Let's play America's favorite game -- the Blind Resume Game!
âCan you guess which ACC Prospect has each of the following stat lines:
Player A: 16.6 PTS, 10.2 REB, 3.2 AST, 2.0 BLK, 1.4 STL, 64.4% FG, 26.6 minutes
Player B: 7.6 PTS, 4.6 REB, 1.6 AST, 0.8 BLK, 1.0 STL, 40.5% FG, 19.6 minutes
You may have guessed that Jalen Johnson, a widely-regarded lottery pick, is Player A.
He's also Player B. The stats from Player A come from his performances against lesser competition: Coppin State, Bellarmine, Pittsburgh, Georgia Tech and Miami. Player B stats are from the five games where he's struggled against elite competition -- Michigan State, Illinois, Virginia Tech, Louisville and Clemson, all teams who have been ranked in the top-15 at some point this year.
So, what is it about Johnson that causes him to struggle against elite competition? How do those struggles dampen his otherwise high athletic potential, and what does it all mean for his draft stock?
Johnson started his season in pretty strong fashion against Coppin State, setting the bar high for himself because first impressions do matter. The name Ben Simmons came up immediately with his gazelle-like movements in transition, the rebound-and-run potential he flashed so early and the dexterity as a handler at his size.
What stood out initially from the Coppin State and Michigan State games was how he was making these plays at about 60% speed. The thought popped into my head back then: wait until he turns on the jets and blows past these guys. In ACC competition, when defenders are bigger, more athletic and not overwhelmed by Johnson, he'll up his game at high speeds.
13 of his 20 field goal attempts in transition this year have come against that group in the "lesser competition" category. What I've found is that teams who defend him well in transition, or that limit the opportunities for him to get out in transition, disrupt his rhythm. It's in the open floor where he gets going and generates his comfort level. There's a Pascal Siakam-like functionality there. Let him rebound, run and push tempo as a creator and good things can happen.
Force him to play in the half-court and things break down. Of the 15 teams in the ACC, Johnson's struggles have come against teams who are least frequently defending in transition, in particular Louisville and Virginia Tech, who are both top-40 in the country in that regard. Both Illinois and Michigan State defend in transition less than 14% of the time, numbers that would put them in the top-half of the ACC.
Synergy metrics don't necessarily back up that claim. Johnson hasn't been efficient scoring in transition (only 11-20 with 9 assists and 5 turnovers), but to me that's where he's most comfortable. When he has a runway to start his moves and a head of steam to attack defenders, Johnson is very good at knifing his way to the basket:
He has an NBA-like feel, that all the best attacking forwards do, for starting his move and last hesitation shimmy just inside the 3-point line. Freeze the defender with a move, start the gather and have enough slime with the last step to avoid contact. He won't have a ton of vertical bounce in those situations, so shot blockers flying in late can get to him. But I'm confident he's a good enough passer to negate heat-seeking missiles trying to pin him on the glass.
What I'm struggling to evaluate through ten games is whether he's a good passer because he has tremendous feel for the game and skill, or if it's because he slows himself down enough to see the plays. Johnson is not a push-tempo guy despite loving to play in the open floor. His lack of a sprint can be deceiving and continually leaves me wanting to see him go at top speed.
When the Blue Devils have an advantage on the break, Johnson needs to slow down and analyze the play, let all the other pieces get set and make the right read. I still can't tell if that's because he doesn't make the similar-quality read if he's going faster:
The numbers show there may be some credence to the idea that Johnson isn't as impactful of a passer in the half-court. His assist rate numbers are indicators: in transition, Johnson has a 24.3% assist rate. In the half-court, that plummets to 13%. Take the metrics with a grain of salt: assists are dependent on someone else making the shot.
If the correlation between Johnson's poor performances and the competition he faces truly is in their limiting him in transition, then we have to pivot to evaluating him as a half-court prospect. In those areas, Johnson and his usage at Duke is really stunning. A strong passer and ball handler, Johnson has only generated six field goal attempts for himself or his teammates as a PNR handler this year.
Why isn't he getting more time in these areas?
