Editor’s note: This is the first post from new Peachtree Hoops contributor Hassan Ladiwala. We’re excited to have him on the staff and help with our coverage of the Atlanta Hawks.
Say what you will about former Atlanta Hawks’ President of Basketball Operations, Travis Schlenk, but the man certainly has an eye for NBA talent.
Schlenk, who now holds the VP of Player Personnel title for the Washington Wizards, has an impressive track record when it comes to talent evaluation dating back to his time with the Golden State Warriors, where he spent 13 years as Assistant GM prior to his time with the Hawks. He was “instrumental” to the Warriors’ drafting Klay Thompson and Draymond Green in 2011 and 2012 respectively, and per Chris Kirschner of The Athletic, “there were times [in Golden State] when Schlenk would disagree with the team’s thinking in free agency or the draft, and the Warriors’ would choose not to sign or draft that player even if several others wanted him. Schlenk’s opinion on player personnel was that trusted.”
After three consecutive NBA Finals’ appearances and two NBA championships from 2015-2017, Schlenk joined the Hawks as the team’s GM/Head of Basketball Operations and was promoted to President of Basketball Operations just two years later. The team that made the Eastern Conference Finals in 2021 was almost entirely composed of players he had drafted during his tenure with the Hawks or acquired via trade or free agency after his promotion.
Though Schlenk’s run in Atlanta ended rather unceremoniously, the team is, in my view, better off for having him as a part of their decision-making process from 2017-2022, and his fingerprints remain all over this Hawks’ roster as five of the team’s projected top-nine players in next season’s rotation were drafted during Schlenk’s time with the team, while two more played vital roles in their run to the Eastern Conference Finals.
One Schlenk draftee who I’m very excited to watch this upcoming season is Jalen Johnson. Johnson was selected with the 20th overall pick in the 2021 NBA draft, and after spending the majority of his rookie season in College Park (Atlanta’s G League affiliate), the 6’9” power forward began to turn some heads last season with his show-stopping athleticism, sensational passing ability and relentless motor on both ends of the court. While his playing time fluctuated under former head coach, Nate McMillan, he earned a regular spot in Atlanta’s second unit once Quin Snyder took over on the sidelines at the end of February.
With the Hawks trading longtime starter John Collins to the Utah Jazz earlier this summer, Johnson will likely be plunged into a larger role in next season’s rotation, potentially setting him up for a breakout season. Below, I’ll delve into the aspects of his game that impressed me the most last season, as we will hopefully be seeing a lot more of this from Jalen in 2023-24.
Let’s dive in.
Jalen Johnson likes to get out in transition, and has proven to be an efficient scorer when he does so. Johnson posted a 26.8% transition playtype frequency in 2022-23, which ranked #1 on the Hawks and 14th in the NBA*, while his efficiency (1.21 PPP) ranked in the 68th percentile amongst all players.
*amongst players who played at least 55 games
Of course, your efficiency is bound to be pretty good when you’re taking shots like the ones above in transition, but what’s particularly impressive about Johnson is his ability to create these high quality looks on his own. The chart below plots transition shot creation (a player’s ability to create their own shot) against transition shot quality (the difficulty of the shots they take) for all non-guards in the 2022-23 NBA season, and you can see that Johnson is one of just four players (!!) to have a Z-Score greater than 1 in both metrics, joining Jayson Tatum, LeBron James and Tari Eason in this select group.
According to cleaningtheglass.com, Atlanta ranked 14th in the NBA in offensive transition frequency last season, and were 9th in transition efficiency, scoring 1.28 points per possession. This was a sizable difference from their halfcourt offense which ranked 15th in efficiency, scoring 0.99 points per play. More minutes for Johnson next season could help improve the Hawks’ overall offensive efficiency as his affinity for getting out in the open floor should lead to a few more transition opportunities for the team.
Another impressive area of Johnson’s game is his passing ability. Though he averaged just 1.2 assists per game last year (2.9 per 36 minutes), he posted a 2:1 assist to turnover ratio, and his 0.69 assist to usage ratio ranked in the 73rd percentile amongst all forwards - an impressive mark for such a young player (Johnson turns 22 in December).
Johnson’s passes come in a variety of different flavors. I touched on his affinity for getting out in transition above, and he also does a good job keeping his head up after getting a rebound to pick out transition opportunities for others.
