The Complicated Case of the Jalen Johnson Saga, and the Aftermath of Him Leaving Duke

February 28th, 2021

By Alan Lu

Jalen Johnson was projected to be a top 10 pick coming into the season, and he’s turned in some very good games, but inconsistent play and lingering questions fueled by doubt about if he’s making the right decision to leave Duke means that Jalen Johnson’s chances to go in the lottery are no longer a certainty.
Charles LeClaire/USA Today Sports, via Fansided’s Ball Durham)

A couple of weeks ago, Duke’s 6-8 freshman forward, Jalen Johnson had opted out of the remainder of the season to start preparing for the NBA draft.  Recently, it seems that the debate online has seemed to spiral furiously out of control, with a couple of sports analysts going at it with university professors, and with Jay Bilas being said to have verbally sparred with former Syracuse’s hall of fame coach, Jim Boeheim on this very topic, if Jalen Johnson leaving Duke is good for him or not, and if this is good for Duke.

In broaching this subject, I feel conflicted about how I feel about this.  On one hand, I feel that players should get paid to play, and college athletes are being marketed, promoted, and followed without actually getting paid, while their coaches and universities get paid plenty to go about their businesses.  College athletes are being groomed to play professional basketball.  They are trained to help their teams win, yet they don’t get to see a dime until they are out of college.  At the same time, I also feel colleges will never willingly pay student-athletes, because they will claim that student-athletes play college sports for the intrinsic love of the game.

On the other hand, ironically, it has always been my belief that the best way to prepare for the draft is to play in basketball games, and to play well in those games. I’ve always felt that a player should test oneself by playing in basketball games to prepare for playing in games in the future. Yet, the choice to join or leave a team, I feel should be left up to the player.

I feel like I understand why Jalen Johnson opted out of Duke.  I feel like he was unhappy with his role on the team.  He was seeing his minutes go down in the last few games he played.  He played 26 minutes against Miami on February 1st, then 24 minutes against North Carolina, and then just 15 minutes against Notre Dame.  On February 13th, he played shockingly just 8 minutes against NC State, and he ended up not making a single field goal or getting a single rebound or assist.

To be considered a lottery-bound prospect that sees his minutes reduced drastically like that certainly has to raise alarm bells.  Jalen Johnson was the man and the go-to player in his high school at Nicolet.  To go from being considered the guy that could potentially accumulate triple doubles to having playing time taken away like that certainly had to have metaphorically eaten away at him, as he almost certainly would have felt that he should’ve had a bigger role on Duke’s team.

So, in his eyes, if he’s not being guaranteed playing time, and he’s considered to be this talented, why not get paid for it? I understand that some people are very frustrated with his decision to leave during the middle of the season, but that is his choice to make, and he alone gets to decide what he should do, and if playing for Duke was not making him happy, he should join a team that will.

The downside is that, we probably won’t get any more basketball games to judge him until the 2021 NBA Draft happens.  It has already been reported that his draft stock is plummeting, although the big boards that I’ve been tracking (ESPN, NBADraft.Net, and Tankathon) all still have him ranked fairly high.

That Jalen Johnson left his team midway through the season is on him, and if he can live with that, then I’m perfectly fine with his decision.  His choice to leave Duke is his, and his to make. My job as an evaluator is to evaluate his skills, how he’s played, and how well he could play in the NBA or fit onto an NBA team.  Definitely, he’ll need to answer questions about his time in Duke, but maybe there’s more to that situation than what there appears to be on the surface.

I did manage to scout and watch a handful of Jalen Johnson games.  I feel like he is an very athletic, versatile forward that can do a little bit of everything, generally plays with good energy, but I thought he was a bit too inconsistent for my liking.  Certainly though, he seemed to tantalize with a variety of solid skills when he was playing well, and he certainly seemed to be a rangy defender, though he seemed to commit a lot more turnovers than expected for a player that has the playmaking potential he has.

It seemed that he had his best games against bad or lower-tier teams, as he scored 19 points and had 19 rebounds against Coppin State, and he also had 24 points and 16 rebounds in a loss to Pittsburgh.

