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Kobe Johnson: The Swish Army Knife
Versatility is the new name of the game in the NBA, which makes Kobe Johnson one of the more enticing wing prospects in this year's draft class.
Multi-tooled basketball players have always been valuable but, until recently, haven’t been necessary. Historically, basketball has had five positions, each requiring a handful of skills to play their part dutifully, but didn’t beget a lot of crossover. Sure, the rare point guard who was a plus rebounder or center who could zing a pass to the corner was valuable, but they were fewer and farther between.
Now, versatility is not a luxury for a basketball player; it’s a necessity. Strict positions have gone by the wayside, replaced by free-flowing lineups that demand players who have a much broader range of skills in their bags. Some specific skills, like three-point shooting, have become such a swing skill for all players that it can be the swing skill that either impedes one’s potential or unlocks one’s future.
Besides transcendent scorers who can carry an offense, arguably the most coveted player archetype is a do-it-all wing. Big enough to rebound, quick enough to defend on the perimeter, and uniquely athletic enough to dominate in transition, the best wings in today’s game don’t have just one tool to do their dirty work: they’re multi-tooled monsters who can do just about anything on the court.
In the 2024 draft class, a handful of players like Ron Holland or Matas Buzelis have multiple tools and find themselves atop draft conversations. There’s one player, however, who may be the most versatile in the class and deserves definite first-round attention despite flying under the radar.
That someone is Kobe Johnson, or, as I see him, due to his versatility, the Swish Army Knife.
To best understand what makes Johnson such a multi-tooled prospect, it’s best to envision each of his best skills as a different tool to solve a different court problem. So, let’s dive in!
“The Magnifying Glass” or Kobe’s Background
Before diving into Kobe Johnson’s game, let’s consider some important facets of his background. Johnson is a rising junior for the USC Trojans, coming off of a relative breakout year last year for the team. He went from not starting a game as a freshman to starting 29 of USC’s 33 games last year and playing a crucial role for the team.
Johnson was the team’s small forward and the glue guy next to Drew Peterson, Boogie Ellis, Joshua Morgan, and Tre White. He plugged various holes for the Trojans, ranking fourth in points per game, third in assists per game, fourth in rebounds per game, and first in steals per game for the team. Johnson’s propensity for thievery on the court was so good that he ranked second in the entire PAC-12, averaging 2.2 steals per game, which, alongside his lockdown perimeter defense, earned him a PAC-12 All-Defense selection this past season.
Johnson was rarely asked to create offense for the team, but on any given night, he was called on to do anything else. Was there a dynamite scorer on the other end? Throw Kobe Johnson at him and watch him squirm. Was a team like Washington or Oregon State throwing a zone? Let Johnson bomb from deep and make them pay. Was Drew Peterson the focus of the opposing game plan, clogging up the usual driving lanes? It’s time for Johnson to dive to the hoop and wreak havoc with his thunderous dunk package.
That versatility makes Johnson valuable to the Trojans, but it hasn’t gotten much outside attention from a draft perspective. Frankly, I’m not sure why. It’s not like there isn’t a lot to like about Johnson’s game, especially in the modern era; he’s not even the first member of his family to have an NBA-caliber game, as his brother Jalen Johnson is currently competing to fill the vacant starting power forward spot for the Atlanta Hawks.
Rather, in the shuffle of last year’s draft class and the chaos of this year’s, Johnson has slipped under the radar. As I see it, that’s just another problem that Johnson is well-suited to solve with his many tools, given there are so many facets of his game that make him exactly the type of wing that NBA teams move heaven and earth to acquire.
“The Pocket Knife” or Kobe’s Cutting
On a Swiss Army Knife, a knife’s role is the cleanest: cut, cut, cut. There’s so much that a knife can do, whether a quick jab, an elongated slash, or a swift slice. Likewise, cutting is one of the more subtle skills for basketball players, but it’s one of Kobe Johnson’s best weapons on the court.
Per Synergy Sports, Johnson was a lethal slasher last season. He was extremely efficient on his forays toward the basket, scoring at a scalding 72.7% on cuts toward the basket. The USC offense wasn’t built around motion cuts, but Johnson still found a way to make these plays effective. Whether it was off of a busted action where Drew Peterson found him dashing to the rim or he made a nifty move backdoor toward the basket, Johnson was the best cutter for the Trojans last year.
