Coach: Johnson Could be “Vols’ No. 1 Defender” as True Freshman

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    (Photo via @MarkGriffinVOL on Twitter)

    Few people outside of Keon Johnson’s own family know the borderline five-star prospect better than his former travel ball coach, Mark Griffin.

    Griffin, who is a former Vol basketball player himself, served as an assistant coach for the Elite Amateur Basketball Club, a summer travel ball organization. Over the last three years, Griffin has coached Johnson while he’s played with EAB, and he’s watched Johnson develop from a promising young guard to one of the top prospects in the 2020 class.

    On Tuesday evening, Johnson announced his commitment to Tennessee, choosing the Vols over his other finalist, Ohio State, Johnson also held offers from reigning national champion Virginia as well as Auburn, Florida, and Vanderbilt among others.

    I spoke with Griffin about Johnson and what the Vols are getting from the Bell Buckle, TN product. According to Griffin, Tennessee is getting one of the best perimeter defenders in the entire country.

    “I can tell you this: Keon is going to step on UT’s campus, as far as the class of 2020, and be a top 10 defender in the country,” Griffin told me in a recent interview. “I think he will automatically be the number one defender on Tennessee’s team as a true freshman. That’s just based on projection, based on what I’ve seen him accomplish throughout his career. He thrives on the defensive end. He always wants to guard the best player on the opposition. He always is up to the challenge of wanting to guard the best player. I personally think that’s what he prides himself on more than how many points he scores or how many assists he has.”

    At around 6-foot-5, 180 pounds, Johnson has the size and length to be a major disruptor on defense. He also has the quickness to cover smaller guards, but he has the confidence and size to cover athletic forwards.

    Griffin even thinks there are match-ups where Johnson could guard a five-man on the floor.

    “He can guard the one through four,” Griffin said of Johnson. “I can see him guarding point guard, he’s done that before. He’s guarded a four man, people up to 6-foot-8, 6-foot-9. Would I put him up against a five player? If need be, yes. I do think he can guard the one-to-four, though.”

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    The biggest question about Johnson guarding someone at the four or even the five would be his strength and overall size. He has the height and length, but what about the power and  mass?

    Griffin believes Johnson is stronger than his appearance would indicate, and he thinks it won’t take Johnson long to add the necessary muscle to his frame.

    “His strength doesn’t really show on his frame because he’s not a big, muscular kid,” Griffin explained. “I think you’re gonna see him gain 10 pounds, between now and his freshman year, of strength. He’s never really lifted weights continuously. Of course, UT will get him on a superb training program.”

    On the offensive end, Johnson is about as versatile there as he is on defense. While he primarily plays more as a slashing shooting guard, Johnson can play a small forward type and can even operate as a point guard.

    “One thing we did at EAB this summer was really let him run the offense at the one to develop his overall ball handling skills against smaller, quick guards that you do get on the circuit,” Griffin said. “I think he’s improved dramatically at the point. He’s primarily a shooting guard, but could he also play a point guard? I definitely think he can, and we’ll definitely see him get coached up by Coach Barnes and his staff on his ball handling ability as well as his shooting ability to play the point guard position if need be.”

    Though he’s listed as a shooting guard, pulling up and nailing jumpers wasn’t Johnson’s strongest asset early in his career. Cutting to the basket and relying on his defense to fuel his offense was more his style.

    But Griffin says Johnson has focused a lot on improving his jump shot, and that area, along with his ball handling, is where he’s probably improved the most since Griffin has been coaching him. That, and his confidence in his game.

    “I think where I’ve seen Keon’s improvement the most is his confidence level as far as the all-around part of his game,” Griffin stated. “What I mean by that is that Keon has always been a fantastic defender. As far as his ball-handling and shooting, those were areas of growth. Those are areas he’s really focused on the most.

    “I would have to combine that and say shooting and dribbling and handling the ball have been the biggest growth areas that I’ve seen with him. That’s come through his confidence improving over the last three years.”

    Johnson averaged 24.6 points, 8.6 rebounds, 3.2 assists, 3.0 steals, and 2.4 blocks per game as a junior at The Webb School in Bell Buckle, TN according to MaxPreps. But it was his play with EAB in the Adidas Gauntlet this year that really proved to scouts and analysts that he was one of the premier players in the 2020 class.

    Over the course of the Adidas Gauntlet, Johnson averaged 21.1 points, 5.4 rebounds, and 3.1 assists in seven games, shooting 49 percent overall according to Exposure Sports News. During the Adidas Summer Championship, Johnson averaged over 23 points a contest and finished in the top three overall scoring at the event.

    According to Griffin, Johnson finished third in the entire league in terms of overall proficiency during the entire Adidas Gauntlet.

    Then, there was Johnson’s performance at the USA Basketball mini-camp in July.

    Johnson was one of a select group of prospects to be invited to the event, and he ended up winning the MVP of the entire camp while there.

    Many believe that when the next recruiting updates occur, Johnson will see a bump to five-star status. On both 247Sports and Rivals, Johnson is just outside of five-star range and is one of the highest-rated four-stars in the 2020 class.

    Griffin says he and Johnson have never once discussed his rankings, though.

