Our 2021-22 Atlanta Hawks player review series concludes with a look at the rookie season of forward Jalen Johnson.
When the Atlanta Hawks selected Jalen Johnson out of Duke with the No. 20 pick in the 2021 NBA Draft, it was a ‘best player available’ move with little if any foresight to his role with the team in 2021-22. With John Collins and Danilo Gallinari already in the fold at power forward, Johnson’s path to playing time on a team with deep postseason aspirations was murky from the moment he was drafted.
Johnson appeared in just 22 games with Atlanta in his rookie season, while appearing in 12 games with the Hawks’ G League affiliate the College Park Skyhawks. Across those 12 G League starts, Johnson averaged 20.1 points and 11.8 rebounds to go with 4.1 assists per game. The rookie was 18-of-48 (37.5%) from three-point range with College Park, providing some optimism with the jumper as well. He was effectively dominant at the G League level, which made some Atlanta faithful wish he got more of a real look with the Hawks at some point during the season.
Defensively, Johnson was not perfect but very active. He averaged 9.9 defensive rebounds per game to go with 1.7 steals and 1.3 blocks per. With his size and mobility, Johnson should be able to be a plus defender once the NBA game slows down for him. One weakness of Johnson in the G League was foul drawing. Despite playing 37 minutes per game with the Skyhawks, Johnson shot just over three free throws per game. He’s still a bit lanky and will perhaps look to finish through contact more often as he fills out. Johnson also shot just 56.4% from the free throw line on those attempts.
Atlanta was fighting for postseason seeding all season long and did not have the benefit of getting Johnson very much work at all with their regular rotation late in the season when rookies typically are more prepared to contribute compared to early in the season. With the status of Gallinari and his return to the team up in the air this summer, it’s possible Johnson could have more of a set role with the Hawks heading into the 2022-23 season. It’s hard to project anything exactly with the Atlanta possibly being in the market for big changes to their roster after a disappointing 2021-22 season.
The sample size of what Johnson did in the NBA this season was so small it’s also really tough to predict exactly what the expectations should be heading into his second season. The evaluation on Johnson remains that he is a very springy, athletic forward who has a great amount of potential on each end of the floor. The Hawks will hope that he can bud into an impactful two-way player, and he should have every right to earn a rotation spot both in the Summer League and in training camp this fall according to head coach Nate McMillan.
Putting the exit interviews up on @ATLand29 momentarily.— Kevin Chouinard (@KLChouinard) April 27, 2022
An excerpt from Nate McMillan on Jalen Johnson:
"We're really looking forward to him playing Summer League, getting better, and earning a right to be in that rotation next season." pic.twitter.com/Ay81zQqerF
Jalen Johnson said that he wants to play in Summer League. https://t.co/c8IcobtrAi— Kevin Chouinard (@KLChouinard) April 27, 2022
Coming off of a fairly disappointing regular season, Atlanta will be looking for a boost next season as they try to better cater the roster around Trae Young. Johnson sprouting into a rotation caliber player could be one of the pieces that helps the Hawks find the right mix around their super star. He has the length and athletic ability to impact the game on each end of the floor, and in brief moments on the floor with Young the two did seem to have some lob chemistry.
The second season for Johnson will be fascinating to watch, as many viewed him as a lottery or top-10 talent before he left Duke early. He should be in a good position to be one of the Hawks’ regular backup forwards heading into the 2022-23 season if all goes well over the summer.