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  • Writer's pictureCarmineCoppola

How Jalen Johnson Elevates Atlanta's Aspirations

Updated: Oct 8, 2023

Ever since their unexpected run to the Eastern Conference Finals in the 2021 playoffs, the Atlanta Hawks have solidified their commitment to becoming a contending force in the league. As the Trae Young era continues to unfold in Atlanta, a bright prospect has risen in the form of Jalen Johnson, a promising forward freshly coming out of Duke. Let's delve into the Hawks' recent season, spotlighting the development of Jalen Johnson and how his emergence could significantly impact Atlanta's pursuit of success.

 

To do a concise overview of the Hawks' previous season through some statistics, Atlanta's half-court offense went from being the best in the 2021-22 season to the 15th best. In a similarly disappointing manner, their defense made modest progress, moving from the 4th worst to the 9th worst, but it fell short of the envisioned improvement needed to offset the offensive setback. Throughout much of the season, they hovered around a .500 record, epitomizing an overall average performance.


So, after what can be considered an underwhelming first season for the Murray-Young tandem, the Hawks started the off-season by finally trading John Collins. As the undersized forward's production took a noticeable downturn, reaching its lowest point since his rookie year, it became evident that his current role no longer capitalized on his finishing skills. That Collins trade creates an opportunity for Jalen Johnson to get increased playing time, potentially shaping the future for he and the Georgian team.


In what appeared to be his first true season as a professional, having only logged 120 minutes the year prior, Johnson made quite a strong impression. The 21 years-old finished the season playing 70 games at around 15 minutes per contest.


Jalen Johnson's most prominent assets lie in his extraordinary athleticism, imposing physical capabilities, and impressive dimensions. As a 6'9'' forward with a remarkable 7-foot wingspan, he possesses a rare combination of speed and agility. These exceptional attributes have already made him a significant defensive force in just his second year in the league—a profile that Atlanta had desperately been seeking. Last year, the Hawks allowed the second most shots at the rim among all teams, indicating potential weaknesses in either their point-of-attack defense or lack of intimidating rim protection, or both.


Jalen's versatility shines through as he excels at multiple positions and remains highly active on the defensive end. He's quick enough laterally to be assigned to guards --around 30% of his time on defense-- such as Lillard or Herro and definitely strong enough to successfully defend big wings in the names of Kevin Durant or Giannis Antetokounmpo.

Just look how he moves his feet and straigthens his chest to suffocate Wagner's drive. He's in the 93rd percentile as a defender in isolation.


Moreover, he ranks in the 95th percentile in block percentage at his position, an elite number that reveals all his potential on that end; a 6'9'' forward with an intimidating presence that can also defend on the perimeter. Opponents shot 4.6% worse than they're expected to when they attack him near the rim, which is quite elite for his position.

Great sequence on Giannis here. The strength and length on full display.


He has innate instincts on that end and times his jump very well. Jalen could be truly spectacular in that "roamer" role. His build hinders his ability to navigate through screens and close out effectively. Over-fouling is also a notable issue for him on that end, but that's probably it.


Furthermore, the 20th pick of the 2021 draft is a top-tier rebounder. 20.5% of the opponents' misses end up in his hands, which is better than anyone at his position. This blend of length, energy and feel makes him a perfect rebounder that relentlessly pursues the offensive board.

He's also a terrificly disruptive defender in passing lanes with his long wingspan, great motor and instincts.


In the 626 minutes that Jalen Johnson and fellow youngster Onyeka Okongwu shared the court, they outscored opponents by a promising 4.6 points every 100 possessions, primarily due to their strong defensive performance. Apart from their young age, the duo's defensive attributes complement each other perfectly, offering mobility, high basketball IQ, and shot-blocking abilities. Their combination unlocks a variety of defensive schemes, ensuring that one of them is always there to provide help and deter shots at the rim.

Here you understand how Okongwu can stay at the level of the screen to neutralize Mitchell's pull-up threat, while the low-man (Bogdanovic) does the rotation before Johnson comes in help and stuffs Allen's attempt away.


They are both fantastic rebounders and most of the lineups they share thrives off securing rebounds and crashing the offensive board. Atlanta jumped from the 15th best offensive-rebounding team to the 8th best last season.


The undersized tandem combined for 23 assists last year, hinting at the potential for even more intriguing chemistry if Jalen Johnson's skillset is better utilized. Throughout college and beyond, Johnson has showcased impressive passing ability and willingness. With his size and accuracy, he can deliver deadly passes over the defense and accross the court, make solid reads in the flow of the game and find cutters out of basic actions.


Instead of an unconfortable playmaker in John Collins, it will be Jalen Johnson making decisions and handling the short-roll. He truly has a lot of untaped potential as a roller.


The former Bluedevil can also adapt and pass the ball out of drives. He's actually entered the stage of playmaking where he manipulates the defense, eyeing on side of the court to free up a teammate on the other side. Already thinking one second ahead of the scrambling defenses.


Overall, Johnson is an impressively efficient, gutsy and versatile passer. That's his biggest difference compared to any forward previously on the Hawks roster; Johnson is capable of efficiently putting the ball on the floor, survey the court and capitalize on the momentary advantages, directly resulting in easier looks for the offense. The Hawks, lacking intuitive passing --they were last in touches per game and held the ball the longest every touch-- will benefit greatly from Johnson's ability to connect plays effectively.