A dangerous transition scorer, he can also create for others in these situations as you can see below.
Some of his most impressive dimes last season came in the halfcourt though. See how he capitalizes on a soft-spot in Memphis’ defense in the first clip below. In the second clip, he notices both Brook Lopez and Giannis are guarding him instead of paying attention to the rolling Okongwu, and, before you can say “dime” he zips a pass to ‘Big O’ for an easy two.
Many of his assists came when he was driving to the basket, drawing help then dishing to a teammate (as most assists do), but Atlanta also experimented with using him as both an initiator (2nd clip) and roll-man (3rd and 4th clip) in the pick-and-roll, and it was encouraging to see him make the proper reads on these plays. I would not be surprised if we see Johnson used in the pick-and-roll more often next season.
Atlanta ranked dead last in the NBA in passes per game last season, which is not necessarily a “telling” stat in terms of a team’s overall win percentage, but nonetheless, not one that a team should strive to finish last in. Quin Snyder’s Utah Jazz teams finished in the upper-half of the league in passing in seven out of the eight seasons that he was their head coach*, which means that we are likely to see something of a passing renaissance in Atlanta next season with Snyder at the helm. For the type of basketball this team appears to want to play going forwards, Johnson’s passing ability fits their system like a glove.
*the season the Jazz finished in the bottom half of the league in passing was coincidentally Snyder’s final one coaching the team (2021-22)
Another area of Johnson’s game that’s worth mentioning here is his defense and rebounding prowess. The table below is from cleaningtheglass.com, and displays Jalen Johnson’s steal, block, foul, offensive rebounding and defensive rebounding percentages in both of his seasons in the NBA, alongside their percentile rank relative to other players’ at that position.
As you can see, Johnson’s steal and block percentages were very high relative to other forwards last season, ranking in the 81st and 95th percentiles respectively. Furthermore, his rebounding numbers were impressive as well, ranking in the 73rd, and 99th percentiles in offensive and defensive rebounding percentage. Atlanta ranked 16th in opponent turnover frequency, and 17th in defensive rebounding percentage in 2022-23, so Johnson’s strengths in these two areas should certainly help the team next season.
While it’s worth remembering that Johnson was part of the second unit and played most of his minutes against other team’s back-ups, these numbers are encouraging nonetheless, and I’m excited to see what he can do next season in a bigger role.
Still just 21 years of age, Johnson has quite some time to go before reaching his NBA ceiling, and there are still areas of his game that need work if he is going to make good on his sky-high potential. While this is not news to Johnson, who candidly replied “literally everything” when asked about the areas of his game he was looking to improve this summer in his 2023 exit interview, the main skills I’d like to see him polish up before next season begins would be his outside shooting, off the dribble creation, and foul rate.
Johnson’s outside shooting percentages were pretty rough in 2022-23, knocking down just 32% of his (non-garbage time) three pointers - including an ugly 30% mark from the corners. He also shot 62.8% from the free-throw line indicating that whatever shooting drills he is doing this summer likely go beyond adding a bit more range to his jumper.
Additionally, Johnson could use some work in becoming a greater off-the-dribble threat. 85.1% of Johnson’s field goal attempts last season came after taking two or fewer dribbles, and if he can become a consistent scoring threat from a stand-still position, the Hawks should feel comfortable increasing his touches as he is already a tremendous passer.
Finally, you probably noticed that there was one metric in the defense/rebounding chart from cleaningtheglass.com in which Johnson performed worse than his peers in 2022-23, which was his foul rate. This is important because literally nothing else that Johnson does on the basketball court matters unless he can actually stay on the court in the first place. Unfortunately, this is not really a skill you can work on (unless someone can show me a foul rate drill), as it’s hard to replicate the complexities of an NBA game in practice so for Johnson, finding the balance between aggressively hunting steals and blocks while staying clear of the referee’s whistle is a skill that we should hope comes with time.
All in all, Jalen Johnson is a player that could turn a lot of heads next season. Though if he winds up taking another step in the right direction, he’s going to be a hard one to miss.
All statistics/videos used in this article are from basketballreference.com, pbpstats.com, nba.com/stats, bball-index.com, and cleaningtheglass.com.