It's hard to settle on just where Jalen Johnson should be taken in the draft.
The primary recipe for success in the NBA for almost a generation is to have a large wing who can create his own shot. These stars can usually create shots for others too, either by gravity or passing. Jalen Johnson's strengths line up with this archetype. Johnson's primary draw is simply his size and athleticism. He has the size of a forward with the speed of a wing and fluid athleticism both horizontally and vertically. This athleticism translates into easy offense as he is able to bully or shoot over smaller players and beat larger players with a quicker first step. This mismatch is the first hurdle for a potential superstar wing most prospects simply don't have dual mismatch potential. If he clears that initial hurdle and gets downhill or into the lane he can capitalize by finishing at the rim, pulling up in the midrange, or hitting an open man. Right now hitting the open man usually in the dunker spot or opposite corner is his go to action and also his most NBA ready skill. He sees over the defense and makes simple reads without overthinking this is reflected by his 20.5% assist rate. For reference Cade Cunningham's rate was 20.4% and Jalen Sugg's was 23.7%. Sometimes that assist percentage comes from bypassing shots to get teammates involved, but not in Johnson's case; he still averaged about 16 shots per40. To go along with this offensive skillet is a productive defensive resume. He racked up an over 3% steal rate and 6% block rate at Duke. His vertical pop is evident in some of his highlight blocks and his hands are quick which coupled with his a seven foot wingspan makes him a potential game-changing force on the defensive end.
The primary impediments to Johnson's ceiling are the setup skills that allow him to get into his areas of effectiveness. On the offensive end he has trouble with his shot. Though he shot over 40% from 3 at Duke it was on very few attempts and his 63% free throw average does not bode well for his shooting future. Tankathon estimates his projected NBA 3pt% percentage at 33% which is below league average. If Johnson can not pull his defender all the way to the 3 point line his relative quickness and strength cease to matter. He can't get downhill or bully his way into the lane if defenders have a chance to wall him off rather than having to guard him with a hand in his face on the perimeter. If he can't shoot the rest of his skills do not matter. On the defensive end Johnson is rarely on the correct position he chases blocks and steals and occasionally plays Olé defense in which he lets his man by with the ball to try and poke away a steal from behind. If Johnson isn't in the right position on defense in the NBA his wingspan and athleticism do not matter. Along with these weaknesses comes Johnson's lack of engagement on the college court. It's often hard to tell if missed rotations or simple turnovers are the result of a lack of effort or ignorance. In Johnson's case it appears to me to be a bit of both. There is recent precedent in Markelle Fultz and Ben Simmons of college guys simply not caring on the defensive end and then turning up the intensity level in the NBA. If ignorance is the culprit some guys never think the game at a high level. However, with Johnson's skill at distribution on the other side of the ball I think he sees the game well and is just having trouble turning what he sees into concrete basketball positive actions. Limitations in shooting, defensive positioning, and effort can all be explained away by Johnson's unique road to the NBA, but should they?
Johnson's road to the NBA has had more potholes than his raw numbers suggest. Johnson only played 500 minutes in college with some of those minutes as the de facto center on a Duke team with plenty of talent. Johnson arrived to Duke with no summer basketball because of covid and then missed two more weeks of practice for covid protocol reasons. Opening up the season with a couple dynamite games he began to flag eventually sitting out with a foot injury. After coming back from the injury and showing well statistically his minutes began to dwindle and after a game where he only played 8 minutes he decided to sit out the rest of the season and prepare for the NBA draft. This mirrored a similar situation in his senior year of high school when he left IMG academy to reunite with his old high school team in the middle of their season. Johnson has essentially played less than 1 season of organized ball in the last 2 years, which are arguably the 2 most important years for a player's development. On top of the obvious implications for his game, this has led people to question his decision making and dedication off the court.
Despite these questions we still have to figure out if he's worth the gamble for the Magic. I think he'll go from late lottery to early 20s. He shouldn't make it to the Magic at pick 33 and should be available at pick 8. I'd try to trade back and take him, but if that wasn't possible I'd still take a swing on him at 8.
Would you? Sound off in the comments.
Terribly small sample size to judge a player on.
Johnson still plays an AAU style. He's used to being bigger/stronger/faster than everyone. He sometimes throws fastball passes. He barely plays defense and is not used to being benched for his mistakes.
Coach K played him some at center which is obvious as a coach but terrible for a player that thinks of himself as a primary creator and wants to show off those skills to NBA scouts.
His handle is pretty loose, but I think that about almost everyone as they come into the league.
Almost everyone that does draft analysis and talks to teams has Johnson low on their boards.