Jalen Johnson is one of the most peculiar top recruits in Duke men's basketball history.
Not since 2008 has a Blue Devil recruiting class been led by someone with a lower ranking on the ESPN100 than Johnson at No. 13. But rankings never tell the full story, and that couldn’t be more true for Duke’s top newcomer, who committed to the Blue Devils in July 2019 as the country's No. 4 overall recruit.
His nine-spot fall can be explained quite easily—injuries and eligibility issues led to a final high school campaign in which he played just nine total games. Nevertheless, it still seems as if the do-it-all point forward hasn’t received the talk most of Duke’s top recruits receive, and perhaps the talk he deserves.
“I think [Johnson] is underrated,” assistant coach Chris Carrawell said Nov. 17. “Not playing, though, most of the year last year—you could tell. When you don’t play, or you play partially, it hurts you. And then with everything going on with the pandemic, I think it set him back. So now you come in, and it's go time, and so I think he had to get ready.
“He's been putting in extra work every day. He's running extra after practice, he's getting extra shots in, his conditioning has improved. So I think he's starting to hit his stride. Now, he still has a learning curve, just learning the college game. But man, with that talent, and if he can continue to grow, he's gonna continue to take off.”
Road to Durham
Johnson’s path to Duke was anything but smooth.
The Milwaukee native played for Sun Prairie his first two years of high school, earning all-state distinction both years and leading the Cardinals to the Division 1 state semifinals his sophomore season.
He then transferred 80 miles east to Nicolet High School for his junior campaign. There, Johnson won Wisconsin Player of the Year honors and led Nicolet to both the Division 2 state championship and the No. 8 spot in USA Today’s national rankings.
Four months after the state title game, in July 2019, Johnson committed to Duke and took home first-team honors at the prestigious Nike EYBL youth circuit within a two-week time span.
But then, just before his senior year, he moved high schools yet again, this time taking his talents to prep sports powerhouse IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla.
“The main reason we did this is because we want Jalen prepared for when he goes to Duke,” his father Rod told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel at the time. “Every day he'll go to school, work on his game and be around like-minded people who are playing at a high level just like he is.”
Get Overtime, all Duke athletics
Signup for our editorially curated, weekly newsletter. Cancel at any time.
The move initially seemed harmless, but it marked the beginning of a tumultuous senior campaign that saw Johnson's recruiting ranking plummet and his status as one of the Class of 2020’s top players vanish.
Johnson never played a game for IMG Academy. An early injury caused him to miss the beginning of the season, and then in January he left the school for undisclosed reasons, enrolling back at Nicolet. It wasn’t initially certain whether he’d be granted eligibility to suit up for his old high school on the court, but he eventually played nine games starting in February, averaging 24.6 points, 10.9 rebounds and 4.8 assists per contest.
By then, however, the emotional roller coaster had already left its toll on the star forward.
“I'm not gonna get too much into that senior campaign,” Johnson said Nov. 18. “It was definitely something that was unexpected. The injury that came about caused a lot of emotions with me, and personally I’ve grown through that. So it was definitely a rough senior campaign, but I'm just looking forward to starting fresh this year.”
As for his fall in the rankings, Johnson says he’ll let his and his team’s performance on the court this season do the talking.
“I think the biggest goal, and the biggest way to silence those critics, is just winning,” Johnson said. “When you win, people can't say much. So that's my main goal. I'm not really focused about those rankings—rankings are in the past. I'm just focused on chasing a sixth title.”
Teams usually take on the identity of their stars, and that mantra certainly holds true for Duke this season.
Almost every player or coach who’s hopped on a press conference over the past few months has mentioned “versatile,” “athletic” or “fast” in reference to this year’s squad, and it all starts with Johnson.
That last word is perhaps the most important. The Blue Devils have ranked in the top 20 in KenPom’s adjusted tempo metric just three times since 2002, the year the website debuted. But this year, expect some Showtime in Durham, with Johnson in the driver’s seat.
"We have a lot of athletic guys on our team," sophomore forward Matthew Hurt said Oct. 20. "And just showing what they're capable of in transition is very special…. Jalen out in transition—very special, very special.”
Johnson has a plethora of traits that make him so lethal in the open floor.
For one, he’s a 6-foot-9, 220-pound forward with the quickness and agility of a guard, skills he remembers his father—who played college basketball at Wisconsin-Milwaukee and Southeast Missouri State before playing two years professionally in Poland—instilling into him and his brother at an early age.
“My dad always tells people he was stuck in the post as a 6-foot-6 big man, and that's something he didn't want for his kids,” Johnson, who recalls hitting his growth spurt during his 10th grade summer, said. “I remember our first basketball drill—full-court ball handling. So just being able to have those guard skills was something he always preached on. He didn’t want us being stuck in the post at 6-foot-8, or however tall we ended up being.”
Where Johnson truly stands out, however, is with his passing.
“[Johnson's] passing ability—I haven’t seen too many guys, and I’ve been around obviously, been here at Duke and seen some pretty good players…. He can really, really find teammates and he loves doing it,” associate head coach Nate James said Nov. 12.
One room for improvement in Johnson’s game, and the team as a whole, is in the half court. Associate head coach Jon Scheyer said Oct. 23 that Johnson was still trying to find his “go-to’s” on offense, particularly in those half-court sets.
But it’s been nearly a month since then, and Johnson says he’s more than prepared to produce on the offensive end even when the team isn’t running.
“'I’ve always had some half-court stuff,” Johnson said. “Just being able to have the confidence to use it…. Sometimes I just need to have the confidence to be able to just trust my gut and trust my instincts, sometimes more than I usually do."
‘Duke has always been Duke’
Possibly the biggest reason for Blue Devil fans to get excited about Johnson’s arrival is his mindset going into the season.
Johnson spent much of his preseason press conference talking about how special Duke basketball is to him, and how excited he is “to put on that jersey for the first time.”
“I've grown up watching college basketball and Duke has always been Duke,” Johnson said. “You just see all the players they've had in the past. Duke’s always set itself apart from every other school as far as me just growing up watching college basketball.”
Something worth pointing out is that he didn’t explicitly state he was a Duke “fan” growing up, probably because he actually grew up a Kentucky fan and “hated Duke.”
But now, he prides himself on being a part of the Blue Devil program. So while he may not have the spotlight like previous top Duke recruits did, that’s simply not his focus as he gears up for the 2020-21 campaign.
“We're not coming into this for individual accolades,” Johnson said of the Blue Devils’ incoming recruiting class. “We came in this together, and everything else will take care of itself. So I think that's what separates us from other classes in the country. Just knowing everybody's talented around you and not having that ego coming in, getting rid of the egos at the door, because we all know Coach K doesn't play that.”
Editor's note: This article is one of many in The Chronicle's men's basketball season preview. Find the rest here.