Chris Carrawell told the media earlier this week that Duke freshman forward Jalen Johnson was “underrated.”
This would be the same Jalen Johnson voted preseason first-team All-ACC, the same Jalen Johnson consistently projected as a top-10 pick in the 2021 NBA draft.
And he’s underrated?
Johnson virtually met with the media Wednesday morning. He struck a balance. He’s good and he knows it. But at every opportunity he emphasized that he’s after wins, not accolades.
“Do team things first” is how he sums it up.
Johnson was a top-five recruit when he signed with Duke last fall. He transferred from his Nicolet, Wisconsin high school to IMG Academy in Florida but didn’t play a game there, a stint he declined to discuss. He returned home in time to play nine games at Nicolet—it’s a Milwaukee suburb-and averaged 25 points, 11 rebounds and five assists per game.
But his prep rankings dropped into the mid-teens. He missed too many games to be named to the McDonald’s team but he was named to the Jordan Brand Classic roster. Neither game was played, of course.
Johnson is very much aware of the ratings drop and says it motivates him. But he adds that winning is the best response.
Even without fans.
Johnson says his “biggest dream is being able to put on a Duke basketball jersey” and that’s a dream a week away from fulfillment, even in an empty Cameron. “Putting on that Duke uniform for the first time is really going to be special.”
Johnson checks a lot of boxes. He’s 6-9 and says he can defend all five positions. He’s an elite passer, a good shooter and almost unstoppable in transition. He says he has half-court moves but “being able to have the confidence to use it” has been an issue. “Sometimes I need to have the confidence to trust my guts, to trust my instincts more than I usually do.”
Johnson says he’s had to adjust to playing with the level of talent he’s found at Duke.
“There really are no plays you can take off because there’s constantly people coming after you.”
His freshmen classmates?
“We knew what we were coming in for, what we were buying in to. We’re not coming into this for individual accolades. We came in this together and everything else will take care of itself . . .. getting rid of the egos at the door.”
Johnson is likely to spend time alongside another 6-9 player, sophomore Matt Hurt. Johnson says the two present huge difficulties for opposing defenses.
“Playing with Matt Hurt so far has been great. He makes the game so much easier. He’s also another versatile, big man man, kind of like myself. He can do a whole bunch of things on the court. We complement each others game’s pretty well.”
Johnson’s teammates and coaches praise his passing and Johnson returns the favor.
“My play-making has come a long way because now I’m playing with other five-star prospects and they really just bring my game up in all aspects because it pushes me. . . . [the] satisfaction of seeing your teammate get a bucket . . . is the best feeling.”
Johnson was asked which teammates had most impressed him and he named Hurt, Wendell Moore, Mark Williams and Jeremy Roach, saying of the latter “Jeremy has just been what a true point guard really is. He really can get to a spot and make stuff happen.”
Johnson recognizes he’s not a finished product.
[I’m] making strides in the right direction. . . . shooting, quickness, taking more pride in the defensive end.”
The end goal? Championships. Because team things come first.