Up to this point in his career, Jalen Johnson has had to bide his time as member of the Atlanta Hawks.
Selected with the 20th pick in the 2021 draft, Johnson impressed — along with fellow Hawks draftee Sharife Cooper — at NBA Summer League but in his rookie season opportunities were not plentiful. The Hawks played catch-up in the standings for most of the 2021-22 season as they scraped into a play-in scenario, and, combined with the reality of most NBA rookies (they tend to struggle at times to have an overall positive impact on the court), Johnson simply wasn’t called upon often, and appeared in just 22 games and an average of 5.5 minutes per game.
The Hawks’ front-court depth took a bit of a hit after Johnson’s rookie season and he got a regular rotation spot in his sophomore season, playing 70 games and averaging 14.9 minutes per game.
Johnson impressed in the ways you might expect with regards his athleticism but his improvements defensively and his playmaking abilities in his sophomore season really stood out when he was on the court, and his overall impact coming off the bench was at times very notable, averaging 5.6 points on 49% shooting from the field.
The Hawks’ season would eventually end in a very respectable six games at the hands of the Boston Celtics and while elimination is always sour, one of the positives to take away from the Hawks’ season was the development of Jalen Johnson, and there is great hope for his continued development heading into his third season.
The impact of John Collins’ trade on the Atlanta Hawks is a polarizing topic — there’s obviously arguments for and against, pros and cons on the court, and so on — but what everyone can agree on is that it opens up a larger role for Jalen Johnson. Whether that’s starting or coming off the bench remains to be seen, but Johnson’s improvements defensively certainly seemed to give the Hawks confidence to place more trust in him this upcoming season.
“We do have, sort of, a hole there (at power forward) — not a hole that it can’t be filled but for what he (John Collins) brought on the court,” said GM Landry Fields at media day. “You look at a guy like Saddiq Bey, Jalen Johnson, De’Andre (Hunter) those guys who can play the 3/4. However it shapes up from a lineup, rotational standpoint we’ll see, but really the progression of Jalen especially defensively in the last season really gave us a lot hope this year where it’s like, ‘OK, can you put him into the more 4-lineups, whether he’s starting or not and add in some of those elements defensively as well as his playmaking ability.’ We’re excited for his growth this year.”
Johnson’s likely opposition for a starting power forward spot would appear to be Saddiq Bey, who obviously brings a very different skill-set and role to what Johnson brings. It’ll largely depend on what Hawks head coach Quin Snyder values in his starting lineup (be it the three-point shooting of Bey, or another pick-and-roll option and ball-handling in Johnson), but regardless of if he starts or not Johnson’s role to play this season will be an important one and the Hawks are clearly banking on his continued development this season, particularly on the defensive end.
Whatever capacity he is utilized in, Johnson is simply excited to play for Snyder. Johnson repeated at media day often about just being able to be himself, or play as himself, or the offense enabling people to play as themselves. He couldn’t help but smile when talking about Snyder.
“I feel like ever since coach Snyder has been here, I’ve had the opportunity to be myself,” said Johnson. “(It’s been a) sense of relief, he’s been great for me, he coaches me up a lot. Just being able to have that connection and relationship with him, I’m excited, that’s the best way to put it. I’m excited to play for coach Snyder, excited to get things rolling because I know at the end of the day he has my back, along with my teammates.”
Johnson also brushed off any notion of added pressure with the increase in role that is coming his way and cited on a couple of occasions throughout media establishing chemistry and relationships with his teammates.
“No pressure with that, it’s just me continuing to play my game and do everything that’s got me in the position I am in now,” said Johnson of expectations of being asked to do more. “Continue to build chemistry with my teammates, continue to work on relationships with teammates. Just keep working with that.”
While an improvement defensively would be a huge bonus for the Hawks, you’d also like to see Johnson’s three-point shot to continue to improve. Johnson shot 29% on 1.2 attempts per game last season, and you’d have to imagine the volume will increase heading into this season.
It has been a focus of Johnson’s during the summer, and he is confident he has already improved this facet of his game.
“It’s something I’ve been working on all off-season,” said Johnson of his three-point shot. “I know I need to get better at it, and I’ve gotten better at it. I’m going to continue to keep working on that, continue to open up my game as much as possible.”
Johnson’s free throw shooting could also stand to see an improvement, getting to the line for 1.1 free throws per game but shooting just 62.8%. I think it’s a positive problem to have, because Johnson’s athleticism and aggression going to rim are encouraging, and good things happen when he does (he’s got an ever-evolving game off the dribble) but does need to improve his efficiency when he gets to the line.
All-in-all, based on Johnson’s comments, it sounds like it has been a productive summer — a summer that includes a workout with LeBron James (with whom he shares a trainer). Johnson detailed some of the workout with Lauren Williams of the AJC, but was asked about the subject again at media day and described what he learned from his workout with LeBron.
“Some of key takeaways, first off it was surreal to work out with him,” said Johnson. “During the workout we were stopping, talking about things, breaking down on why we were doing certain things. You can tell, you can see why he’s where he’s at. Everything is detail oriented, he’ll do a rep three or four times in a row making sure he’s got it down pat before we move on to the next drill. Being able to see that up close and personal it’s something I’m going to continue to carry over when I’m working out by myself.”
“It’s a marathon with this, nothing’s going to happen overnight,” Johnson added of improving. “Just got to keep working, and I’ll continue to do that as long as I’m in the league.”
A marathon is a good way to describe Jalen Johnson’s journey in the NBA so far.
He didn’t get thrown into the fray immediately, he’s had to work and be patient for his opportunity. The bottom line is now he has a very meaningful role, whether that’s in the starting lineup or coming off the bench, Johnson has the opportunity so many wanted for him.
This time next year, Johnson will be eligible for a rookie extension and the bulk of the work going to securing a long-term future begins with the 2023-24 season. Everything is surely in place for Johnson to finally showcase his talents. Is he ready to step up to the mark?
Time will soon tell...