Film Room: K.D. Johnson, The Ultimate Bruce Pearl Basketball Player
In SEC play, he's one of the best in the league in fast-break offense, 3-point FG%, steals and free-throw rate. And look who's up next.
SG K.D. Johnson (Matthew Shannon/Auburn Athletics)
Even though K.D. Johnson started his career at a rival, Bruce Pearl wants to make one thing perfectly clear.
“I loved K.D. first,” Pearl said last week.
Here’s how the story goes: Johnson played his first three seasons of high school basketball at Southwest DeKalb in Decatur, Ga. — right in the heart of Auburn’s recruiting hotbed. During Johnson’s sophomore year, Pearl watched him at an AAU event and really enjoyed what he saw.
“We may have been his first high-major offer,” Pearl recalled. “Really loved his competitiveness, his explosiveness, his speed, his quickness.
There was one problem: Auburn was already in the hunt for another top point guard from the Atlanta area. Sharife Cooper committed to Auburn in September 2019 as the highest-rated recruit in program history. Several weeks later, Johnson — now at Hargrave Military Academy in Virginia — committed to play for Tom Crean at Georgia.
Off-the-court situations kept both Cooper and Johnson from playing anywhere near full seasons as true freshmen. Cooper debuted for Auburn in a high-scoring loss to Alabama in which he had 26 points and nine assists. A few days later, Johnson debuted for Georgia against Auburn, scoring 21 points and swiping four steals.
While Cooper stood out in 12 games for the Tigers before suffering a season-ending injury, Johnson featured in Georgia’s final 17 games — all off the bench. He led the SEC in steals per game (3.2) and scored in double figures 12 different times.
With the 5-foot-10 Sahvir Wheeler running the point, Johnson was more of a 2 in Crean’s system. It was a switch that served the former top-100 recruit well, as he quickly showed he was a player who could disrupt bigger guards defensively and score in bunches.
Johnson — and Wheeler — became part of the mass exodus from Georgia in the offseason, entering the transfer portal. Pearl and the Tigers jumped on the second chance, especially in light of Cooper’s entrance into the NBA Draft and a big reloading process happening at guard.
It only took eight days for Johnson to go from into the portal to an Auburn signee.
“I've always really liked him,” Pearl said. “And then, coming here… he is very explosive, and he's so capable of making plays on both sides of the ball. It’s what makes him both dangerous and, at times, elite.”
If there’s any single player who personifies Pearl, it’s Johnson. He is extremely aggressive on both ends of the floor. His energy levels are consistently sky-high. He has a fearlessness to his game that flirts with recklessness but rarely crosses that line.
And, just like the head coach who lovingly called him “bats—t crazy” earlier this season, every single one of Johnson’s facial expressions seem like they were was crafted in a lab solely to be captured and later memed by Auburn fans.
“He plays with so much emotion that he wears on his sleeve, good, bad or indifferent,” Pearl said earlier this season. “I don’t think K.D. would be much of a poker player. You just look at his face and you can see what he’s feeling.”
Johnson is in the midst of a massive hot streak on both offense and defense for an Auburn team edging closer to a No. 1 overall ranking.
After lighting up the Bahamas in the Battle For Atlantis — his first three games as an Auburn starter — Johnson spent the rest of non-conference play averaging just 10.7 points per game on 37.5% shooting, including 21.4% from deep, and less than a steal per contest. He had more turnovers than assists.
But in conference play, he bounced back with an efficient nine points and four steals in Auburn’s SEC opener against LSU. After one more down game on offense against South Carolina, he roared back with 23 points and three steals against Florida.
Against SEC opponents, Johnson is averaging 12.2 points per game on 46.3% shooting and a remarkable 42.1% from 3-point range. He is averaging a massive 3.0 steals per game and has flipped his assist-to-turnover ratio.
In this week’s Film Room, let’s take a closer look at K.D. Johnson — the trash-talking, mean-mugging, camera-staring, full court-racing, always-irritating shooting guard that first captured Pearl’s basketball heart on an AAU court several years ago.