Jalen Johnson’s averages looked good, but it seemed that he would shoot well against bad teams, and tend to play poorly against bad teams.  He only had 11 points on 4 of 11 shooting in a loss to Michigan State, he scored just 7 points on 3 of 10 shooting in a loss to Illinois, and he scored 9 points on 4 of 8 shooting without making a three-pointer in a loss to Louisville.

Of course, it doesn’t necessarily doom him that he didn’t play well against good teams in most games, it just means sometimes he just didn’t play well in games.  When Zach LaVine was in college, I could never seem to watch him play a good game when he was at UCLA, except once late in the season against Washington.  LaVine turned out perfectly fine, and he is now an NBA All-Star guard and is a two-time dunk champ that plays for the Chicago Bulls. In hindsight, I do wish I would’ve rated him as a much better prospect back then. Also, while sitting out the season may be frowned upon, that hasn’t exactly stopped Mitchell Robinson or Anfernee Simons from turning out to be useful role players in the NBA. 

Still, the fact that Jalen Johnson left Duke during the middle of the season will mean that he will have to answer questions about why he left his team behind, albeit he’s not getting paid for his time there, and certainly he’ll face questions about if he’s a team player, and if he’d be willing to play in a reduced role off the bench or in a supporting role if he’s on an NBA or G-League team where he doesn’t immediately get the offensive touches or playing time that he would expect. So what does this all mean for Jalen Johnson?

It means, he might see his draft stock take a slight hit, as was in the case that happened to Mitchell Robinson and Anfernee Simons, for the mere fact that not many people got to see them play, and having to dig up old game footage of theirs was painfully excruciating.

I do think Jalen Johnson can play in the NBA, and maybe slipping in the draft could even end up being a good thing for him.  If he ends up in a favorable scenario, where he gets to play for a team that has good infrastructure, a development plan in place, and a good head coach, like if he can end up on a team such as the San Antonio Spurs or the Boston Celtics, Johnson could potentially reach his potential faster than expected.

Of course, if he ends up on a bad, dysfunctional team that has a high turnover rate amongst their personnel, such as the Minnesota Timberwolves, Detroit Pistons, or if he gets buried on the bench on an NBA team that has no development plan in place, things can go bad for him in a hurry.

As for the college basketball crowd, unfortunately, it may be safe to say, while Jalen Johnson is a very talented player, I don’t think they will miss him.  At least, not in the long run.  Duke was 5-8 with Jalen Johnson, and they are 6-1 without him, and they have been 3-1 in games after they have left.

I do think Jalen Johnson should get paid, and if he was unhappy at Duke, he should follow his heart and find a place and a team where he will be happy.  I’m sure players have left their teams during the middle of the season before, but it’s not every day where it sparks such huge debate amongst people.  It’s just, I feel like he should still try to get onto a team while he can, whether if that would be in the NBA G-League, the NBL, or overseas.

In evaluating Jalen Johnson in games, he’s a very athletic, versatile forward that projects to be a solid playmaker and defender, but I’m not sure that he will be an elite shooter or scorer in the NBA, given that he has had plenty of struggles against good teams, but there is always a chance that he can exceed his expectations.  Right now, I think he could go anywhere from the latter part of the lottery to the late first round range, but I also definitely did not think Bol Bol would slip out of the first round of the 2019 draft, or see that coming. 

In a favorable scenario, if things break his way, Jalen Johnson could end up being a solid role player similar to Orlando Magic’s forward, Aaron Gordon in the NBA.  On the other hand, if he ends up in an adverse situation, the worst-case scenario could be if he ends up being a fringe rotation player similar to Darrell Arthur in the association.  I do think an NBA team will select Jalen Johnson in the first round of the 2021 NBA Draft, if he stays in.  My prediction will be that he will get selected somewhere between 15 and the mid-20s on draft day, and I do think Johnson will be get looks from NBA teams in the late lottery.  An even wider range would be that he could go anywhere from 6 to somewhere in the middle of the second round. Where he goes from there will be up to him and the team that takes him in the draft.

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