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Duke NBA Draft Preview: Jalen Johnson

Johnson will be one of the real mysteries of the draft and could go high or really slip

Duke v Miami
 MIAMI, FLORIDA - FEBRUARY 01: Jalen Johnson #1 of the Duke Blue Devils drives to the basket against the Nysier Brooks #3 of the Miami Hurricanes during the first half at Watsco Center on February 01, 2021 in Miami, Florida.
Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images

What do the years 1984, 1988, 1991, 1996, 1997, 2008 and 2010 have in common, from a Duke basketball perspective?

Why those are the only years in Mike Krzyzewski’s tenure at Duke in which Duke has not had a player selected in the NBA draft. Seven misses in four decades is a pretty good track record.

Now, you might want to raise an eyebrow here or there; 1991 and 2010? Didn’t Duke win NCAA titles in those seasons?

Well, yes. That 1991 team had six players who would eventually hear their names called by whatever NBA commissioner or assistant commissioner was behind the mic at the time. The 2010 team had five. But all of these players waited their turn, an alien concept these days. In fact each of the 11 players on those two teams who was drafted was drafted only after completing their eligibility at Duke.

What about those down years early in Krzyzewski’s Duke tenure?

A funny thing about the draft. It used to go deeper than it does today. A lot deeper. Did you know that Tom Emma was picked in the 10th round in 1983? Or Dan Meagher in the sixth round in 1985? Larry Saunders, Mark Crow, Bob Bender and Marty Nessley were all drafted; Crow and Nessley actually had cups of coffee in the league.

So, some of these draft stats need to be taken with a grain of salt. Still, 67 NBA draft picks is pretty darned impressive for one coach, especially when 41 of those went in the first round.

Which brings us to the 2021 NBA draft, coming up this Thursday. A trio of Duke underclassmen declared for that draft and they can divided into three categories; going to be drafted, may be drafted and what was he thinking.

There are lots of mock drafts out there, some more credible than others, some behind paywalls, some not. I’m obviously going to leave the paywall stuff alone but I’m going to augment the free stuff with the thoughts of lone-time NBA Draft expert Chris Ekstrand.

Jalen Johnson should be Krzyzewski’s next first-round pick.

But not without some baggage.

This time a year ago Johnson would have projected as a top-five pick, presumably after an All-America freshman season that led Duke to a deep NCAA run.

Obviously, that didn’t happen. There’s a saying attributed to Woody Allen that “90 percent of life is showing up.” Johnson’s track record in the showing-up department over the final season of his high-school career and his only college season has raised some issues.

Sam Vecenie is the draft analyst for The Athletic website. He projects Johnson as the 12th pick (San Antonio) in the free part of his projection but notes that “Johnson left Duke early this year and departed IMG Academy midway through his senior season, and NBA teams are working through his intel report to make a determination on how much they believe he’d fit within their organizations.”

I asked Ekstrand point blank if there were character concerns with Johnson and he said yes, without hesitation.

He also said that Johnson has had plenty of opportunities to address those concerns.“A lot of it is going to have to do with what the teams thought when they met with him in person. Because, the less of a track record there is on the court, the more important the interpersonal interviews, their evaluation of them in person at their facility, is going to matter. The people, the teams, who still have a belief in him based on what happened, that’s probably his best shot. Everybody has a different slant on those things. If they have a good feeling about him as a person, that he’s going to work hard, then maybe he won’t fall so far. think there’s no denying that his star fell a little bit because of what happened at Duke. He could go anywhere from 12 all the way down into the 20s.

Johnson’s game needs some refinement.

“If you need a flat-out shooter, you’re not picking Jalen Johnson. If you just need a flat-out playmaker, you’re not drafting Jalen Johnson. So, the question is the teams that are in the middle part of that first round, what are they really looking for?”

This sounds awfully negative. We all saw that 19-point, 19-rebound game against Coppin State, that 24-point, 16-rebound, 7-assist game against Pitt, that monster dunk against Clemson. When Johnson was good, he was really good.

But we also saw him play eight minutes against NC State, his last game at Duke before he opted out of the rest of the season to prepare for a draft five months away.

Hence the question marks.

But Ekstrand says that Johnson still checks a lot of boxes for an NBA team.

“What every team seems to have a thirst for these days is a guy in that 6-8, 6-9 range who can score and once he scores draws defensive attention, help defense, basically. If he’s in that mold, if he improves his outside shooting, he’s a guy who’s going to draw more than one defender. The whole NBA game now is, if you can get one of those big ball-handling/play-making types, if they can make plays for other people instead of just scoring themselves, that’s what everybody’s looking for.”

Ekstrand says that shooting and decision-making will decide Johnson’s future.

Ekstrand mentions Australian Josh Giddy, Turk Alperen Sengun and Stanford’s Ziare Williams as players with comparable size and skill sets. If we see them go early Thursday, before Johnson, then Johnson’s stock might be slipping.

Ekstrand also mentions the likelihood of trades in the teens, suggesting that Johnson easily could land with a team no one is even thinking about now.

“A lot of those picks are being shopped.”

The expression “high-risk, high-reward” has been used a lot to describe Johnson’s prospects.

But Johnson was one of the first 15 players invited to sit in the green room; five were added later. That suggests some level of confidence that he has successfully addressed those character concerns.