Playing time was hard to come by for Hawks rookie Jalen Johnson during the 2021-22 season. After an impressive Summer League, Johnson was mostly used in garbage time situations, featuring in just 22 games in his rookie campaign and an average of 5.5 minutes per game.
With how suddenly thin the Hawks’ bench now became in the front-court after the trade of Danilo Gallinari, Johnson would get his opportunity and he showed promise from the flashes he showed up to this point, averaging 5.6 points per game on 49% shooting from the field in 14 minutes per game in 70 contests across the 2022-23 season.
There were games where Johnson would be out of the rotation, but for the most part Johnson came in off the bench, and when he was in the game he added to what was, at times, a poor Hawks bench.
Johnson has improved into a much smoother offensive player, especially off of the dribble, and it was fun to watch him work from the perimeter where a lot of his moves in the half-court would begin, with Onyeka Okongwu being the main pick-and-roll focus.
Johnson used his athleticism to put pressure on the rim, and when he gets a head of steam he can be tricky to slow down because he goes up strong with the ball. Not only that, his level of finesse is improved and he can finish with a softer touch too, but his ability to hammer a dunk certainly serves him well. He generally loves to use a jab step to set himself up and see which way the defender is leaning before springing into an attack.
When he catches the ball in the corner, Johnson hits his defender with the right jab-step before switching to his left-hand and blowing by his man as he dribbles along the baseline before finishing with the dunk at the rim:
On the catch in the corner, Johnson hits a right jab-step which the defender doesn’t fall for, and Johnson then proceeds to drive to his left along the baseline before going up-and-under the rim for the reverse finish high off of glass:
You can see how much more comfortable Johnson is on the move with his weaker left-hand side.
Johnson has also gotten stronger and his ability to absorb contact while on the move is improved, as he exhibits on this possession where he again jab-steps before driving to his right and uses the glass to finish at the rim before the shot blocker can make a play:
Johnson is able to recognize how to use a defender’s momentum against him as he tries to drive left on the closing Derrick Jones Jr. who is moving in the opposite direction. Jones actually defends this well and is able to stick with Johnson despite the change of direction, but Johnson hits him with the spin as he drops the left shoulder and finishes at the rim:
Johnson can be quite methodical in his approach at times, but when the time calls for him to snap into action he’s on it, quickly driving into the space given to him here and finishes with the dunk:
And again from the corner here as he evades the defense and finishes with the dunk:
The degree of shotmaking from Johnson is much improved, as he both takes the contact and evades the defense to finish at the rim on this possession:
Johnson remains a lob threat and always gives the Hawks an option at the rim:
Johnson is still arguably at his best in the open-court where he is a willing runner, and his pace and athleticism give the Hawks an option going towards the rim.
Off of a miss from three, Johnson beats the Suns’ defense to the rim, and Bogdan Bogdanovic finds him for the alley-oop layup:
Off of a miss from Jalen Brunson, Johnson gives Aaron Holiday an option in transition and when Johnson receives the ball he attacks the rim, finishes and draws the foul:
Holiday gathers a long rebound against the Bucks and Johnson is already on the move, receiving the ball from Holiday before going up strong to the rim and finishing with the dunk, plus the foul:
Against the Bucks again, Johnson intercepts the intended pass, and this fuels the fastbreak in which Johnson runs the floor and receives the ball to finish at the rim with the dunk to finish the opportunity he started:
Johnson even had some fortune himself bringing the ball up the floor and attacking, as he does on this possession against Nikola Jokic:
Johnson hasn’t quite found his three-point shot yet in terms of the percentages: 28.8% from three on 1.5 attempts. That was a surprise when looking at Johnson’s numbers for the season, because watching Johnson this season it felt like he shot better than 28% from three but evidently not!
A fun development to Johnson’s game was his playmaking ability, averaging 1.2 assists per game. It was fun to see Johnson create opportunities for his teammates and showcase his impressive ability to not only see a play but make one too.
In the play-in game, Johnson finds Okongwu for the lob after the short dribble:
Again on the dribble move, Johnson helps direct the defense away from Okongwu in the middle and delivers a nice pass to find him for the assist at the rim:
On the slip of the pick-and-roll, Johnson forces the defense to step up and delivers a lob to Capela for the assist:
Johnson has delivered assists in a number of different manners.
On a cut, Trae Young finds Johnson who delivers a lovely touch-pass to Capela at the rim:
Johnson fared well in interior passing, this particular feed to John Collins was impressive for a forward:
Quite a number of Johnson’s assists were outlet passes — he has a knack for them (not quite on the Kevin Love scale, for example) and on this particular play he finds Saddiq Bey streaming ahead for the dunk:
On this play Johnson slaps down on the dig to create the turnover, leads the fastbreak and delivers the bounce-pass to Bey who finishes at the rim:
What I liked most of all about the nature of Johnson’s assists was his awareness of his surroundings and how he can at times hide his intentions.
Here, Johnson gets the defender off his feet and drives left before whipping a pass behind him to find AJ Griffin for three:
Handling the ball this time in the pick-and-roll, Johnson uses the Capela screen to mask his intent to fire the ball to Griffin in the corner for another three:
Off of a turnover, Johnson collects the loose ball and leads the break in transition. He checks over his shoulder and sees Bey in support and then drives towards the paint to draw the defense to him before firing the ball back to Bey for the three:
Defensively, Johnson still has room to grow.