Speed and processing may have something to do with it. In their second game of the season against Michigan State, Coach K tried to play through the Johnson-Hurt pick-and-pop game late. Johnson would be operating with the ball in his hands but when the Spartans switched, he rarely came off with aggression to attack the switch. Instead, he'd slow down and isolate, probing the defender before wide-driving to his right and throwing something off the glass.
âJohnson is a capable handler and passer but... just prefers to play slow:
Johnson has finished only one possession out of the pick-and-roll since December 8th, according to Synergy, and the film of the one ball screen they've tabulated is more of an accidental screen where Hurt couldn't clear through fast enough than a designed, NBA-style pick-and-roll.
Moving Johnson to more of a perimeter-oriented, off-ball role has been... fine. Johnson shoots it well enough (6-13 on catch-and-shoots) that he isn't ignored when spotting up. But he doesn't attack the basket quickly when he gets kickouts or off freelance plays. He loves to gather, triple threat, eye up his man, jab step and try to go around him.
Without being a max speed player, I'm not sure plays like this work at the next level, even though they might against average college players:
It's simultaneously impressive that Johnson has the jab-and-go game in his arsenal in an impactful way and troublesome that he doesn't do quick-attack moves in the half-court.
What Johnson seems to require, and thrive in, are plays or actions where he catches the ball on the move and is able to get downhill. I'm not sure about drafting a guy in the lottery who requires open space and pre-designed movement to reliably get him a paint touch, but in the moments where Duke has gotten him the ball on the move, he looks like a more bursty, physically-imposing athlete that has real finishing potential:
Johnson has straight up not been good in isolations. The lack of great foot speed prevents him from separating. He has good turnarounds and footwork in his arsenal, but he doesn't overwhelm based on his athleticism and too often settles for jumpers, which isn't the strength of his game.
Where Duke has worked to maximize Johnson has been moving him to more of a cutter role. He's playing as a screen-and-roll 4, while Hurt is the floor spacer. He stands in the dunker's spot along the baseline for catch-and-finishes. He's been coached to cut backdoor whenever his man turns his head and loses vision. The Blue Devils are trying to manipulate ways where Johnson can get to the basket.
That's where the Ben Simmons comparison is a little more appropriate. Not as much in the lack of shooting, transcendent passing or elite defensive instincts. But when he's in the half-court, the coaching staff has to get creative with getting him on the move and as a cutter in order to maximize his scoring ability:
Johnson's ceiling is nowhere near as high as Simmons. Johnson is a good, sturdy defender, while Simmons is amongst the world's best. Simmons is a truly elite passer for his size; Johnson shows flashes but is questionable. Simmons has another gear athletically that Jalen doesn't seem to tap into. The comparisons end with the half-court manipulation and playbook necessities.
Let's appreciate what Johnson does well. He's a smart defender who is great in off-ball understanding, knows how to move on the perimeter and when to gamble. Those instincts and traits allow him to play in transition more, the area he thrives most. Yes, consistency is key, but there's a lot to work with.
Wrapped up beneath the lack of ability to play at top speed is a lottery talent. His craft, defensive impact and flashes of playmaking are rare for someone who is 6'9", 225 pounds as a teenager. He has to find that next gear.
Where would I take Johnson right now? Probably somewhere in the late-lottery, middle of the first round. That could change quickly with a strong performance against a good team. Saturday's matchup with North Carolina will be interesting since they clog the lane and are so big and physical.
Beneath all the half-court struggles at Duke is a guy who can dunk over guys and throw down posters at times. The Blue Devils don't resemble a strong group on either end, and Johnson's play is both a cause and a result of their struggles.
Perhaps no lottery prospect has more riding on the consistency, numbers and development of his jump shot. If Johnson is in the mid-30s percentage wise on a healthy volume and looks mechanically sound, it's so much easier to buy him making an offensive impact without reaching his highest potential. If the shooting is a question mark (like now, where he's at 28%), he's hard to gamble on, given the struggles when he doesn't have space to operate.
Allow me to put on my Wolf Blitzer hat for a second. This one is "too close to call".
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Adam Spinella, Head Boys Basketball Coach at Boys' Latin School (MD)