Given the team’s makeup, there’s little reason to see that changing. Peterson may have graduated, but a better floor general in Isaiah Collier, the top high school point guard in the country, is replacing him. I expect Collier to have the ball in his hands directing traffic for the Trojans, which gives Johnson the same opportunities to cut to the rim and get an easy finish.
His cutting skills are exceptionally transferable at the NBA level, too. While not every team cuts like the Golden State Warriors, a group that would be a perfect fit for Johnson, more offenses are built around quick decision-making even without the ball. Johnson would fit right into many team concepts due to the slithering impact he can make without needing to dribble to get to the hoop.
“The Nail File” or Kobe’s Shooting
These days, unless a wing player is the best defender in their league, a dominant on-ball creator who opens up lanes for others, or some amalgamation of both, there isn’t a path otherwise to playing time if they can’t shoot from deep. While these criteria might be harsh, it represents where the game is heading and places a premium on those players who can shoot the ball at a good clip.
Johnson excels at the exact type of shooting teams will look for from their role players on the wing: spot-up shooting. Per Synergy, Johnson shot 38.4% on catch-and-shoot three-pointers this past season at USC on 73 attempts, which speaks to his accuracy and his volume as a shooter from deep. While ideally, he’d have more than just one season’s worth of good shooting numbers to support his case, the tape also portrays Johnson’s shooting prowess.
From a mechanical standpoint, Johnson’s jumper would never end up in a museum exhibit on textbook shot examples, but he’s consistently using the same mechanics. He has a high release point, doesn’t lean too far back or forward, and gets into his motion quickly. These small quirks will help Johnson at the NBA level, where the spacing is better, but the windows and closeouts are tighter.
There are hints that Johnson’s shooting numbers could increase further this year or next. Per Basketball Reference, last year’s Trojans were only 164th in the country in three-point percentage. Adding a shooter like Bronny James and a downhill creator like Isaiah Collier could open up the floor more for Johnson and file his skilled shooting into even more of a pointed advantage for his game.
“The Scissors” or Kobe’s Finishing
With as much time as he spends attacking the rim off of cuts or in transition, it would behoove Kobe Johnson to be a good finisher around the basket. Luckily, due to his long reach and blinding quickness, Johnson is the caliber of finisher who cuts open a defense and makes them pay.
Per Synergy, Johnson finished 60.9% of his 92 rim attempts this past season. It’s important to note that few of these looks were self-created with the ball in his hands, as Johnson only had 28 possessions as a pick-and-roll ball-handler all year. Instead, most of Johnson’s finishes came off of cuts or putbacks, which does put a ceiling on his skills.
It’s a testament to Johnson’s crashing of the offensive glass that he had so many easy finishes, as he outhustled many taller players on rebounds to give himself easy lay-ups at the rim. While his numbers as a finisher are good, it is notable that Johnson almost solely finishes with his right hand, even when going left, as he prefers a scoop righty lay-in over a more straightforward left-handed finish.
That hasn’t come back to bite him so far, especially when he’s gliding to the rim faster than any defender could hope to contest his shots. Still, developing a capable left hand would give Johnson the complete finishing package. He has the grace, strength, and craft to score at the cup without much trouble; once he adds this last element, Johnson would have all the tools to be an elite finisher on the wing.
“The Pliers” or Kobe’s Passing Chops
The last piece of Kobe Johnson’s offensive game is his passing, and it’s the part of his game that draws the least attention. Johnson did finish second on USC in assist-to-turnover ratio at 1.55, which doesn’t do much to wow you, but he did flash enough proficiency as a passer to make it more of a strength than a weakness.
What stands out immediately about Johnson’s passing is that he always has his head on a swivel no matter how fast he’s going. There are countless plays where Johnson barreled towards the hoop, felt the help close in on him, and dumped off an easy dish to the open man in the paint. He even developed a special connection with Tre White on his cuts, a wrinkle that Andy Enfield will surely miss next year with White’s departure to Louisville.
There’s more to Johnson’s passing besides dump-offs, however. It’s rare to see the ball stick in his hands, whether it be off of a defensive rebound, a swing from a teammate, or a crash to the offensive glass. Johnson isn’t the type of creator who can open up a scoring opportunity to his teammate with his passing, but he rarely misses the correct read right in front of him.
