On Monday night, Jalen Johnson opted out of the remainder of the 2020-21 season, ending a tumultuous campaign for the freshman forward. The five-star recruit started the season with a bang, putting up 19 points and 19 rebounds in the Blue Devils’ season opener, but quickly ran into some issues with replicating that high-level performance. The Milwaukee native missed three games due to a foot injury between December and January and even after returning has seen his playing time decrease in recent contests, including playing just eight minutes Saturday against N.C. State.
Four of The Chronicle’s men’s basketball beat writers, Evan Kolin, Jake Piazza, Max Rego and Derek Saul, sat down to break down what this news means for Johnson and Duke’s future.
Derek Saul: So, guys, what the hell just happened?
Evan Kolin: You could sense something was brewing here. While Stadium’s Jeff Goodman didn’t exactly provide substantial evidence to support his notions in late December and early January that there was stuff going on behind the scenes between Johnson and Duke’s coaching staff, something like that rarely gets said out of the blue. The official Duke release attributed the opt out to Johnson’s foot injury, and there’s still no overwhelming evidence to prove the contrary, but like Goodman I definitely suspect there’s a little more to the story.
Jake Piazza: This announcement really could not have come at a worse time from an optics perspective. To opt out of the season with six regular season games left right after playing the second-lowest amount of minutes you have all season raises some serious questions that need answering. I’m not ready to deliver any bold takes on this considering there is still a lot we don’t know, but at this point it’s hard to think of an explanation that makes this decision seem any less controversial.
Max Rego: Johnson had been seeing a decline in minutes over the last two games, but at this point of the season opting out is a surprising turn of events and not an ideal look for Johnson and the program. However, I tend to support players taking matters regarding their future into their own hands and we honestly don’t know all the details behind this decision. I’m definitely interested in how Johnson’s teammates reacted, whether we get a full picture of that or not.
DS: Another really interesting consequence of this situation is if it impacts Duke’s courting of Patrick Baldwin Jr. at all. The No. 4 recruit in the Class of 2021 played AAU with Johnson and is a close friend of his. Let’s rewind to when The Chronicle spoke with Baldwin in July, and what he had to say about the impact Johnson will have on him potentially coming to Duke.
“His experience is going to have a huge impact on my decision, just kind of hearing what he has to say about actually being in the program,” Baldwin said. “So I know he's said great things before he's gotten there, and just seeing what he'll say when he's in the program, how he's liking school, how he's liking campus, how he's liking the people that are there, how he likes his teammates and all that type of stuff. So just him being in my ear and having a first-hand experience from him will be very key to me. Because obviously, I take his opinions very seriously.”
EK: Perhaps the biggest long-term impact of this is the effect it’ll have on Baldwin’s decision, the importance of which cannot be understated—his addition to next year’s squad would turn the Blue Devils into national title favorites. The No. 4 recruit hasn’t cut his list since announcing a top 10 last May, but his recruitment has long been assumed to be between Duke and Wisconsin-Milwaukee, where his father coaches. Baldwin recently hinted that his decision is 75% made, and it’s quite possible that decision is leaning in favor of the Panthers.
MR: Regarding Johnson’s fit on this year’s team, it never seemed like he had a fully carved-out role within the offense, though there was no denying his versatility and open-court effectiveness. Duke only has six games left on the regular-season calendar, so it will have to get used to life without arguably its most talented player in a hurry.
JP: You make a great point Max. There’s no denying the sheer talent of Johnson, who’s likely going to hear his name called in the first round of the NBA Draft this year. However, I’m wondering if this decision specifically will have any serious impact on his draft stock.
DS: At this point, we don’t exactly know the full reasoning behind Johnson’s decision, but I had floated out the idea of Johnson opting out to focus on preparing for the pros to my dad a couple weeks ago. It has been apparent for a long time now that Johnson and Duke’s priorities did not align. I’m also really curious to see how Johnson’s decision will impact his draft stock, as it is definitely possible to look at Johnson’s incessant school-switching—he played for three different high schools as well—as a knock on his character. But overall, I think Johnson’s physical gifts will still guide him to be a lottery selection come draft day.
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JP: I get that Johnson’s decision is big news now and will be for a while, but we’ve still got a season to play. In all honesty, I don’t think this hurts Duke all that much. The Blue Devils sit at 8-8 and actually won all three games Johnson missed. This wouldn’t be the first time that an uber-talented player just didn’t click with a team, so I think it’s time to buckle up and watch Matthew Hurt, Mark Williams and DJ Steward attempt to push this team into the NCAA tournament.