Jalen Johnson poised to breakout under Quin Snyder

NBA: APR 04 Hawks at Bulls

The Atlanta Hawks haven’t placed a player on an All-Rookie team since Trae Young in the 2018-2019 season. However, they have been incredible in the draft over the past three years, drafting Onyeka Okongwu in 2020, Jalen Johnson in 2021, and AJ Griffin in 2022. The breakout is coming for all of these players, and it’s coming very soon for Jalen Johnson.

Draft Day

Jalen Johnson certainly wasn’t drafted into a great situation. As an athletic point-forward coming out of Duke, Johnson was undoubtedly a first-round talent. However, due to an in-season injury that limited him to just 13 games and his lack of shooting, he fell out of the lottery. That’s what left him available at pick 20, an absolute steal for Atlanta.

But through the lens of a casual NBA fan, Jalen Johnson hasn’t been impressive. Averaging just 4.9 points, 3.3 rebounds, and 0.9 assists over his first two seasons, many see him as underwhelming for a 5-star recruit turned one-and-done from Duke, which couldn’t be further from the truth. 

Thank you, McMillan

Coming off an Eastern Conference Finals appearance, the expectations were high for the Hawks entering the 2021-2022 season. Lloyd Pierce had just been fired mid-season, and Nate McMillan appeared to be the answer after an incredible playoff run as interim head coach. I’ll admit, the front office had their hands tied after watching McMillan take the Hawks to their first conference finals since 2015. McMillan was hired as permanent head coach. Regardless of where you stand on McMillan, his hiring would prove to stunt the growth of Jalen Johnson significantly.

Johnson played in just twenty-two games his rookie season. For comparison, that ranked 61st in games played by rookies for the 2021-2022 season. In those twenty-two games, Johnson logged a whopping total of 120 minutes played, the same amount as Neemias Queta from the Kings (know him?). Seventy-four rookies logged more minutes than Jalen Johnson throughout the season, which is inconceivable for the 20th overall pick in the NBA draft. However, he was still effective in his minutes, averaging 17.3 points and 8.7 rebounds per 40 minutes.

McMillan has always been known to defer to veterans, but he certainly took it too far. Nate opted for Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot (52 games played) over Johnson all season. For the record: following his last season for the Hawks, TLC played in three pre-season games for the Suns the next year. He was then waived and now plays in the EuroLeague. Adding along, veteran Solomon Hill logged 19 more minutes played than Johnson over the course of the season. Though not a veteran, even Skylar Mays appeared in six more games than Johnson. McMillan accredited Johnson’s lack of minutes to the fact the team was in win-now mode. Said win-now mode netted the Hawks a 9th place finish in the East and a first-round exit to the Heat in five games.

Twice a Rookie?

With Johnson playing in the G-league and hardly touching the NBA floor during his true rookie season, you almost have to consider him a rookie for his second-year as well. Johnson showed a lot of promise this year. He has elite passing ability for a forward his size, often throwing impressive lobs off the drive and cross-court passes out of the post. Combining that with good defense, great rebounding, and game-changing athleticism is a recipe for success. 

He saw more action with McMillan gone, averaging 20.6 minutes per game in April and seeing the floor in the playoffs. In the final five games of the season, Johnson averaged 11.6 points on 56.8 percent shooting, adding on 4.8 rebounds, 3.2 assists, 1.4 blocks, and 1.8 steals. He put up 10 points, 7 rebounds, and 3 steals in just 14 minutes in the play-in game vs the Heat, the first time Hawks fans got to see him shine on a big stage.  Johnson played very well, but it was also obvious he had little experience with a few “rookie” turnovers and mistakes. 

Snyder has already shown more faith in Johnson than McMillan had, and the results on the court are undeniable. He showcased his ability to do it all, logging points, assists, rebounds, blocks, and steals in high fashion. He plays high-energy basketball every time he’s on the floor, which is invaluable over the course of an 82-game season. He will be a key piece if the Hawks want to avoid the play-in.

Going into the offseason with Snyder, I expect Johnson to develop as a three-point shooter. Shooting has already been a huge point of emphasis for Snyder, and it might be the only piece of Jalen Johnson’s game that is missing. Johnson will now have a full off-season under a respected coach, actual experience (both regular season and playoffs), and plenty of opportunity expected next year.

Hawks fans will see a different version of Jalen Johnson next season. If you don’t believe me, watch him take over this second quarter vs the Bulls. 

Photo: Melissa Tamez/Icon Sportswire

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