Peachtree Hoops continues its 2021 NBA Draft scouting report series with a look at Jalen Johnson, an explosive forward out of Duke.
Jalen Johnson — a five-star recruit from Duke by way of Nicolet High School near Milwaukee, Wisconsin and the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida — made major news waves in February when he decided to withdraw from college and focus on his professional career after just 13 games at the NCAA level. While the Blue Devils were having a well below par season for the esteemed blue blood, it was seen by some as Johnson developing cold feet and shying away from the rigors of college basketball.
But in such an uncertain year with a pandemic swirling, can you really blame him? It’s possible Johnson has used the time to truly focus on some of his weak areas and the exodus will prove to be beneficial toward his professional career. But this event adds to the shroud of mystery of a guy who made two similarly sudden school changes in high school. The tape of his game at both levels pull back the curtain some, but his evaluation has proven to be difficult for professional scouts and lowly bloggers alike.
It’s pretty obvious that Jalen Johnson oozes potential. At 6’9” 220 lbs. with a 7-foot wingspan, he has great measurables to match the athletes in the NBA. He glides with the ball in his hands in the open court and has enormous bounce near the rack.
Jalen Johnson has a refined handle for his size, provided at least he has space to gallop up to top speed. He has equal comfort going right or left, and can order his footwork in a way to allow him to finish on either side of the rim. He loves to grab rebounds or receive a quick inbound and then direct a fast break before the defense can settle.
Here, after a steal, Johnson races out and posterizes a poor Clemson player.
Here is one more 94-foot journey, with a steal and finish with his weaker left hand.
The asset that has most raving, however, is his vision and passing ability at his size and age. Johnson is a flashy passer in the open court with good reads and the ability to pinpoint passes with either hand and off the live dribble if necessary. His reads are usually advanced, anticipating the reaction by the defense, and can see the entire court with his height. Even once posted up, he can feel where a double is coming from and pass behind the defense.
His defensive versatility is a plus, although it’s important to not overstate the proficiency in his defensive game at this point. Johnson uses his leaping ability to high point the ball when trailing on defense for blocks, and stays active in passing lanes to pick off lazy gives. It’s no surprise he tallied over four combined blocks and steals per 36 minutes in his short college career.
He operated as a drop five defender often at Duke alongside the more perimeter-oriented Matthew Hurt, but has the ability to switch out on small guards and hold his own.
An active and willing rebounder and screen setter, Johnson certainly contributes in many hustle areas, so the “selfish” label he earned is a bit unfair as far as his performance in games has shown. There’s a lot to like in his physical ability as well as his ability to read the game at such a young age.
Weaknesses and areas for improvement
While he flashed some highlight blocks and other game-changing types of player, the fundamentals of his defense simply aren’t good enough to combat NBA level big men right now, and his slow reactions at times on that end hurt him in bad moments. Similarly, his motor comes and goes on both ends, and he can sometime be found ball watching or late to react to a developing play or post move.
Here, Johnson simply can’t slide quick enough to cut off an easy lay-in.
Despite his physical gifts, Jalen Johnson was not an aggressive scorer in the slightest, and he very much shied away from taking any jump shots at all. Johnson seemingly never looked for his shot in half court sets, and used his dribble to set up others while turning down decent opportunities for himself. He didn’t offer many attempts other than right at the rim, logging just 18 attempts from three — although he did hit eight of them for a 44.4% 3P% mark.
Johnson at times can get loose with his passing, as he averaged 4.3 turnovers per 36 minutes in his career. A lot of these stem from his love of difficult skip passes or passes across the teeth of the defense. He’ll learn in time to make the easy feed back out when he’s trapped on one side of the floor.
At his size of just 220 lbs., Johnson can also get pushed around in the post. Has to get stronger, especially in his base to contend in on either end going forward. While his free throw rate (FTr) — a ratio of free throws taken to field goal attempts — of .349 was decent, someone with his ability should be able to get to the line much more often.
There just isn’t a lot of consistency in his game, and he has a chance to be a non-contributor on offense if defenses can sniff out his lob attempts and transition buckets. The obvious parallel is that of a Ben Simmons, but the bad one in the last three games of the Eastern Conference Semifinals against the Hawks — where his passivity played a big role in the series loss for Philadelphia as well as the catalyst for pundit criticism.
Possible fit with the Atlanta Hawks
Johnson has had a confounding amateur career. He has elite talent in some key areas and yet it’s entirely possible those talents don’t translate into much at the next level. At his size, Johnson will come into the league as a combo forward, but it’s rare to be effective playing that role in the modern NBA without any floor stretching ability whatsoever.
For the Hawks, I think Johnson would be a take at No. 20 with the caveat that he’s highly unlikely to contribute anything at all in his rookie season. It will take some growth in the weight room and in the practice gym to become an NBA rotation level player initially. But the high school pedigree and skillset suggests the potential is there to be tapped at the ripe young age of 19. Maybe a steady NBA environment will be all that Jalen Johnson needs to succeed.