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By Thomas Gessner
The NBA draft is less than one week away and unlike recent years, there are significantly less big names from North Carolina colleges that NBA teams will draft, and commissioner Adam Silver will be announcing those names far later than the top picks.
Since 2010, there has been at least one North Carolina college player selected in the lottery of nine drafts, and of those nine drafts, seven were years with a North Carolina college basketball player selected in the top five. 2021 is not one of those years. While the 2021 NBA draft is still yet to come, it is unlikely that any player from an NC school will be taken so high, and that stems from a lack of talent and success not shown in decades appearing this past season. Only two teams from the state of North Carolina qualified for the NCAA tournament last spring, those being UNC Chapel Hill (8) and UNC Greensboro (13), and neither team made it out of the first round. By comparison: in 2015, Duke won the National Championship and four NC teams made the tournament; the next year four teams made the tournament and UNC made it to the championship game; in 2017 only three teams reached the tournament but UNC won it all; 2018 a huge five teams made it to March Madness; and in 2019, only Duke and UNC got in to the NCAA tournament, but both schools did so as one seeds. It is also no coincidence that the drafts following these tournament appearances each had a North Carolina player drafted in the top five. Unfortunately, that pedigree and reputation is not going to be present much during this year’s draft, but that does not mean that there are no players from North Carolina schools who may make an impact on the draft, and potentially an impact on the NBA. Jalen Johnson, a nineteen year old prospect from Duke, is one of those players.
Jalen Johnson contains the most overt potential out of North Carolina college players in the NBA draft. He is a wing standing at six-foot-nine in basketball shoes and at the forefront of his game is his excellent athleticism. He is fast, has great lower body strength for his position, can leap high, granting him the ability to occasionally play above the rim, and he can work by defenders with his speed and momentum to finish at the basket. His athletic talents, along with the rest of his skills, are most noticeable in the full court. Johnson excels in transition, partially because of his movement vertically and horizontally, but also because of his most valuable talent which should not go unnoticed: His playmaking chops. Even though he only averaged 2.2 assists on 2.5 turnovers, he can accurately pass the ball in transition, beat double teams through finding the open man, and get looks to cutters and perimeter shooters.
Though he is a skilled passer, he was not always careful with the ball as seen in his turnover stats. At Duke he would sometimes attempt passes that he was not at the level to accurately make. This would often result in easy steals and 50/50 balls for the other team. When it comes to creating for himself, Johnson lacks a good jumpshot, and did not show off the dribble shot creation in his limited time in college. His shooting stats are impressive, especially 44.4 percent from deep, until it becomes noticeable that he accomplished that percentage on a measly eighteen three point attempts in thirteen games; not exactly high volume, and when watching these attempts, they almost all come from catch and shoot opportunities. This is not necessarily alarming, but his free throw percentage and shooting mechanics reveal that it will likely take time for him to develop a better shot, if that even happens.
Free throw percentage has become an increasingly better indicator of shooting potential for scouts and analysts over the years because it showcases a player’s rhythm and mechanics in a controlled environment, whereas analyzing just three point percentage regardless of other factors can be muddling in what it reveals. In the case of Johnson, 63 percent from the free throw line concerning, and that number lines up better with his mechanical jumpshot and his attempts outside of the paint more than true shooting and three point percentage.
Johnson’s offensive game shares some similarities and comparison to Sixers point guard Ben Simmons or even high-flying multi-position Bucks legend Marques Johnson, with the main comps being the finishing at the rim, athleticism, vertical capability, and playmaking. Like Simmons, Johnson’s physique and I.Q. grants him the potential to become a good professional defender, and he was serviceable in his time at Duke, but at times would have lapses in judgement or fall prey to ball-watching, losing track of his position and man, or not putting in great effort on one-on-one possessions. His defensive ceiling is high regardless of some of his lesser moments at Duke , and he could break out on that end of the court similar to Simmons or Lonzo Ball, but right now his offensive game is more present.
Now, as annoying as it may be to discuss, Jalen Johnson’s “character issues” must be talked about. Analysts and scouts have noted then criticized Johnson for leaving elite programs twice, once in high school, when he left IMG academy his senior year, then once in college, when he stopped playing for Duke University after thirteen games. The important part of all of this is that Johnson is a teenager, and made those decisions as a teenager. Should he be judged so harshly for what he did when his mind is still developing, and he is still gaining life experience? A question like that might be too big for a draft discussion.
Jalen Johnson might be the most high-profile pick coming from a North Carolina college, but he is not alone in the draft. Next week, I will be covering Tar Heel big man Day’ron Sharpe, focusing on how he can fit into the present league, and after the draft, I will discuss the fit for these two players on their new teams, if there were any surprises with where they were drafted, and how they might improve during next season.
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