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Buzzworthy Picks 2021: Jalen Johnson

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Should the Hornets prioritize potential over win-now talent?

NCAA Basketball: Duke at Pittsburgh Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

There has been a lot of buzz (no pun intended) surrounding the lottery ever since the NBA Draft combine. Mock drafts change every day and players rise and fall on big boards.

With the Hornets picking at #11, there’s a wide variety of players that could be available. Due to this, it’s important to cast a wide net in terms of scouting. It’s impossible to know exactly what players will be available at that spot this year.

The next Buzzworthy Pick is Jalen Johnson out of Duke. He is a 6’9” forward projected to go late in the lottery.

Johnson is from Wisconsin and spent his first two years of high school at Sun Prairie High School in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin. He led his team to two straight 20+ win seasons. In his sophomore year, he helped bring them to their first semifinals appearance in the Division 1 state tournament.

Ahead of his junior year, Johnson relocated to Nicolet High School in Glendale, Wisconsin, and won the Division 2 state championship in his first season there. However, after his junior season, Johnson transferred to IMG Academy.

Unfortunately, he got injured before he ever got the chance to play at the prep school. He then left for undisclosed reasons and transferred back to Nicolet High School. He was a five-star recruit out of high school and chose to play college basketball at Duke.

College

Johnson had a fairly short-lived college career. In just 13 games he averaged 11.2 points, 6.1 rebounds, and 2.2 assists. He shot 52.3% from the field and 44.4% from three-point range.

Just 13 games into the year, Johnson decided to opt-out of the rest of the season in order to prepare for the NBA Draft. He dealt with COVID restrictions throughout his freshman season, which may have had an impact on his decision to leave. He received a ton of backlash on social media because of his decision, but his teammates and coaches showed nothing but love.

Duke teammate Matthew Hurt spoke out in support of Johnson after his decision to leave. “I know he’s getting a lot of crap on social media,” Hurt said. “But he’s part of us. He’s never going to leave us like that. We’re going to stay in communication with him. He’s a great talent, great player. He did what’s best for him. We’re all proud of him. We all support him. He has a bright future ahead of him. I texted him that night, and we talked a bit. We thanked each other for helping each other out during the year. For sure we’re going to miss him a lot.”

Coach Mike Krzyzewski and fellow freshman DJ Steward also shared kind words about Johnson. He was loved during his time at Duke, and there are seemingly no hard feelings surrounding his departure.

Upside

Johnson is a super athletic, somewhat raw talent. His aggressiveness when driving to the rim stands out most in terms of his offensive game. He’s very quick to make a decision and drives the ball to the rack with great energy.

He’s also great a great cutter. Johnson always manages to be in the right spot to receive a pass under the rim. He keeps an eye out and can sneak through the defense to find easy baskets at the rim. Off-ball movement is an underrated skill in the NBA, and Johnson has shown promise in that area.

His size, strength, and quickness are exactly what an NBA team is looking for in a small forward. Johnson has all of the physical traits needed to be an impactful NBA player. He has the exact body type NBA scouts drool over.

Due to this, his potential is through the roof. Though there are plenty of areas he can stand to improve in, the fact that he’s got the perfect NBA body makes him one of the most intriguing prospects. If he can put it all together, he has the potential to become a star in the league.

In addition to his physical traits, Johnson is an underrated passer. His court vision is really solid for a player at his position. His assist numbers don’t necessarily reflect how good of a playmaker he could really be.

He always manages to find the open man. However, he could get better at deciding when to make the pass vs when to finish at the rim. When he does make the pass, though, it’s almost always the right one.

Johnson’s height also gives him the ability to fight for rebounds in the paint. He’s gotten pretty solid at sniffing out offensive boards, as well as fighting for rebounds on the defensive end.

Defensively, Johnson showed some decent skill as well. He can stick with guys in the perimeter, and his height allows him to fight down low a bit as well. He’s not a lockdown defender by any means, but he can certainly hold his own.

Closing out on shooters is arguably his best defensive trait. He closes out hard and often against three-point shooters. His length allows him to block some shots out there as well.

Doubling back on his potential, if he can fix his mechanics he could turn into a dominant scorer. He already has the aggressiveness, he just has to iron out the kinks. Becoming a fluid scorer in the NBA is no easy task, but if he can figure it out, he could be absolutely dominant.

Downside

As mentioned above, he has the potential to become a dangerous scorer. The keyword in that sentence is potential. There are a few issues he needs to fix if that statement is to come true.

Though he attacks the rim hard, he often has trouble finishing. Johnson is super athletic but usually decides to go for a fancy finish rather than bullying his way through the defense. He has the tools to overpower defenders on the drive but chooses not to do so.

It’s this unwillingness to force his way to the rim that results in some badly missed opportunities. He’s great at getting to the basket but needs to improve his finishing ability if he wants to be an elite scorer.

In addition, his shooting mechanics need some serious work. Though he shot 44.4% from deep at Duke, he only took 1.4 threes per game. It’s not exactly a hitch, but he almost pauses at the peak of his jump shot. It’s way too slow to translate to the NBA level. That being said, if NBA coaches can help him smooth out his shot, he could be a great scorer.

On the defensive end, he can sometimes get lost. He closes out well but is often forced to due to missed rotations or unnecessary switching. College defense and NBA defense are very different, but Johnson needs to stay focused on that end of the floor.

As well as on-court concerns, some NBA teams are worried about his commitment. He left early at both IMG Academy and Duke, creating an obvious narrative about the forward. His character is often called into question on most scouting reports.

Comparison

Kevin O’Connor of The Ringer compares Johnson to Aaron Gordon, Rudy Gay, and a taller RJ Barrett. The Aaron Gordon comparison doesn’t ring as true as the others, but Gay could be the perfect comparison.

After his injury, Gay was never the same, but prime Rudy Gay looks a lot like what Johnson could become. Gay was an athletic freak who was never an elite shooter. If Johnson can become a smarter, more fluid scorer, he could end up being a very similar player.

Other players that Johnson plays similarly include a taller Keldon Johnson and possibly Harrison Barnes. Keldon Johnson is more of an immediate comparison, while the others are more of what Jalen Johnson could turn into.

As for Harrison Barnes, he is definitely a better shooter than Johnson is right now. Johnson has a very stiff jump shot, but if he puts the work in, he could become a really great outside threat in the NBA. Barnes is an underrated finisher, which is something Johnson should strive to improve at.

Summary

Johnson has the potential to grow into a real star next to LaMelo Ball. His offensive skillset would be the perfect pairing next to a passer like Ball. He can provide secondary playmaking while also being able to score on his own.

Once again, the keyword to remember is potential. It’s very debatable whether or not Johnson’s talent will translate to the NBA level immediately. With hard work, he can become an All-Star player, but if he lacks the work ethic to do so, he might not pan out.

He’s definitely one of the riskier selections the Charlotte Hornets could go with. However, he also has one of the highest upsides in the entire draft. That’s the risk teams would be taking with Johnson.

Spending a couple of years behind Gordon Hayward could be a massive help, though. Working with a veteran forward to iron out his shooting kinks and help with his passing would be great.

If you want someone who will definitely contribute right away, Johnson might not be the best pick. However, if you’re someone who wants the Hornets to target a potential superstar, look no further than Jalen Johnson.