Last season, the Hawks' preference for midrange shots positioned them as the second-lowest team in attempts at the rim or beyond the three-point line, which constitute the highest-rewarding scoring opportunities, accounting for 62.2% of their shot distribution. Interestingly, the introduction of Jalen Johnson led to a significant upswing in these valuable attempts. Rejuvenating their halfcourt offense might require a shift in shot selection, a transformation where Jalen's presence could be pivotal.


It's not unwarranted to think that he was underused, or even misused in the monotone and redundant Hawks offense, and to think that a better empowerement of his qualities could strongly benefit he and the team. His playstyle is reminiscent of 6'9'' Kyle Anderson, who had a remarkably impactful season in Minnesota in a somewhat similar context to Johnson's. The freshly-made Chinese was a perfect connector and did wonders for non-shooting big man Rudy Gobert despite his own shooting limitations, and there's a lot of evidences to suggest that Jalen Johnson could find similar success if Atlanta could replicate some of those schemes.


Simply put, it means giving Jalen Johnson more ball-handling responsibilities, continuing to let him push the pace or bring the ball up and actively involving him off-ball. Kyle Anderson had a 17% on-ball percentage last year, while Johnson only had approximatively a 10% percentage. Incorporating Jalen Johnson as a more prominent ball-handler might seem challenging given Atlanta's existing high-volume ball-handlers. However, this adjustment could yield substantial improvements in the overall offense, as it would not only capitalize on Johnson's abilities but also leverage overlooked qualities of some other players, like Young's shooting greatness.


Johnson has shown interesting flashes handling pick-and-rolls on the few occasions he did it, as well as some serious stuff out of handoffs/ fake handoffs like in the second clip.


Obviously, due to his young age and limited experience, Jalen is susceptible to making poor judgemental decisions and committing avoidable turnovers, often getting out-of-control. He has a relatively high turoner rate, but I remain confident about increasing his ball-handling responsibilities; with continued development and opportunities, I'm optimistic on how fast he'll grow into an effective playmaker for the team. Numbers also show that across the 17 games (albeit really small sample, but still fun to note) his usage exceeded 20%, his assist rate surged more significantly (+61%) than his turnover rate (+29%) compared to his averages.


Furthermore, Johnson's athletic gifts give him a lot of untaped upside as a scorer. He was not a great finisher last season, mainly because of his mediocre off-hand finishes and how raw he still is. On a lot of attempts around the rim, you could see that he was still gauging how strong he is or how high he can jump and that led to some unprovoked-misses. Otherwise, he can truly jump out of the room when given a runway to the rim, as highlighted by his numerous spectacular dunks in transition.


Atlanta's number one has an interesting potential as a driver with his quickness, strength and dribbling aptitudes. He's shown the ability to initiate and finish through contacts (in the 88th percentile in fouls drawn per drive) as well as punishing a few mismatches, which would be huge to unlock more offensive responsibilities.

Yes, that Johnson kid is nice.


The main concern with his offense is his unreliable jumpshot and... there aren't many promising signs of potential improvement in this area. Despite shooting it at an intriguing efficiency in college (on only a 29 attempts sample), It seems like Johnson simply lacks the necessary touch -- he shot 62% on free throws-- and clearly suffers from unfavourable dimensions for shooting proficiency. He started hard cutting from the corners to counter how the defense defended him (or didn't thereof).


His fit with Dejounte Murray is a bit intricate because of their lack of off-ball shooting -- Jalen and Dejounte shot respectively 28.7% and 32.3% on catch-and-shoots last year -- and that could drastically limit Johnson's growth in Atlanta. Nevertheless, they only shared the court for 504 minutes; more reps together, along with a better utilization of Johnson's skills as a secondary playmaker, could go a long way into easing their cohabitation. Interestingly, their most shared lineup (249 possessions) boasts a decent net rating, likely attributed to being surrounded by better spacers and their activity on the offensive glass. Both players are also huge transition-opportunities seekers.

Those back-to-back plays are a simple example of how developing into an at least respectable shooter could help him as a screener. Expecting to see more from those lineups and actions when Trae sits.


At just 21 years old, Jalen Johnson made an immediate impact on the court, showcasing his disruptive length, powerful dunks, and astute passing abilities. Few sophomores have displayed such an appealing mix of versatility and defensive prowess, an area where the Hawks have vigorously struggled since drafting Trae Young. Through a proper utilization of a truly rare and promising skillset, Quin Snyder's Hawks could tap into an unprecedented ceiling and breathe new life into their pursuit of top seeds in the Eastern Conference.

The assumptions and opinions presented in this article are solely derived from a 1042 minutes sample of Jalen Johnson's performances last year. These conclusions are my own and are based on glimpses of potential and the evident challenges the Hawks are facing in their pursuit of success. It is essential to acknowledge that these forecasts and implications may not materialize next year, the year after, or ever, but that's just how I feel about the Jalen Johnson subject.


That said, be ready for the Jalen Johnson Season in The Big Peach, folks.


Thanks for reading this article, leave your thoughts and join me on twitter @99thBasketball ! I'm excited to see more from Jalen's growth next year and how the Hawks do in the second year of the Trae-Dejounte experiment.


















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