t control what they think. But it will not deter me from doing what I am supposed to do for my team. Obviously, they know what I am capable of. I know what I am capable of. So what every people thought, that’s their opinion. I’m just gonna go out there and play,” Johnson said.

There were cases to be made for Atlanta Hawk’s rising star Trae Young, last year’s Rookie of the Year Ja Morant of the Memphis Grizzlies, New Orleans Pelican’s young stud Zion Williamson and the league’s Most Improved Player Julius Randle from the New York Knicks.

But Team USA opted to go with role players instead of additional firepower for specific needs. Like when Popovich opted for Kevin Love as his floor spacing ability, he thought it would be needed against Rudy Gobert and France in their opening game.

Popovich defended McGee’s inclusion. Perhaps he’ll be tasked to defend Gobert and other countries’ big men.

“We decided that was the most logical and the most appropriate choice given the choices that we had. He fit the best,” Popovich said when asked why they selected McGee. 

McGee did not play in the team’s final tune-up game as he just arrived in Las Vegas two days ago.

Meanwhile, Zach LaVine was a late scratch Monday as Team USA was scheduled to depart for Tokyo.

“Out of an abundance of caution, USA Basketball Men’s National Team member Zach LaVine has been placed under USA Basketball’s health and safety protocols and will not travel with the team to Tokyo today, USA Basketball announced Monday. USA Basketball hopes that Zach will be able to join the team in Tokyo later this week,” Team USA said in a statement released to media.

If LaVine can’t be cleared before the games begin, Team USA can replace him.

Barring any injuries, Devin Booker, Khris Middleton, and Jrue Holiday will boost Team USA’s depth in Tokyo after the Finals. If the series reaches a Game 7, they will still make it on the day before Team USA faces France on July 25.

“We needed conditioning. We’re getting better with each passing day in that regard. The three guys that will be joining us, you’d think they’re really in good shape. So that’s a plus,” Popovich said.

While he doesn’t have a firm grasp yet of how to fit them in the rotation when they arrive in Tokyo, Popovich and his coaching staff have run through several options, such as playing them in the first half of the opening game to see where their legs are or hit them up after two days and play them in the second game. But everything he said will largely depend on the health of other players on the roster.

As it stands, Team USA has eight healthy bodies: Kevin Durant, Lillard, Jayson Tatum, Draymond Green, Jerami Grant, Bam Adebayo, Johnson, and McGee.

Follow this writer on Twitter: @alderalmo

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