Duke men's basketball 2020-21 player review: Jalen Johnson

Jalen Johnson showed flashes of greatness in his shortened 2020-21 campaign.
Jalen Johnson showed flashes of greatness in his shortened 2020-21 campaign.

As Duke men's basketball wraps up its season, the Blue Zone gives individual breakdowns of each player's season with comparisons to their preseason projections. Read the previous player breakdowns here: Mike Buckmire, Patrick Tapé, Jaemyn Brakefield, Henry Coleman III, Joey Baker, Jeremy Roach, Wendell Moore Jr., Jordan Goldwire, DJ Steward and Mark Williams.

Jalen Johnson

Season breakdown: If there exists a single word that could summarize Jalen Johnson’s career as a Blue Devil, it would have to be “anomaly.” The versatile freshman forward entered the season as Duke's lowest-ranked leading recruit since 2008 at No. 13 on the ESPN100. Despite his underrated ranking, Johnson—with his unique passing ability and guard-like agility as a 6-foot-9, 220-pound forward—was an integral part in establishing the identity of a young Blue Devil team. 

At many times, the lengthy forward was able to do just that: a double-double in his debut against Coppin State in November and an iconic poster dunk against Clemson in January both had the entire Duke fanbase in a frenzy. However, after returning from a foot injury in early 2021 and seeing his playing time reduced, the Milwaukee native shocked the college basketball world Feb. 15 with his decision to opt out of the remainder of the season in preparation for the NBA Draft. 

In his shortened season, though, Johnson shined for the Blue Devils, with not only efficient 52.3% shooting from the field, but also with identical averages of 1.2 blocks and 1.2 steals per contest. These skills were all on display in two of his best games—against Coppin State in November and Pittsburgh in January. 

Against Coppin State, Johnson put up a double-double with 19 points on 8-of-8 shooting while grabbing 19 rebounds. He was able to distribute the ball as well, adding five assists and even blocking four shots. Similarly, the forward had another double-double performance against the Panthers in January, recording season-highs with 24 points on 8-of-15 shooting and seven assists. Defensively, he totaled 16 rebounds, four blocks and two steals, utilizing his length and athleticism to lock down defenders and dominate the boards.

Yet for as much talent as he showed in the open-court for the Blue Devils, Johnson was often prone to inconsistency and questionable decision-making. In the same game against Coppin State, the forward had seven turnovers, and in a tight loss to Louisville in January, he had six costly giveaways. Furthermore, in his 13 games for Duke, Johnson recorded just six double-digit scoring efforts, often fluctuating between high-scoring games and low-scoring ones. In a strange finish to his Duke career against N.C. State, Johnson played only eight minutes and recorded just three points, all of which came at the line. 

In essence, the season was full of question marks for Johnson and, while he did show flashes of high upside, they were juxtaposed against inconsistency and injuries.

Results relative to expectations: Johnson's stat line aligned very well with the Blue Zone's predictions, but no one could have predicted back in the fall that the newcomer would end up opting out of the season early. Yet with many quick to call the forward a “quitter” and scapegoat him for the team's lackluster season, it would be unfair to point the finger at the freshman. 

Even in the face of COVID-19 and the challenges that come with playing in empty stadiums and abiding by health and safety protocols, Johnson was able to post solid numbers as a freshman this season. Add in the fact that he sustained a foot injury mid-season, and it becomes clear that the future pro never quit on the Blue Devils. In the end, there is life after Duke, and the 19-year-old decided on a path that best aligned with his dreams. Why criticize him for playing it safe?   

In short, it is without a doubt that Johnson is of professional caliber as a true two-way player. Throughout the season, Johnson demonstrated an offensive skill set uncommon at his position and displayed an eagerness to challenge each shot and embrace contact, all of which serve as a testament to the projected first rounder's game. While his decision to opt out early will certainly leave Duke fans wondering "what if" for years to come, we will definitely be hearing more of him as he follows the path of other Duke one-and-done players to the NBA. 


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