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Sympathy For a BlueDevil

Intro

“Dude, he is the next Ben Simmons, you don’t know what you are talking about”

“Oh, he a bust”

Those seem to be the Yin and Yang reactions to Jalen Johnson. Johnson’s year at Duke was full of ups and down, until he finally quit the team and was blasted by all the Hot Take artists as a quitter. While I, as the great T.J. Levin, hate quitters, I would give the kid a break. It’s been a weird few years, nobody is coping with them perfectly. Let’s be fair and focus more on his game, than pretending to be a fusion of Adler, Freud and Lacan, and not knowing Ego from Id.

Defensive Metrics

Jalen Johnson posted a DBPM of 4.2, a defensive rebounding percentage of 25.2, steal rate of 3 and block rate of 6. Freshman drafted in the first round of the NBA draft who posted similar numbers:

Much like Johnson’s career at Duke, a very up and down list. There are some guys who are capable or even good defenders, such as the perpetually injured Jonathan Isaac or the perpetually horny Tristan Thompson. But there are also flat out busts like Noah Vonleh and Terrence Jones. Even with his weird and inconsistent year, Johnson posted the best all round numbers. From game to game, you would get a very Ying Yang effect with Johnson. Sometimes it was stellar order with him at center, leaving you jaw dropping, and other times it was pure chaos, with him as the black hole that drags his team’s success down to the densest, blackest abyss. The 3% steal rate is really impressive for a player projected as a 4 or a small ball five, as is the defensive rebounding percentage. If the inconsistencies iron out, there is a monster defender in Johnson.

Will the he be able to space the Floor?

He posted a FT% of 64 a free throw rate of 35, His three-point percentage of 44, taking around 3.7 per 100, and usage was a very healthy 28. Freshmen drafted in the first round who posted similar numbers, and are also of similar size.

Marcus Morris is a career 38% three-point shooter, on a good 7.6 attempts per 100 possessions and shot over 40% his last two seasons in the league. Kevon Looney hasn’t turned into a good floor spacer in the NBA. So far in his career his at a 17% from 3, on a meager volume of 0.6 per 100 possessions. TJ Warren got a lot better, just like Morris. He is a career 35.7 3-point shooter, on a volume of 3.7 per 100 possessions, the same number Johnson posted while at Duke. But TJ Warren was also a 40%+ his last two seasons, with 5.5 attempts per 100 possessions.

So, two out of three guys who posted similar numbers in their freshman year turned themselves into useable floor spacers. Johnson was the second-best free throw shooter in the group, and also had by far the biggest volume of 3s taken. I’m on the optimist side, hoping for a 35, 36 percent from three on a slightly below average volume for Johnson.

Creation for Others

There are not a lot of players who put up these sorts of passing numbers and are over 6-8. While most of his creation comes in the transition, Johnson still has quite the intriguing vision for a player of his size and athleticism. He posted an assist to turnover rate of 0.88, and assist percentage of 20 on an usage of 28%. Here are some numbers by NBA players when they were freshmen:

People really like comparing Johnson to Simmons, but Simmons was just better at the same age. Not just as a playmaker, but all round. The most important difference between them was consistency. You knew what you got from Simmons every night, even if he didn’t really care much about his college career. So far in his career SloMo peaked with close to 4 assists per game. Blake had a few seasons over 5 assists per game, could have peaked even higher if he didn’t share his prime with a masterful point guard like Chris Paul. Monroe and Jackson are around 3, 4 assists per game guys at their creative peak.

If we look at the last 3, Johnson seems more advance than all of them at the same age. While I don’t think Johnson will ever reach Simmons’ ability as a primary ball handler, there is a reality where he creeps up to Blakes 5 assists per game, but the realistic outcome is probably 3 or 4 assists per game, mostly generated by attempting to go coast to coast after a defensive rebound.

Self-creation

Jalen Johnson posted a usage of 28.6%, free throw rate of 35, offensive rebound percentage 8.6-, and 2-point percentage of 54%. Here are NBA players’ freshman seasons with similar numbers:

Again, the Simmons comparisons fall flat, Ben was better, and his free throw rate was more than double that of Johnson. Out of this list of players, he is closest to Harkless, who is like 30 pounds lighter. It does worry me that someone with his size, power and athleticisms, puts up numbers of a skinny combo forward. Apart from Jackson and Simmons, the rest of this group of players barely peaked at 10 points per game. Even if his jumper falls in the NBA, and he plays in a team that is really up tempo, Its hard for me to see Johnson as anything more than a 15, 16 points per game player at his peak.

Summary

When you see Jalen Johnson, you want him to be a Ben Simmons with a jumper, but its really hard to make the case for that as a realistic outcome. There is perhaps a 5% chance that he turns into a 20 10 5 power forward or small ball 5, who is also very good and switchable on the defensive end. To quote every uncreative youtuber out there, Me, personally, I see him more as a potential starter a versatile 4 or small ball 5, who could have a long career. Still him sliding all the way down below 25, as he has on some mock drafts seems overkill. There is still a lot of potential there, even if one is very pessimistic about all of it fusing into an incredible NBA player.

Johnson and his Highest Outcomes per 40
Advanced Stats Doublegangers

The future is somewhere in between.

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