Column: Jalen Johnson made a decision for his future, and Duke men's basketball fans failed him

Johnson will likely be a first round pick in this year's NBA Draft.
Johnson will likely be a first round pick in this year's NBA Draft.

Duke basketball has long been the biggest brand in the collegiate game, and with that brand comes media scrutiny.

It’s been my opinion that the majority of Blue Devil fans have been a supportive bunch under the microscope of being college basketball’s Public Enemy No. 1. However, there’s only one word to describe the reaction of Duke fans to Jalen Johnson’s departure from the program: disappointing.

News broke Monday night detailing the freshman forward’s plans to opt out of the remainder of the season and prepare for the NBA Draft, an abrupt end to Johnson’s brief Duke career. Yet instead of encouraging words of support for a 19-year-old just trying to make the right decision for himself, social media and online forums turned into a toxic space where many believed it was acceptable to call out Johnson’s character and label him as a “quitter.”

The honest truth about the situation is that no one really knows the whole specifics outside of the program. So why are so many quick to judge on circumstances they don’t have a complete understanding of?

Adjusting to college basketball under the massive shadow of COVID-19 has been difficult around the country for all freshmen. It’s tough enough for these Duke players to isolate in the same Washington Duke Inn hotel room for months just for the NCAA money-machine to produce the sport. There are no screaming Cameron Crazies to show the Blue Devils love, amplifying the constant media scrutiny toward a struggling Duke team.

Add in a foot injury that held the former five-star recruit out for three games, and you have to wonder why there isn’t any sympathy for a teenager navigating a completely new world. Does it not warrant some appreciation from Duke fans that Johnson worked to return from that foot injury and risked reaggravation?

Of course it was a disappointing end to the Milwaukee native’s time in Durham, but to embrace the many one-and-done talents to wear a Duke jersey over the years, there has to be a level of understanding that their futures are at the top of the pyramid of importance. Johnson is a virtual lock to be selected in the first round of the upcoming NBA Draft, and if it isn’t in his best interest to stay with the team, then why not play it safe? This is a chance to realize a life-long dream and make millions of dollars. It’s absurd to fault a young-adult for making that choice.

For Duke fans who are usually always supportive of their one-and-done players and their intentions in Durham, their reaction to Johnson was a new low since the days of William Avery and his journey to the NBA in 1999.

Since Johnson’s 19-point, 19-rebound performance in the season opener against Coppin State, it’s been a rocky terrain for him on the season. Johnson’s talent flashed at times, but the pieces just never quite seemed to fit well around him. Playing just eight minutes against N.C. State in what would be his final collegiate game was a confusing end to another one-and-done’s career, but he is not the scapegoat for the underachieving Blue Devils.

There seem to be rumors about disagreements and tension between Johnson’s camp and the program, and one day we may understand more about the situation. Until that day, however, this is a 19-year-old making a decision on his life, and Blue Devil backers should be grateful that he ever navigated through unprecedented, difficult times to represent the university. It’s just silly to label Johnson as “quitting” on this Duke team.

If Duke fans want a silver lining, how about looking forward to more minutes and development from Mark Williams, Jaemyn Brakefield and Henry Coleman III, who should all have a positive impact on future teams.

Throwing a player out to the curb with little to no information on the background isn’t a look that the program’s supporters should want to carry and show around potential recruits, either.

Jalen Johnson’s time as a Blue Devil was disappointing, but the Cameron Crazies need to let him make his own decisions for his future and support those choices as a member of the ‘Brotherhood.’


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