Sometimes, to move forward, you first have to take a couple steps back.
Such is the case for Duke, which lost Jalen Johnson earlier this week. But if his absence was felt by his former teammates, they hid it excellently, burying Wake Forest with an 18-2 run in the middle of the first half en route to an 84-60 win Wednesday night.
“Our team loves Jalen. He's a brother to these guys,” head coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “Look, I'm a coach because of players. These kids should have the choice to do whatever they want. We're gonna give them our guidance, and talk to them about it. And then, I'm 100% behind them. Our guys have followed up with that to our team. Especially with the pandemic, these guys have really gotten close—they haven't been able to make friends anywhere else. So they've really developed kind of a family atmosphere. So we're all supportive of Jalen and his family.”
Johnson’s Monday decision to opt out of the season was predictably met by scorn and resounding criticism from many Duke fans and keyboard warriors alike. Words like “quitter” were thrown around, and a lot of people nowhere close to the team seemed to suggest that teammates would be offended.
Matthew Hurt made sure to dispel those notions in Wednesday’s postgame press conference.
“[Jalen]’s my guy,” Hurt said. “I know he's getting a lot of crap on social media, but he's part of us. He's never gonna leave us like that. And I feel like we're just gonna stay in communication with him, because he's a great talent, great player. He did what was best for him, and we're all proud of him, we all support him and he has a bright future ahead. So I texted him that night, and we just talked a little bit and just thanked each other for helping each other out during the year. But we're gonna miss him a lot.”
With that in mind, it was nothing short of Herculean what the Blue Devils were able to accomplish on the court Wednesday night. Granted, the Demon Deacons aren’t the toughest matchup in the world, but trouncing a conference foe just a couple days after learning one of your closest friends is leaving your bubble is an immeasurable emotional task.
The ways in which athletes perform through physical adversity are ever-plain to see—it’s the philosophical underpinning of the very concept of competitive sport, really. Athletes regularly play through injuries, and we watch with bated breath, praying they don’t collide any more violently than they need to.
The ways in which athletes have to perform through mental and emotional adversity are never clear, and almost always apathetically misunderstood. In that sense, it is all the more remarkable what the Blue Devils did Wednesday, playing some of their best basketball of the season and making numerous schematic adjustments, in spite of the weight of one of their closest friends leaving.
Yes, those schematic adjustments could’ve just as easily been made with Johnson still on the roster, whether it be making a more concerted effort to play lineups with a Johnson-Hurt-Williams frontcourt that didn’t feature Johnson going downhill as the primary action, or deciding to play funnel defense and run opposing perimeter threats off of screens with Johnson.
But sometimes you simply cannot make yourself do what’s clearly right until you’re left without any alternatives.
It is surprisingly difficult to solve a problem as simple as “how do I maximize the talent available to me.” You scheme, you experiment, you observe what works best, and the less time this process takes, the more money a college will pay you.
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It is unsurprisingly difficult to establish yourself as a mentor and parental figure to people several generations removed from you, all from different backgrounds, all with different goals, and get them to buy into your singular vision. You listen, you learn, you relate and persuade, and the less time this process takes, the more money a college will pay you.
The steepest challenge is when those objectives come into conflict, and some factor changes. Your vision isn’t quite panning out, and suddenly promises you’ve made, dreams you’ve sold, are incompatible. It can be true both that you meant everything you said, and that none of it matters nearly as much as it used to.
Resolving that feels impossible. And that’s because it is—there’s simply no way to return to the beginning, no way to rearrange how things started and how they progressed. There might be a universe in which Johnson’s 19-point, 19-rebound debut against Coppin State is simply the springboard into one of the most majestic careers of any Blue Devil, where there’s an offensive philosophy and defensive coverage that places him front and center while carving out smooth roles for everyone else in the rotation.
But this isn’t that world. Call it fate, call it karma, call it failure, call it being human. There’s nothing left to do but reminisce, and no way to deal with the inevitable questions over this predicament other than to say you valued the time you had and that you’ll wake up tomorrow knowing better than you did today.
“[Jalen], that's my main guy. He pretty much recruited me to come here—we're gonna stay in contact with each other,” Steward said. “I know he made the best decision for himself. He's getting a lot of backlash for it, but we're supporting him 100% with this, and we're looking to go forward. I know he's gonna support us as well, so it's gonna be fun.”