One of the biggest stories of the first two weeks of the NBA season has been the breakout of 21-year-old Jalen Johnson of the Atlanta Hawks.
One of the biggest revelations of the NBA season so far has been the emergence of Jalen Johnson for the Atlanta Hawks. While Hawks fans have been clamoring about the potential of Johnson and for him to get more minutes for the last two years, he is getting those minutes so far this season and is making the most of it.
So far this season, Johnson is averaging 13.2 points, 7.8 rebounds, two assists, 1.2 steals, and 0.8 blocks per game while shooting 62.2 percent from the field and 33.3 percent from 3-point range. He’s been a menace in transition so far this season, and already has several highlight-reel dunks.
Johnson has a unique skill set with great athleticism and play-making to go along with good size and defensive potential. He can be a true difference-maker for this Hawks team that is trying to re-create the magic of their 2021 playoff run.
You also have to remember that this isn’t completely out of nowhere. Johnson was a five-star prospect out of High School who went to Duke with a lot of one-and-done lottery hype. However, he played just 13 games at Duke before opting out for the rest of the season (while also dealing with injuries), which hurt his draft stock. The Hawks took a chance on the former top prospect though and drafted him No. 20 overall in the 2021 NBA Draft.
For the last two years, there has been a ton of hype surrounding the now 21-year-old forward, but for his first two NBA seasons, it was mainly just that…hype (with a few flashes of his potential, but nothing really consistent). One of the biggest complaints from the Hawks fanbase towards previous head coach Nate McMillan was a lack of devoted playing time for youngsters such as Johnson.
In his rookie year in 2021/22, Johnson appeared in just 22 games (playing 120 total minutes) while averaging 2.4 points and 1.2 rebounds per game on 53.7 percent shooting. Last season, playing time ticked up, but it was still a bit of a learning curve as Johnson averaged 5.6 points, 4 rebounds, and 1.2 assists per game on 49.1 percent shooting while playing 14.9 minutes per game across 70 appearances (more on that later).
Hawks fans were beating the drum for Johnson to get a lot more run this season, and flashes started to show in the preseason. Then, through the first five games of the year, the breakout seems to be happening. Johnson is now playing 28.4 minutes per game, has appeared in all five of the Hawks games so far, and has even started two of them.
On top of the quality per game numbers, Johnson has been consistent through the first five games, with no real off-night. In game one, he put up 21 points and seven rebounds on 9-of-13 shooting. Then in game two, he had 11 points and nine rebounds of 5-of-8 shooting. In game three, it was 14 points and seven rebounds on 6-of-10 shooting. Then against Minnesota, he had 12 points, five rebounds, and three assists on 5-of-7 shooting. Then against the Wizards, Johnson put up eight points, 11 rebounds, and two assists on 3-of-7 shooting (his worst night of the year scoring-wise, but he tied his career-high in rebounds).
The Jalen Johnson effect
The Hawks are also 2-0 this season when Jalen Johnson has started. He’s been splitting starting duties at the power forward position for the Hawks with Saddiq Bey. Up to this point, it appears to be matchup-based. Johnson started against the Bucks and Timberwolves, both teams with big starting fives (Giannis-Brook Lopez and Towns-Gobert starting at the 4 and the 5 respectively). Meanwhile, Bey has started against smaller teams (such as the Wizards).
While being in and out of the starting lineup (if it continues) might be frustrating for Johnson/Hawks fans, he’s still likely going to play a lot even if he doesn’t start. In fact, he’s still averaging over 27 minutes per game in the three games he’s come off the bench this season.
Johnson began to show flashes of what he’s capable of last season when he averaged 5.6 points and four rebounds. He really began to take off however once Quin Snyder took over, averaging 7.8 points, 4.8 rebounds, and 2.4 assists per game on 52.4 percent shooting after Snyder took over.
Johnson has continued that development this season as well. Snyder is a known strong developer, largely credited with playing a big part in the developments of Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert in Utah. Johnson also seems to be thriving in Snyder’s system, one that has had a heavy emphasis on aggressive defense and a newly revamped offense.
With Johnson’s athleticism and playmaking, he seems like a perfect player to play alongside playmakers Trae Young and Dejounte Murray, shooters in Bogdan Bogdanovic and Saddiq Bey, and lob-happy big men Clint Capela and Onyeka Okongwu. He’s thriving so far this year alongside those players and within Snyder’s system with his unique skill set for a player that’s 6-foot-8.
Speaking of that, Johnson also features in numerous of the Hawks’ best lineups.
Two of the Hawks’ best foursomes (Johnson, Bey, and Okongwu paired with Bogdanovic and then Young) have positive NET Ratings of +29.1 and +24.8 respectively across over 30 minutes each.
That trio of Johnson, Bey, and Okongwu have a +47.3 NET rating across 46 minutes together this season. Johnson is also a part of two other very productive trios. Johnson-Okongwu-Murray has a +55 NET across 37 minutes this year, and then Johnson-Bey-Murray has a whopping +95.3 NET across 22 minutes this season.
Of the Hawks’ nine best two-man lineups this year (with at least 50 minutes played together this season), four of them feature Jalen Johnson:
- Johnson-Bey=+44.9 (best pairing)
- Johnson-Okongwu=+26.6 (3rd best)
- Johnson-Murray=+23.0 (6th best)
- Johnson-Bogdanovic=+14.7 (9th best)
Johnson also has a +10.7 NET when paired with Young and a +7.2 NET when on the court together with De’Andre Hunter.
Overall, seven of the Hawks’ top 11 three-man lineups feature Johnson, and nine of the team’s top 12 four-man lineups feature Johnson.
A key improvement that Johnson will have to make is on his 3-point shot consistency. Johnson shot just 28.2 percent on 117 attempts from deep. He’s been better this season (4-of-12), and it is not a major key to his game, but it is an area of potential improvement.
While you have to remember that we’re just five games into an 82-game season, it’s hard to ignore Johnson looking like a Most Improved Player Award candidate and a burgeoning breakout player. While we’ll have to wait and see whether he’ll keep up his level of play, Johnson has been one of the NBA’s best stories of the first two weeks of the NBA season.