He is prone to defensive lapses in a team defense and allowing his man to get by, but there are some situations where Johnson is able to recover from being beaten and block the shot.
Initially, Jordan Clarkson gets the better of Johnson who is able on this occasion to block Clarkson from behind:
In the corner, Kevin Durant makes the cut and Johnson is able to recover and block Durant’s effort out of bounds:
Johnson had plenty of good moments when it came to blocking shots, both as a one-on-one defender:
And as a help defender:
Quite a number of blocks for Johnson came in transition too:
Overall, Johnson’s sophomore campaign has really shown quite a bit of promise. He’s a much smoother offensive player who puts pressure on the rim with his athleticism but now with a developing softer touch inside and his ability to finish with something other than a dunk is much improved — he made a number of pretty tough shots this season. His work off the dribble is solid right now, and it’s an excellent platform to build on. The jump shot and the three-point shot is still to progress in consistency but it’s getting there and Johnson has been confident in taking those looks. For someone as athletic as he is, he’s quite methodical too.
Johnson’s ability to see and make a pass are coming along really nicely at his position and it’s fun to watch Johnson create. His awareness and feel for his surroundings and where teammates are is impressive.
Defensively, there’s still some improvement to be had but it’s encouraging to see Johnson make some defensive highlights, whether it’s a steal or a block.
Asked during the Hawks’ exit interviews what Johnson would be working on over the summer — ‘a big summer’ as he put it — Johnson didn’t nail down one particular aspect but wants to improve all-around.
“Literally everything,” said Johnson when asked what he would be working on over the summer. “I’m just trying to be the best version of myself I can be. Get better at every aspect of my game: strengths, weaknesses, everything I can possibly do to become a great basketball player. I’m going to be working immensely this summer on everything.”
Johnson dealt with an injury last summer, so he’ll be unencumbered by that as he works in the off-season for which he says he’ll be in Atlanta for the majority of.
He also has an invitation to workout with Dejounte Murray, who Johnson shared has embraced him this season.
“Dejounte came in and immediately was a big brother to me,” said Johnson of Murray. “Took me under his wing, gave me advice. Right now we’re really close. Having that guy, having that leader to get on you when he knows you’re not doing what you’re capable of. If I pass up on the shot he’s that guy getting on me in the timeout ‘Shoot the ball, shoot the ball, you’re in the gym working on that.’ He sees me working. Having Dejounte around this year that was great personally and for my growth.”
Similarly, Murray shared how he felt about Johnson and how he gravitated to him.
“That’s my guy,” said Murray of Johnson. “I told him I’ll be around. I want him to work out where I’m going to be. Told him I want him to come with his boys, his family, whoever he wants just to come be around. I really appreciate who he is as a person. That’s one thing I look into people. I don’t care how good you are at basketball, or whatever you do. Who you are, how you treat people — I see the way he would treat a janitor, the coach, the GM, the owner, you treat them all equally. That’s important for me, that’s how I live by. For him, I just see a great person and a guy with a great work ethic. I told him ‘Don’t rush greatness, don’t rush your journey. Enjoy the ups and downs, the playing, the not playing because it’s bound to happen for you. Anything you dreamed of if you continue to work and be a great person it will all happen. That’s my guy, I want the best for him and I’m going to support him until I can’t no more.”
Johnson has also enjoyed working with Quin Snyder in the short time they’ve been together and looks forward to the summer where he will work more with Snyder.
“We’ve definitely had our one-on-one conversations, they’ve all been great,” said Johnson of dialogue with Snyder. “He’s teaching me things along the way, some things I didn’t know. He’s helping me out a ton within the couple of months he’s been here. I’m looking forward to working with him this summer.”
Post All-Star break, Johnson featured in 15 games and his averages increased to 7.2 points per game on 52.9% shooting from the field and 30% from three and 2.2 assists in 16.8 minutes per game, as well as 0.9 steals and 0.7 blocks.
Johnson was able to find joy in the journey: from his teammates, the — at times — uncertainty of playing night in and night out, to life under Quin Snyder. These, Johnson shared, were his highlights of the season.
“I just love playing with my teammates, experiencing the ups and downs of everything and actually finding joy within that,” said Johnson when asked for his highlights of the season. “Sometimes you can get caught in the midst of not playing and playing and just going back into that repeated pattern. For myself, finding to love the process, I think that was probably the biggest highlight for me because at the end of the day coach Snyder came in — kind of all the work I was putting in leading up to that — I started playing. Enjoying all that, that was probably my biggest highlight.”
Perhaps evident of this renewal under Snyder, Johnson posted two career-highs in back-to-back games when he scored 16 points on April 3rd against the Chicago Bulls and on April 4th against the Washington Wizards.
Johnson will enter an important third year in the NBA and while the future of John Collins could be one that may have some bearing on Johnson’s potential role in the rotation next season, Johnson will be one of the more intriguing Hawks to watch next season if his development his sophomore season was any indication to go by.