Johnson’s steady passing skills will help him earn early minutes, as neither next year for the Trojans nor in the NBA will he be called on to create offense for his team. Instead, the fact that Johnson consistently makes the right read and can be more than just a scorer as a driver speaks to how his passing plies open the floor and offensively gives him a higher ceiling.
“The Can Opener” or Kobe’s Defense
With so much space already dedicated to offense, it’s fair to wonder why I haven’t touched on a PAC-12 All-Defense recipient’s play on that end of the floor. That’s not because the stats, coaches, or voters have lied about his reputation; it’s more because Johnson’s defense is so impactful that it deserves its own extended interlude.
At 6’6” with a plus wingspan of at least a few inches, it’s hard to build a perimeter defender in a lab much more perfectly than Johnson. His reach allows him to harry players of all sizes, whether making an entry pass just a smidge harder for a guard or digging into a post player’s dribble with neither of his feet in the paint.
Johnson matches his ridiculous length with some of the fastest feet in the country on defense. He’s always moving on the court, sliding in a defensive stance, and rarely gets off-balance, even when closing out to shooters. That last detail is the most important, as Johnson often cheats into the lane further than most would due to his long reach giving him more of a cushion to recover. That advantage would be for naught if he were undisciplined when crashing down to shooters, but Johnson often sticks tightly to perimeter players and chokes out their airspace to create offense.
You won’t see Kobe Johnson get too many on-ball rips in the vein of Kawhi Leonard, but Johnson’s off-ball steals and forced misses are just as valuable. It’s harrowing to swing the ball at the top of the key with Johnson as one of the primary defenders, as he seems to both be clogging the middle and getting a hand on any swing that comes his way.
Johnson has such a knack for swiping the ball from opponents that it’s hard to find one signature way he steals it. He has a propensity to poke the ball free from post players, has perfect hand placement to grab the ball from players driving right at him, and times his jumps into the lane just right to give him and only him the chance at a breakaway opportunity.
Since Johnson spends most of his time on the perimeter, he isn’t known as a shot-blocker. That doesn’t mean that he can’t, however, as the few times that Johnson was in a position to rotate over from the weak side, he did so with gusto. The same length that makes him a good finisher and thief also makes him a capable rim protector, adding to his versatile value.
Next year, Johnson should play the same role as USC’s designated stopper of the opposing team’s best perimeter player, a role that he’s backed up with tape, statistics, and awards. Although most young players struggle on defense in the NBA, that same role could be one that Johnson plays sooner or later for whichever team is lucky enough to draft him.
“A Final Stab” on Kobe’s NBA Outlook
As The Swish Army Knife, Kobe Johnson can fill just about any hole that a team might ask him to, whether it be this year at USC or next year in the NBA. Johnson is such a versatile prospect because he has so many tools to deploy on offense and defense, which few other wing prospects can match.
At the top of the draft board are Ron Holland and Matas Buzelis, two wings with the same versatility Johnson has, with just a bit more youth and upside. After them, however, the wing rankings are chock full of talented prospects who have real questions about different parts of their games. That gives Kobe Johnson a prime opportunity to establish himself as the third-best wing prospect in the 2024 draft class.
To do so, he’ll have to fit in with a new point guard, a tough task regardless of how talented he may be. It’s also possible that Johnson could have a slower start to the season due to adding Collier and James and losing Tre White. It’s also possible, however, that Johnson’s multitude of traits overpowers any adjustment period and helps him shine as an integral part of the USC ecosystem.
Even if he fits in right away and slots in as the third-best wing, there is a ceiling to how high Kobe Johnson can go, as he lacks one key tool in his arsenal: self-creation. Whether that’s a product of what USC asks him to do, the lack of ball-handling reps that would build up his game, or simply because it’s who Johnson is as a basketball player, there is a lid on Johnson’s potential as long as he isn’t capable of being some type of creator.
Underneath that lid, though? There’s a whole lot of game. With his skillset and mental makeup, there may not be a more versatile player in this draft class, which could mean big things for The Swish Army Knife. Given the tumultuous nature of the draft class, a guaranteed versatile wing could be just what NBA teams value amidst a sea of uncertainty. In that case, with another dynamic two-way season, Kobe Johnson could sniff the lower end of the lottery and be the perfect multi-tool player for a lucky team.