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2021 NBA Draft Prospect Profiles: Jalen Johnson

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Another Duke player on the Grizzlies? Hey, it could happen.

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NCAA Basketball: Player Headshots 2021 Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

JALEN JOHNSON, FORWARD, DUKE UNIVERSITY

  • 6’9.25” (7’0.25” wingspan) 210 pounds, 19 years old from Milwaukee, Wisconsin
  • Last season with Duke - 13 games played, 21.4 minutes per game, 18.9 points per 36 minutes, 52.3% from the field (44.4% from three on only 18 attempts), 63.2% from the free throw line, 10.2 rebounds per 36 minutes, 3.8 assists, 2.1 blocks, 1.9 steals (all per 36 minutes).
  • ADVANCED STATS OF STRENGTH (per Tankathon) - Effective field goal percentage (56%), Defensive Box Plus/Minus (+4.2)
  • ADVANCED STATS TO IMPROVE - Three point attempt rate (.165), offensive rating (104.3)
  • ACCOLADES - Preseason Wooden Award Watch List
  • CURRENT BIG BOARD PLACEMENTS - 8th (Tankathon), 12th (The Ringer), 12th (ESPN), 21st (CBS Sports)

The COVID-19 Pandemic has impacted every aspect of our lives. There are things that have been lost during the last 18 months far more important than sports, but there is no denying that across every level those involved in sports have especially been challenged. Athletes being tested constantly, competing in empty arenas, being separated from loved one not only by distance but by threat of disease that could upend title dreams and entire seasons - again, in the grand scheme of life these issues are trivial. But to the individuals encountering these hurdles, they are plenty meaningful.

Jalen Johnson understands this quite well, for he perhaps more than many others in this draft had their season altered in part by the pandemic. In a normal year? Johnson surely plays out the slate of games and takes his place among other Duke players who become local legends, even if their time in school is short. But in a time where is was more common than ever for players to opt out of the season and leave school, Johnson did just that.

But what makes him unique?

He left AFTER starting the campaign.

Johnson only played in 13 games and decided to depart Duke to focus on the NBA Draft while his Blue Devil team was struggling trying to get in the NCAA Tournament. Before then, in his senior year in high school he only played in nine games after leaving IMG Academy in Florida to return back to his Milwaukee home.

So do the math. One player. Two Years. Three teams. And 22 total games played.

Why even consider Johnson in this case if you’re the Memphis Grizzlies? Because if he tumbles down draft boards due to his “quitter” label that some have attached to him, he could quite possibly be the steal of the draft. Few players in this class are as talented as Johnson...but questions about his character linger.

What he does well

For a team like the Grizzlies that need a versatile bigger wing, Johnson provides just that type of skill set. He actually checks boxes beyond just being a larger forward capable of playing both the three and the four - he can get out and run in transition, possessing remarkable athleticism when he has space to operate off of turnovers and quick outlet passes off of rebounds. He has a good enough handle and is sound enough as a rebounder to be able to clean the glass and go coast to coast on the break by himself. And his greatest strength at this stage is to be able to not only get to the rim, but drive and kick/create for others off of his ability to relentlessly attack the paint.

Sounds like a guy that would get along well with Ja Morant, doesn’t it?

His explosiveness and lateral movement also translate well to being a solid defender, both in terms of switchability with guards and forwards on the perimeter as well as being off the ball and playing/attacking passing lanes. He was one of Duke’s better defensive players (in a small sample size) this past season while on the floor, showing sound basketball IQ in rotations and help situations.

As Kevin O’Connor of The Ringer states, Johnson gives off a lot of Ben Simmons vibes with the explosiveness of a young Rudy Gay. Some solid comps for a player that may fall to the Grizzlies at 17.

Syndication: The Courier-Journal Scott Utterback/Courier Journal via Imagn Content Services, LLC

Where he can improve

Put aside the off the court “quitter” questions for now. There are basketball reasons Johnson may fall...with the first one being his continued comparison to Ben Simmons when it comes to shooting. Don’t let the 44.4% from beyond the arc fool you - he only attempted 18 threes at Duke, and if you watch his shooting mechanics you see a player that simply is not confident in his shot. His free throw percentage is further evidence that he has a long way to go to be a threat from beyond the paint. He also struggles with the physicality that players deal with at times around the rim - he is not a force of nature, but rather a bit of poetry in motion that would rather be flowery in its language than forceful.

His 20.6% turnover percentage per Sports-Reference.com is entirely too high and indicative of a player who believes in himself perhaps a bit too much as a creator of offense. And while he was overall a solid defender at Duke, he (like many inexperienced young players) would not always focus his physical and mental attention on that end the way he should.

The Fit

Memphis needs bigger wings. Johnson is a bigger wing. The Grizzlies need players who can create off the dribble and get their own shot. Johnson is capable of just that. They need a malleable talent who can fit in various lineups and enable other players to achieve better offensively because there is a wing on the floor with the athletic ability and dribble penetration talent to get to the basket both alone and off of screens. Johnson provides that and then some - he can be both the point forward in the pick and roll as well as the screener, leading to some enticing possibilities.

How would you defend a Jalen/Jaren Jackson Jr. pick and roll?

How would you attack a Jalen/Jaren/Xavier Tillman defensive front court with Kyle Anderson also on the floor?

Jalen Johnson would provide the Memphis Grizzlies options - and because of his frame, that holds value. Kyle Anderson is the only true combo/point forward on the roster right now. That would change with taking the polarizing Dukie.

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

The Verdict

The Memphis Grizzlies are uniquely positioned to have the inside track in to trying to figure out the Jalen Johnson enigma. Is he a quitter who only cares about himself and leaves when it is most convenient for him? Or is he a player that is a victim of the current system and circumstances, who never should have had to go through the college process and project best as a true pro? With all the Duke connections that GM Zach Kleiman and players Tyus Jones, Justise Winslow, and Grayson Allen have? The answer should be more accessible to Memphis than anyone else.

So while I, a humble Grizzlies blogger with a background in coaching, may be repulsed by the initial idea of a “quitter” joining the roster of Memphis, I am willing to give the young man a chance if he does indeed fall to 17 (possible, but unlikely). In professional sports, talent speaks louder than character more often than not...and it is also hard to judge a college aged person based on decisions he makes at such a young age - especially considering the difficulties of the last 18 months. Empathy and grace carry you in times of trouble. While he has earned the queries in to his character, it’s also important to hear all sides of the story and learn about what led to those choices being made. Then, you decide on fit alongside the “standard” you are establishing.

Johnson is quite clearly a lottery talent. And it has been said time and again that this draft is the one for the Memphis Grizzlies to take a chance on upside. Jalen is just unique in the fact that he carries with him both off the court baggage as well as the weight of a game that, while potentially a good fit both for the Grizzlies and the modern NBA, still needs refinement as well.

Someone will take the chance.

Should Memphis - if the opportunity presents itself?

Jalen Johnson will fall beyond the top-10 on draft night, but it is unlikely he falls past the Pacers or Warriors and out of the Lottery. Worst case? Oklahoma City takes the home run swing at #16 - right in front of the Grizzlies, who likely would have given him a long, hard look after doing their due diligence with Duke.

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