Before Keshad Johnson played a single game at Vieja Arena, he looked destined for success.
His NBA athleticism jumped out of his highlight videos. When he competed against former Aztec greats in scrimmages, they raved about his potential. Fans and the media alike hyped the Oakland product, saying that his first two years on the Mesa were a letdown.
“It’s not his fault there was buzz,” Dave Velasquez told EVT. “That’s others (outside the program), not within. He is going to be a guy that is ready to shine. I’m excited for more people to see what we’ve seen so many times in practice.”
Whatever the misconceptions that those outside of the program had in the past, those inside the program have made one thing very clear. It is time for one of SDSU’s most talented players to produce.
“Keshad is someone who has been really impressive,” Matt Bradley said in an exclusive interview. “He is improving his three-ball. He’s knocking it down. Dude is one of the best athletes I have probably ever seen. Defensive-wise, he can guard one through three, probably one through five, to be honest. He’s 6’7″, super strong, super wiry, athletic. As time continues, he looks to get better. He’s a great teammate, too, more important than anything. He’s a good teammate, and I love having him around.”
Johnson was born and raised in Oakland, CA. At the age of ten, his brother was shot multiple times as a result of a gang crossfire. Luckily his brother survived, though he was paralyzed from the waist down. His family stayed in the area but moved to Oakland’s neighboring city, San Leandro, to get away from the violence.
At San Leandro High, Johnson joined the basketball team but was slow to receive attention from college teams until his senior year. As he grew taller and started filling in his frame, Johnson jumped from a zero star to a three-star recruit gaining steam among high major programs. Teams like Georgetown, Washington State, Fresno State, and more started to reach out. It was at this time, Brian Dutcher and the San Diego State Aztecs began seeking his services.
In his first two seasons at SDSU, he has not seen the court much. His freshman year, he averaged 5.9 minutes and 1.9 points per game. In the 2020-21 season, he averaged 13.4 minutes, 4.0 points, and 3.6 rebounds. Though his playing time was hard to come by, he showed flashes of the rumored brilliance his hype was built around. Last season, he poured in 14 points in only 17 minutes and 15 points in 22 minutes in victories over UC Irvine and Wyoming respectively. In each outburst, there were highlight moments that few players ever to play at SDSU could match.
Keshad Johnson has a bright future with SDSU. Look at this dude float for the slam against New Mexico. pic.twitter.com/RbEmOIO96k
— Matt Topuzes (@mtopuzes) January 30, 2020
Limited playing time aside, Johnson has made the most of his first two years. He learned from some of the best players to ever step foot on the Mesa. In his freshman year, he watched Yanni Wetzel move faster than any big man on the court. Last year, he played alongside Matt Mitchell, Nathan Mensah, and Jordan Shackel as they led SDSU to the school’s 13th March Madness appearance.
For a lot of players with the outside noise about NBA potential, it would have been easy for Johnson to take what he learned at SDSU and move to another program where he will not have to compete for as many minutes. Transferring is the path well-traveled in college basketball. Johnson chose to stay because of the relationships he has formed the past few years.
“Trust the process,” Velasquez said. “Trust in the coaching, trust in the development. Knowing that he was there every day when everyone else wasn’t. He understands what he needs to get better at. He understands the type of role and responsibility that he will be given this year that he has earned. This is a big year for Keshad on both ends of the floor. ”
“I’ve learned so much since I’ve been here and now that I’m a vet. Everyone can see how much I’ve grown as a defensive player. It just shows everyone that it doesn’t happen overnight”, Johnson responded after hearing Velasquez’s comment.
Patience alone will not guarantee Johnson playing time this season. Coach Brian Dutcher has once again brought in a talent transfers that will compete for minutes. Johnson will need to earn his playing time by producing on the court. One advantage that Keshad has is the growth that he has shown in the last two years. He really is the product of Dutcher and the coaching plan.
“When you talk about developing a guy as an overall player, I am hoping to use him (Johnson) as a guy we use in the recruiting process moving forward. Where he was when he got here and where he is right now,” Velasquez said.
One area where Johnson has made massive strides in his defense. When speaking to EVT, Johnson said, “The difference between SDSU’s defense and other schools is that SDSU’s defense is more disciplined. We focus on all five guys playing defense instead of just being a great individual player. We focus on always having each other’s backs.”
Defense is the calling card of SDSU and has been for a long time. It was instilled in Kawhi Leonard, who made four All-Defensive teams in his first six NBA seasons. The defense-first mindset saw SDSU only allow 61.2 points per game last year, good for 8th in the country. Head coach Brian Dutcher emphasizes the Aztecs as a defense-first team and that the offense will follow.
What will make him a complete player and a team leader is putting it together on both ends of the floor. If his defense is as good as advertised, improvement offensively will see Johnson, the player everyone has envisioned in 2021 – 2022.
“You could argue,” Velasquez said. “That between him or Nate or Trey or Seiko, they could guard the best player on the other team. He’s an outstanding athlete that is becoming more comfortable on the offensive side of the floor. He’s shooting the ball more consistently. He’s always made shots. You could go back to the UC Irvine game last year, but it’s about being more consistent, about knowing your role, about continuing to develop your game, and being on balance more.”
His improved shooting comes at the right time. With the departure of deep threats, Schakel and Terrell Gomez SDSU lack consistent three-point shooters to space the floor. On the team, Adam Seiko, Keith Dinwiddie, Joshua Tomaic, and Matt Bradley will counted on most to fill that void.
It would be too much to ask Johnson to become one of the team’s primary three-point shooters. That has not been his best shot. In the last two seasons, he attempted 18 and 21 only three-point shots, respectively. An improved outshot jump shot, however, should result in Johnson being comfortable taking more shots. It would also allow Dutcher to him alongside Nathan Mensah and Joshua Tomaic, forming one of the longest frontcourts in the country.
Finally, an improved jump shot would compliment one of his biggest assets, the ability to cut to the basket. Look for Johnson to display a refined knowledge when to attack the basket when others have the ball. The coaching staff has worked extensively with him to learn the intricacies of that aspect of his game. Johnson said the skill is more about feel or technique, and he is excited to unleash it on the court this season.
Johnson will be instrumental in what is looking like another promising season for the Aztecs. It is finally his time to shine after staying off to the side and learning. He now gets the chance to show a wave of young players how to be successful Aztecs.
“Keshad’s game has grown tremendously,” Adam Seiko told EVT. “It’s like day and night. His handle has gotten much better. His jumper has gotten extremely better. He’s an offensive rebounder. He attacks the glass. He’s an all-around guy for us. We’re going to need him to do multiple things on the court, which he is more than capable of doing. With him and the way he’s progressed, he has all the tools on defense to block shots and get steals. He is going to be an ‘X’ factor for us this year. With how coachable he is, with no ego, it’s going to be a great year playing with Keshad.”