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Jalen Johnson On The Perception Of Red Flags

The problem is, how do you judge his game and maturity?

2021 NBA Draft Combine
CHICAGO, IL - JUNE 22: NBA Draft Prospect, Jalen Johnson poses for a portrait during the 2022 NBA Draft Combine on June 22, 2022 at the Wintrust Arena in Chicago, Illinois. 
Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

As we’ve said before, until he proves otherwise, Jalen Johnson’s middle name is Risk. He was in Sacramento and was asked about “red flags” associated with his draft prospects. Clearly he’s aware of it and not happy about it. Here’s what he said:

“Those really aren’t red flags. People say a lot of things about me, but they say those things without knowing me. … I don’t like seeing that stuff and I know my parents see that stuff, and I know it hurts them, because at the end of the day these people are making judgments without knowing me, without speaking to me, without saying a word to me. So the fact that people are saying I’m a bad-character kid off essentially a decision I made — a 19 year old kid made — it’s kind of crazy at the end of the day. Whoever’s saying that, it’s just not true, so I’m just excited to get into the league and kind of just shine a better light on my name.”

He’s right that it was his decision and given everything weird that happened last year at Duke and with the pandemic, well, in some ways maybe it’s understandable. But there are a couple of other things here worth looking at.

It may have been unintentional, but he mentioned red flags, plural. As we’ve mentioned before, he went from Sun Prairie High, which he attended for two years, to Nicolet, then transferred to IMG Academy in Florida for his senior year. He was injured and missed the first semester, then left and went back to Nicolet for his final semester without explanation, playing only nine games.

It’s a spotty record and then leaving Duke early doesn’t help. Is it a question of character?

Most of us aren't in a position to answer that question. NBA teams will do their research of course and we’re sure, like the NFL, they do psychological tests and assessments of one sort and another.

Clearly Johnson is going to be drafted, possibly quite high, perhaps even in the lottery. The problem is there’s not much of a sample size to work with. In his senior year, he left one team and only played nine games with the other. At Duke, he played 13 games and walked away.

He also had an injury at Duke so let’s not forget that.

However, he was also somewhat erratic and there was some frustration that he played soft. He had two great rebounding games where he got 19 and 16. But the 19 came against Coppin State and the 16 against Pitt, which was again a bit on the smallish side last season.

So what do you have to look at? How about Michigan State?

In that game, he shot 4-11 for 11 points, had four boards and two blocks. Against Illinois, he shot 3-10 for nine points and had seven rebounds. Louisville? 4-8 for nine points and four boards.

There just weren’t many tough games to look at. UNC was okay but not great. In that one he hit 6-12 for 13 and had seven boards.

But leave offense aside for a minute. Can you think of a defensive play that stands out? Can you think of a play where you thought, man, that guy is tough!

And in fairness to Johnson, statistics don’t always tell the story. Shane Battier was a huge influence on his NBA teams even though he barely scratched statistically most nights. One writer analyzed his game and called him “the no stats All-Star.”

But here’s the key stat about Johnson’s demise at Duke, in our opinion, and you can’t really get around this one: after getting 28 minutes against Clemson, his minutes declined in every subsequent game until he got just eight in his final outing against NC State. This was a game that Duke dominated, going up 25-10 and never looking back.

It’s certainly possible that he could have had an injury or some undisclosed issue. It’s also possible that the coaching staff had decided he wasn’t going to do the things they needed him to do and made plans accordingly.

The other thing that Johnson said in the quote above that’s important was this: “So the fact that people are saying I’m a bad-character kid off essentially a decision I made — a 19 year old kid made — it’s kind of crazy at the end of the day.”

Well yes and no.

Certainly he was a 19-year-old kid. But he’s also a 19-year-old kid who’s been at four schools in three years and who left two of them under uncertain circumstances, who hasn’t played enough to show he could deal with pressure and respond with toughness and who, despite being clearly the most talented player on Duke’s team last year, saw his minutes decline sharply before he quit. And let’s be real here: if you’re the most talented player on your team and can't get off the bench in a blowout, what does that say about you?

If you were considering paying that 19-year-old kid millions of dollars, this is a perfectly reasonable question to ask and to ponder: did he leave Duke to get ready for the draft? Or did he leave Duke because, despite his tremendous talent, he had fallen out of the rotation and if that continued, his draft stock was going to plummet?

These are questions that only Johnson can answer, and until he does so sufficiently, his middle name will remain Risk.