What Auburn basketball is getting in Georgia transfer guard K.D. Johnson

Bruce Pearl likes "threes and frees." His latest transfer portal victory — at the expense of a rival — produced plenty of them in SEC play last season.

(Shanna Lockwood/Auburn Athletics)

On Jan. 13, Sharife Cooper played the second of what would be his only 12 games at Auburn. He had 28 points and 12 assists as Auburn — which set a Division I season-high in blocks that night — beat rival Georgia, 95-77, in Athens.

But Cooper wasn’t the only true freshman guard making an early impact.

K.D. Johnson, a former 4-star guard from Atlanta via Hargrave Military Academy in Virginia, made his college debut that same night for Georgia. He missed the Bulldogs’ first 10 games due to “NCAA academic certification issues” and was cleared two days before facing Auburn at home.

Johnson played 30 minutes off the bench and led Georgia with 21 points. The 6-foot-1 guard added seven rebounds, four steals, two blocks and two assists in a losing effort. Less than a month later, Johnson was instrumental in Georgia’s 91-86 revenge win at Auburn, with Bruce Pearl commenting how the freshman “made them a better team and a tougher cover.”

Last week, Johnson became the ninth player to leave Georgia’s roster in a massive offseason exodus. And it didn’t take long for him to find his new home — Auburn.

Johnson is set to become Auburn’s fifth incoming transfer of the offseason and the second from an SEC rival, joining Desi Sills. With freshman signee Trey Alexander opting for his release last month, Auburn needed to land another guard in the portal.

Now it has Johnson, a former target for Auburn out of high school and another guard who looks like a perfect fit for what Pearl wants to do on both ends of the floor.

Johnson didn’t start in any of his 16 games at Georgia last season. However, he was still second on the team in scoring average behind new Kentucky transfer Sahvir Wheeler, was tops for the Bulldogs in offensive rating and was named to the SEC All-Freshman team. Exactly 75% of his games featured double-digit scoring, and 25% of them were 20-point outings.

Extrapolate Johnson’s scoring output to a per-40 minutes mark, and his average leaps to 24.0. According to CBB Analytics, that ranked in the 99th percentile of all Division I basketball players last season.

He just gets buckets.

Johnson was a point guard in high school, but he rarely played that position for Georgia as a true freshman. Wheeler ran the show there at nearly 35 minutes per game, so most of Johnson’s work came in an off-ball capacity.

One of the stats that will appeal the most to Auburn fans is Johnson’s 3-point shooting. According to his Georgia bio, Johnson went from a 25.1% 3-point shooter through his first three seasons of high school to a 38.6% one at Hargrave.

Last season at Georgia, Johnson hit 38.7% of his attempts from deep — a mark inside the 80th percentile nationally and one that would be the highest among all returning 2021-22 Auburn players. Per Hoop-Math, 40% of his shots came from 3-point range, with 79.2% coming off of assists. He’s an effective weapon in catch-and-shoot situations, and he’s not afraid to fire away from extra-deep range.

Hoop-Math’s numbers also show that 45.3% of Johnson’s attempts came at the rim last season, and he hit 53.4% of them.

Those stats show two things. First, he doesn’t take many 2-point jumpers, unlike fellow incoming guard transfers Wendell Green Jr. and Zep Jasper. Second, Johnson will have room to improve with his efficiency around the rim.

But it’s easy to see why Johnson attacks the basket with such regularity. He has an explosive first step and is tough to stay in front of for an extended period of time. For a smaller guard, Johnson craves contact. He finished second among all SEC players in free throw rate during conference play last season, per KenPom.

Johnson has some real tenacity about his game when he gets close to the rim. In a breakout performance against Tennessee, Johnson even posted up Santiago Vescovi and caught a lob pass for an easy two points:

Athletically, Johnson can play above the rim. He’s got a great vertical, which allows him to dunk in transition, drive for poster opportunities like he had in high school and catch backdoor lobs — like this fortunate alley-oop finish that sealed Wheeler’s historic triple-double for Georgia:

Even though Johnson didn’t start and was rarely the point guard for Georgia, he was a main offensive engine whenever he was on the floor. He ranked inside the 98th percentile nationally in usage rate.