    “People really get caught up in star rankings. As a fan, I like the star rankings, but as a coach, I’m not a big fan because I’m more about player development,” Griffin said. “One thing Keon and I never talked about was improvement in his ranking.”

    As a potential five-star, though, there will be fans and analysts who may think or even expect Johnson to be a one-and-done type of player at Tennessee.

    According to Griffin, Johnson certainly has the kind of skill to leave for the NBA after one season if he chooses, but he’s not sure Johnson would go that route.

    “Right now, my feeling is Keon would be more apt to stay in school and continue to develop as a student athlete,” Griffin admitted. “I think that if he progresses, then he’ll have to take a look and figure out what his options may be as far as life after UT. But right now, his focus has solely been development, and that’s all I’ve ever spoken to Keon about is continuing to get better as a person and as a student athlete. We’ve never had the conversation about a one-and-done or a two-and-done because this is a new environment for him.

    “I know he’s real excited to get Tennessee back to elite status and keep Tennessee at elite status and maybe take them even further.”

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    As far as how he’ll fit in at UT, Griffin doesn’t think that will be a problem. According to the former Vol, Johnson despises losing and likes being more team-oriented rather than selfish. Johnson wants development above all, and Griffin said that was a big selling point for Tennessee.

    “He’s a kid that hates losing. He hates to lose, and sometimes it comes out on display,” Griffin said. “I know it’s something that he’s working at now, but I’ve never coached a kid that hates losing more than Keon has. I think he’s really going to be able to help a Tennessee program in whatever way and be more team focused. That’s been the focus with me and with his family. It’s been player development and not looking at the NBA.

    “But he does know what a great job that Coach Barnes has done in developing kids into the NBA. That was a big factor for UT, as well as the family feeling.”

    Johnson visited Tennessee multiple times during his recruitment, but it was during his official visit to Knoxville that he really felt like the Vols could be his future team. Griffin accompanied Johnson on that official visit to UT’s campus, and the interaction with 2019 Vol signee and former five-star guard Josiah James as well as Tennessee’s other student athletes really hit home with Johnson.

    “I think what his impression was about UT was being around other character kids,” Griffin stated. “I was with him on his official visit, and he got to spend time with Josiah James. He’s just a great kid to be around and reflected on his recruiting visit to Keon and what it was like going to different schools because this was early on in Keon’s recruitment process. He spent time with the other student athletes that he got along well with, and I think that was important not only to the Tennessee kids, but it was important to Keon to be around other leaders in the community that wear the orange and white. I think he’ll fit right in.”

    Griffin added that Johnson is a “fantastic kid” who has “really grown as far as his character.” Johnson is now an honor roll student at The Webb School, and he knows what his major will be and what he’ll focus on for his post-collegiate career if basketball doesn’t work out for him. Griffin also said that Johnson is “a very focused young man and a natural leader.”

    Johnson came to EAB by way of Griffin’s former roommate at Tennessee, Russ Spivey. Spivey alerted Griffin to Johnson, and he compared Johnson to a very interesting former mid-state prospect.

    “The first comparison he got was to a Kentucky Ron Mercer,” Griffin said. “I think that really fits, even though I hate comparing guys. He does remind me of a Ron Mercer, who obviously had a great career and was a mid-state player from the Nashville area.”

    Mercer, much like Johnson, hailed from middle Tennessee and was a highly-coveted prospect. The 6-foot-7 Mercer played for Goodpasture Christian in Madison, TN before transferring to the prestigious Oak Hill Academy in Virginia. He twice won the Mr. Basketball award in the state of Tennessee before transferring to Oak Hill, and he signed with Kentucky prior to the 1995-96 season.

    Mercer played some in his first season, averaging 8.0 points, 2.9 rebounds, and 1.4 assists in 36 games. But it was his second season that propelled him into the NBA, as he averaged 18.1 points, 5.3 rebounds, and 2.4 assists while shooting 49.3 percent overall and 34.8 percent from three. He was named a consensus First-Team All-American in 1997 and won SEC Player of the Year. That strong season helped him get drafted No. 6 overall in the 1997 NBA Draft by the Boston Celtics.

    While Griffin doesn’t want to compare Johnson to any other past or current players, he knows that Johnson is a gifted prospect. In fact, he knew it from the first time he saw him shoot a layup.

    Now, that special player will be wearing the orange and white of Tennessee after he graduates high school.

    “I knew the first day I saw him shoot a layup. I got goosebumps knowing that I had a potential opportunity to coach him,” Griffin explained. “I had to recruit him and his family to come over to EAB, which was an independent team. We were not part of the shoe circuit, and we had other programs that were recruiting him as well. I thought he was going to be special, and he’s been special every day. I continue to think that he’s going to be a special student athlete moving forward.

    “He’s the kind of kid you want to coach, and it’s just been a joy from the three years that I’ve been with him, and I’m really looking forward to following him in his future.”



    Nathanael Rutherford
    Nathanael Rutherford is the managing editor and social media manager for Rocky Top Insider. Nathanael graduated from the University of Tennessee and cultivated a passion for the Vols while growing up in Knoxville a mere 10 minutes from Neyland Stadium. He's been a part of the RTI team since November of 2015 and has been the editor of RTI since June of 2017. If he's not talking or writing about Tennessee athletics, he's probably talking about Star Wars.