Ahead of the 2021-22 NBA season, Peachtree Hoops is taking a glance at the Atlanta Hawks roster and what each player may bring to the table. Today, we view rookie forward Jalen Johnson.
When Jalen Johnson stepped onto the floor in Las Vegas for Summer League play, not many — this writer included — knew what to expect. This was a player who had only played 22 regular season contests since his junior year in high school.
After started his high school play at Sun Prairie High School in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin, and moving to Nicolet High School in Glendale of the same state for his junior year, he split his senior year between there and the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida. If you’re counting, that’s three separate moves in just four years.
Through it all, he remained a five-star prospect on the way to a premier college program, but his Duke Blue Devils career was largely unceremonious before withdrawing in this February.
There just wasn’t a ton of game tape to work with coming into the 2021 NBA Draft. I even wrote of his enigmatic status in the weeks before that date here.
But when the Hawks drafted Johnson at 20th overall, it wasn’t a huge surprise for a team coming off an Eastern Conference Finals appearance and certainly wasn’t painted as a reach from almost any prognosticators. This was a swing for the fences move from a recently stabilized franchise who could afford to wait on talent development.
Johnson certainly doesn’t lack for confidence, declaring himself the “best player in the draft” this past spring, and he certainly intended to back that statement up. His first test came quickly: the 2021 Las Vegas Summer League.
In 28.3 minutes per contest, he averaged 19 points, 9.5 rebounds, 2.0 assists and 1.3 blocks per game. He had efficient shooting efforts in his four games as well, dropping in 57.4% of all field goals and north of 40% three point shooting, with a 81.8 free throw percentage to boot.
Among other things, he flashed his ability to run the floor and finish at the rim with authority.
He similarly rattled the rim off rebounds.
And for good measure, you simply can’t teach this kind of verticality on this block.
Still these above talents were evident from prior video review. Most encouragingly, however, was his ability to pull up and look for his jumper, something he had done sparingly at best at the amateur level.
This in conjunction with his ability to handle the ball and whip passes with either hands truly creates the kind of dynamism that can cause defenses fits. It’s been a while since the Hawks have had a playmaking forward, possibly stretching back to Al Horford short rolling and dishing the rock to the likes of Kyle Korver and Paul Millsap.
With his stellar play, Johnson earned a spot on the Las Vegas 2021 All-Summer League First Team, albeit one comprising seven players instead of the usual five due to voting ties.
To pump the brakes a bit though, Johnson is an incredibly raw player who still hasn’t celebrated his 20th birthday. He’s very much an unfinished product and will undoubtedly encounter some struggles at the true NBA level. Despite the highlight reel above, his feel and awareness on the defensive end has lapses and turnovers will plague him a bit as he ramps up to the speed of NBA play.
But the real issue arises when finding where exactly Johnson fits into the rotation this season. The Hawks just handed out a handsome contract to their long-term answer at power forward, John Collins. Danilo Gallinari had one of the most efficient shooting years of his career last season and figures to be heavily featured.
Even with Onyeka Okongwu’s unfortunate injury, Johnson will have a tough time finding minutes as a small ball five behind the recently extended Clint Capela and the recently signed Gorgui Dieng. And the Hawks are similarly stacked at wing with the return of De’Andre Hunter and Cam Reddish to the rotation that Bogdan Bogdanovic and Kevin Huerter largely held down in the latter stages of the playoffs.
This season will most likely be a testing ground for how Johnson will be used. Is he best as a floor spacing and off-the-dribble wing? Can he become the next big thing in a recent wave of point forwards coming into the league? Or will he be unlocked as a modern five with a weights and conditioning plan to fill out his thin frame?
None of these questions are likely to be answered in the next 12 months to be sure. And Johnson may tally more minutes with the College Park Skyhawks rather than the more senior team in 2021-22. But there’s no doubt the early returns have been wildly promising. And with steady development in some areas, the Hawks may truly have unearthed the steal of the 2021 draft.