With Jalen Johnson’s time in college basketball finished, his performance with the Duke Blue Devils is being evaluated by NBA personnel executives, scouts, draft analysts and many in the media paid to talk about the sport.
And this is how at least one major front-office figure grades Johnson’s performance: “Incomplete.”
This seems an obvious conclusion, because Duke still has six scheduled games plus the ACC Tournament on its schedule, and Johnson chose to leave the team anyway. But it’s also an impactful label. There are so many peripherally involved in the sport who attempt to euphemize Johnson’s decision, or to fashion it as the next logical step in his progress toward playing professionally.
At least some of those whose literal job it is to decide who merits an NBA roster position and who does not believe that departing a team at this stage of the season is, to say the least, unimpressive.
Scouts are aware that Johnson transferred to IMG Academy in Florida from Nicolet High in Glendale, Wis., after his junior season, then left IMG roughly a month into the season.
“This is not the first time he’s had an issue with a team, so that’s the bigger concern,” an NBA personnel executive told Sporting News. “This guy has created/made/whatever issues at his last two stops. If that doesn’t give you pause, I don’t know what will.
“Jalen Johnson is trying out for a job, and this would be the equivalent of just listing your references but you have no real resume.”
A year ago, five-star point guard Cole Anthony joined a North Carolina Tar Heels squad that had some promising young big men but largely was lacking in perimeter scorers, save for himself. He played in nine games, of which Carolina won six, and averaged 19.1 points and 3.6 assists. Then he tore the meniscus in his right knee and missed 11 games, during which time the Tar Heels fell to 8-10.
Given Anthony’s injury and the condition of the Tar Heels, the possibility of him “shutting it down” and preparing for the draft became an object of considerable speculation. Anthony never indicated that was in his plans, and he eventually returned and finished the season, offering such performances as a 24-point, 11-rebound effort against Duke, and a 28-point, seven-assist game against Duke.
“He had a significant injury, but his year would have been incomplete if that was all he had to go on. But he came back and played after his injury,” the NBA personnel executive said. “Whether you like Cole Anthony’s game or not, you can’t dispute the desire to play and leave a positive impression.
“Juxtapose that next to Jalen Johnson’s approach, and you be the judge.”
Johnson played in 13 games and started eight for the Blue Devils, averaging 11.2 points and 6.1 rebounds per game. He missed three games with a foot injury but, after his return, produced a 24-point, 16-rebound, four-block masterpiece that was spoiled by a loss to Pitt. Recently he had seen his minutes drastically decline, down to just eight in Saturday’s victory over N.C. State.
After the game, Krzyzewski told reporters that Johnson was having difficulty with the physicality of college hoops.
“We had him in a couple of times, and he was knocked back,” Krzyzewski said.
Freshman center Mark Williams got most of the minutes that might have been Johnson’s and he contributed 13 points and 5 blocks. Three days before Johnson departed, Krzyzewski still was expressing confidence that there would be other opportunities for Johnson to excel.
NBA draft analyst Matthew Maurer does not have Johnson listed on his two-round mock draft. And that was before “so much damage has been done reputation-wise,” in Maurer’s words, by Johnson’s choice to leave the Duke team.
The Blue Devils are only 8-8 overall and in eighth place in the ACC, far from their customary standards. Maurer contends that their persistent struggles created enormous opportunity for Johnson.
“What more invitation did you need to go into Duke and dominate?” Maurer said. “It was all there for you to take over. You just didn’t.”
The NBA executive explained that Johnson “looks like a lot of these young guys who are looking for how they should play, what they think they need to do to get drafted. It doesn’t always line up with what his role is.”
A year ago, James Wiseman played three games for the Memphis Tigers, received an 11-game NCAA suspension over amateurism issues, then chose toward the end of that penalty not to return to college basketball. He was taken second overall in the 2020 NBA Draft.
However: Wiseman is 7-1, 245 pounds and is an extraordinary athlete for his size; when he did play, Wiseman excelled for the Tigers — and he had an established reputation as a high school player from his two years at East High in Memphis.
Johnson has none of this going for him.
“You’ve got to watch every step you take now,” Maurer said, “because every step is measured.”