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Clippers select Tennessee wing Keon Johnson in first round of NBA draft

Tennessee guard Keon Johnson brings the ball up against Texas A&M.
Tennessee guard Keon Johnson brings the ball up against Texas A&M during a game on Jan. 9 in College Station, Texas. Johnson was chosen by the Clippers in the first round of the NBA draft on Thursday.
(Sam Craft / Associated Press)

In the lead up to Thursday’s NBA draft, Tennessee wing Keon Johnson was training outside Los Angeles when he was introduced to Clippers all-star Paul George.

They could have talked about basketball. Instead, they fell into conversation about their other, mutual passion: fishing.

Both exude a comfort on the court: George with his smooth handling and shooting, the 19-year-old Johnson with his 48-inch vertical leap, the highest in the history of the NBA’s pre-draft combine. But each might be even more comfortable on the water, where each have a long family connection.

The 6-foot-5, 185-pound Johnson was raised by his father and grandparents to fish since he was a child. Catfishing is his specialty. His largest haul weighed 45 pounds.

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On Thursday, Johnson said he sighed with relief to learn that he had become the Clippers’ first-round catch, after a trade with New York to move up four spots to select Johnson 21st overall.

Not only did he feel a comfort already with George, but he said he modeled his game after Kawhi Leonard, who has a player option for next season, since he was a freshman in high school.

Cade Cunningham, Jalen Green and Evan Mobley were the top 3 picks Thursday night during the NBA draft. A look at all 60 selections with analysis.

“At the time I was a very loud player, everybody in the gym heard me, very vocal with my team and the referees,” Johnson told The Times. “Seeing Kawhi, he barely talked but his play did a lot of the speaking and I felt that that’s what I needed going into my next stages of becoming the best player that I wanted to be.

“It’s really a blessing because I feel like I spoke it into existence. Me, always watching Kawhi and now I’m finally teaming up with him. I get to learn from some of the best players in the league, from him and Paul George.”

In one season with the Volunteers, Johnson averaged 11.3 points, 3.5 rebounds and 2.5 assists and shot 49% inside the arc and 27% beyond it. He is considered a player with the potential to help the Clippers perhaps immediately defensively on the wing, but his offensive game, which he said had improved by leaps since the end of his lone season at Tennessee, needs polishing.

The highlight of his pre-draft training might have been talking with George, but he spent his time focused on his shooting and handle, he said.

“I felt I’ve done a great job at it but I also know, too, it also can get a lot better and there’s always room for improvement,” he said.

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The Clippers made two more trades, in the second round, to acquire Ohio guard Jason Preston, considered one of the draft’s top passers, from Orlando at No. 33, and Kentucky’s Brandon Boston at No. 51, from New Orleans. The Clippers sent the Pelicans cash to facilitate the latter trade.

Ohio's Jason Preston and Dwight Wilson III celebrate.
Ohio’s Jason Preston (0) and Dwight Wilson III celebrate after Ohio defeated Buffalo 84-69 in the Mid-American Conference tournament on March 13 in Cleveland.
(Tony Dejak / Associated Press)

In an alternative universe, Preston would be writing about this draft: Five years ago, while still a high schooler struggling to get noticed as a prospect, Preston began writing for a Detroit Pistons blog.

One of his stories covered then-Pistons guard Reggie Jackson — the very same Jackson who could become Preston’s teammate should Jackson re-sign with the Clippers next month as a free agent.

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Preston, 21, averaged more than 15 points and seven assists each of his last two seasons at Ohio while shooting at least 39% on three-pointers, as well.

The Clippers dealt a 2024 second-round pick to New York to move up for Johnson, and sent a 2026 second-rounder to Orlando for Preston, according to a person familiar with the terms of the trades.

Because of the steep price paid by the Clippers to acquire George from Oklahoma City two years ago, this was the last first-round pick controlled outright by the franchise until 2027. This marked the fifth consecutive year the Clippers made a draft-night trade.

A look at how the draft unfolded, with USC’s Evan Mobley at the No. 3 pick, and Southland locals Zaire Williams and Josh Christopher were also drafted.

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During his spring conversation with George, Johnson said the all-star forward had discussed finding time to fish together. Their schedules didn’t allow it to happen — George was leading the Clippers on their deepest postseason run, while Johnson was busy on the pre-draft circuit.

But it might be only a matter of time.

“We’re about to be teammates,” Johnson said. “We’ll have that chance.”


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