And while he averaged just 1.2 assists per game, his point guard background would come through from time to time.

Johnson had a decent turnover percentage (14.3%), considering just how much he had the ball in his hands for the Bulldogs. In terms of a role fit at Auburn, he looks like a hybrid between Jasper and Sills — he could play the 1 and orchestrate an offense, but he has done most of his damage at the 2.

Considering he’s the same year as potential starting point guard Green, this could be the start of a lasting backcourt pairing on the Plains. Even if he’s not a starter, Johnson projects as valuable cover at both guard spots and has already proven to be a difference-maker off the bench at the SEC level.

If the Tigers are committed to pushing the offensive pace again under Pearl in 2021-22, Johnson is an excellent addition to the roster. Georgia was No. 13 nationally in adjusted tempo last season and No. 21 in average offensive possession length.

Individually, Johnson was in the 100th percentile among Division I basketball players in fast break points per game. He’s a heads-up floor-runner, always looking to attack the basket whenever he gets an opportunity. Johnson fills lanes well and keeps transition defenses on their collective back foot.

And Johnson’s defense contributes to that in a big way. He uses his speed and agility just as effectively on the other end of the floor, sticking with tough covers at point guard and shooting guard. Just watch this early sequence against Cooper in that first matchup:

Johnson led the SEC in steal percentage last season inside conference games. He was in the 98th percentile for all Division I players in that category and averaged nearly 2 takeaways per game.

His highlight reels offer a wide variety of steals, from cut-off pass attempts to clean ball-handler rips. Always looking to attack in transition, Johnson often finishes his steals with slams on the other end of the floor.

While Georgia’s defense struggled on the whole last season, Johnson’s individual numbers were impressive.

Johnson should be in a better team defensive spot next season at Auburn next to players such as Jasper, Kessler and Allen Flanigan. He looks like a potential weapon for Pearl to deploy in pressure and trapping situations, following a pattern he has used in Auburn’s backcourt overhaul this offseason.

With Johnson now committed, Auburn has several different transfer guards who can provide good minutes at point guard — answering one of the biggest issues from last season — and can now easily go two-deep with aggressive, fast-paced backcourt stars.

As another blue-chip product from the Atlanta area, Johnson should be an extremely intriguing developmental piece for Auburn’s staff. Jasper and Sills are shorter-term rentals, but Green and Johnson have several seasons of eligibility left. If Johnson can make the sophomore leap that multiple players have done under Pearl, the upside here is quite high.

And, like Sills, Johnson has already been through the grind of SEC play. He knows what it takes to be a disruptive defender in this conference and how to take over games with his offense. That should make for a smooth transition to life at Auburn, which already runs a system that fits his play style.

While he started his career for the rival Bulldogs and played his last year of high school at a military academy in Virginia, Johnson is the latest victory for Pearl and his staff in recruiting the talent-rich Atlanta area. The past relationships already landed Kessler this offseason, and they’ve gotten Auburn the type of guard they needed right now.

The Tigers have one more scholarship remaining for next season if JT Thor decides to stay in the 2021 NBA Draft. With increased speculation that top 2022 target Scoot Henderson could be going the professional route out of high school instead of playing in college, it will be interesting to see how Auburn uses that final slot — especially with Johnson’s addition to a strengthening backcourt.

But things move quickly in the portal. Johnson went from being a member of Georgia’s roster to an Auburn commit in less than two full weeks. And there’s still a long way to go between now and the start of next season.

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Up next on The Auburn Observer: We’re pushing back the premium podcast episode to Thursday in order to get the discussion about Johnson — and, perhaps, a football pickup — in there. Look for that in the morning.