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More On Jalen Johnson’s Decision To Leave Duke Early

An odd decision that Johnson may live to regret

NCAA Basketball: Duke at Pittsburgh
Jan 19, 2021; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA; Duke Blue Devils forward Jalen Johnson (1) warms up before playing the Pittsburgh Panthers at the Petersen Events Center. 
Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Duke’s program saw something unprecedented Monday when freshman Jalen Johnson decided to leave the team in mid-February to prepare for the NBA Draft.

In his departing statement, he said that “I appreciate everything about my time at Duke. Coach K, my teammates and the program have been nothing but supportive throughout this season, especially during the rehab of my foot injury. My family, Coach and I have made the decision that I should not play the remainder of this season so I can be 100 percent healthy in preparation for the NBA Draft. This was not easy but we feel it’s best for my future. I have nothing but love for the Brotherhood and thank my teammates and everyone associated with the program. Duke will always have a special place in my heart and will always be a part of me.”

For his part, Coach K said this: “While we are encouraged by what we are seeing medically, for Jalen’s future, we believe this decision is in his best interest. We are ultimately careful with every one of our players and will continue to support Jalen as he progresses toward his goal of playing professional basketball. He deserves to be fully healthy for the upcoming NBA Draft.”

We have no doubt that he’ll get drafted but a lot of people are viewing his decision skeptically. Jay Bilas, who bends over backwards to avoid the impression that he’s biased towards Duke, said that ”He’s coming off a game in which he played only eight minutes at NC State and it was a game that Duke played arguably its best game in the last month — essentially, without him — and for him to opt out now, optically, it’s very odd. But I’ll be interested to see what Duke winds up saying about this. I’m sure they’ll support the decision. But knowing how basketball works, that’s just an odd thing to do at this time of year.”

His ESPN colleague Seth Greenberg said that “[t]he Notre Dame game, the game’s basically in question, and he doesn’t even get into the end of the game. Here’s the thing, there’s a difference between opting out and quitting. See, if you opt-out, you don’t clear out your locker. You see, if you clear out your locker you’re basically quitting on your team cause he’s part of a group. He could say, ‘I’m opting out because I don’t feel good about myself. I kinda want to look in the mirror and reevaluate myself.’ That’s one thing, but you keep your stuff in your locker room. If you pick up and move out there’s a big difference there.”

On Twitter, John Rothstein simply called him “a quitter.”

His high school career was rocky since he left one school, went to IMG Academy in Florida, then left mid-year and returned home to Wisconsin and a different school, only to see the season canceled because of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Then, fair or not, there were rumors about his time at Duke concerning his happiness and his coachability.

We have no idea about that stuff and we only mention it because it’s being discussed widely already and will certainly come up in interviews and in press speculation.

Johnson is expected to be a lottery pick but he won’t have the normal perks of a high pick like declining workouts. He may end up in the lottery but as of now he’s on a make-good basis. First he’s going to have to disprove the “soft” label he’s picked up in his limited time at Duke and second he’s got to convince some hard-nosed basketball people that he’s committed. It’s hard to see how he’s helped himself.

For our part we hope that he succeeds. When he’s been at his best he’s been tremendous. He has great court vision and at times can be dominant and we like seeing him play that way. He’s fun to watch.

But to really reach his potential, we think he’s going to have to mature a bit. We see guys every year who think they’re ready for the NBA and they’re just not. They have no idea how difficult it is to compete with 30-year-old men who are trying to keep a job and no idea of just how hard you have to work to be a professional. The history of the NBA is littered with guys like that.

We hope Johnson isn’t one of them but he hasn’t yet made a compelling argument that he can live up to professional standards.

We hope that he can. It’s just that so far, he hasn’t.