Is “big guard” playmaker Jalen Johnson a 14th or even 7th pick?

Limited sample size is the crux of the issue

Preamble by Poor Man’s Commish

In our last Draft profile, we discussed the notion of Jonathan Kuminga dropping to the Golden State Warriors with the 7th pick in the 2021 NBA Draft. Related to that is the notion of Jalen Johnson moving up the mock boards.

He’s listed anywhere from 16th (although Johnson began at 7th a month ago) by Matt Babcock for BasketballNews, 12th by Jonathan Givony for DraftExpress/ESPN, and 9th by Aran Smith for NBADraft.net. Another board has Johnson as low as 29th.

Both of our Draft experts, Gabe Johnson and Dulow Twist (who has had Johnson in his Top 5 for awhile) went in-depth, so I thought it would be best to proceed in round-table fashion below.

But first, as always with LetsGoWarriors’ behind-the-scenes bent, a little character examination: On the Zoom call, my key takeaways were that Johnson said his dad made sure he had “big guard” skills and Jalen sure sounded confident about what he showed with his shooting in the workout with the Warriors that day:

Jalen Johnson numbers

Combine measurements: 6’9” (in shoes) and 210lbs, with his wingspan measured at 7’ 0”

NCAA stats (only played 13 games):

  • 11.2 PPG 6.1 RPG 2.2 APG 1.2 SPG 1.2 BPG in 21.4 minutes per game

  • 52.3 FG % on 8.4 attempts

    44.4 3P % on 1.4 attempts

    63.2 FT% on 2.9 attempts

Strengths

Gabe: “Size and versatility. Ben Simmons-esque player, tall and long. Can guard multiple positions and play multiple roles on offense. In a limited sample of games, showed flashes of switch-ability on defense. Played both point guard and forward roles within Duke offense. Has demonstrated NBA athleticism. Showed promise as a secondary play-maker, especially in transition, with a Draymond Green-like role, creating off of short rolls and grab-and-go opportunities.”

Dulow: “Has legit guard skills for a 6-foot-8 wing. Nifty ball handler and passer, nice feel for the game. Dangerous with the ball in his hands. Can handle leading a break. Projects as a strong secondary play-maker. Demonstrated ability to cut to the rim and get easy buckets. Has really nice hand-eye coordination. Attacks the glass on both ends with a 6-foot-11 wingspan. Good athlete with a strong body. When locked in, can not only protect the rim, but also deflect passes on the perimeter.”

PMC: “Johnson himself gave us his ‘ceiling comparables’ in Penny Hardaway, Magic Johnson, LeBron James and the aforementioned Simmons, in the following video…

Not being a consensus Top Three pick, as those comps were, suggests that Johnson won’t ever reach those heights, but it’s conceivable that Dray could pass the torch to Jalen in terms of future franchise play-maker. Let’s call him a Poor Man’s Ben Simmons who can shoot better than Ben (caveat: not a tremendous hurdle to say that).

Honestly, in this context, Johnson could be an enticing pick. As I have said with many an athletic wing, I don’t buy the notion that athletes without proven skills “can’t contribute to a win-now franchise”. Again, all Johnson would have to do is not make dumb fouls, rebound, run the break, not fall in love with taking jumpers or threes, and finish said breaks. Ergo, imo he for sure can contribute. Whether his ceiling is real and how far he can reach it, in comparison to other possible picks, that is the question.”

Weaknesses

Gabe: “Limited sample of NCAA games, as he only played 13 games and Duke had really bad spacing on their team for him to navigate. I won’t read too much into his decision to shut it down, but it limited his ability to show improvements over the year.

There are question marks with his shooting. You might look at his 3PP at Duke and say, why is this an area of concern? Yes, 44% would appear to indicate ‘elite’ level, but his volume of 3PAs is very low, averaging just 1.4 threes attempted per game. If you watch him play, he is not looking to take threes and only reluctantly doing so in the flow of the offense. The free throw percentage, often seen by experts as the primary indicator of translating to NBA shooting percentages, of 63% is concerning.

In the modern NBA, players who won’t shoot are treated as if they can’t shoot, which can damage floor spacing. If he can shoot 35% to 40% on a higher volume of threes and look comfortable as a threat, it will open up his drive-and-kick game, and allow teams to play him with more interesting lineups.

As far as scoring in general, Johnson did not consistently take guys off the dribble and does not have a knack for scoring at any level. His first step is not elite and when he didn’t overwhelm guys with his size and length, he often got rushed and committed turnovers.”

Dulow: “Shooting is major ‘swing skill’. Jumper has good form, but is inconsistent at this point in his development and could be a liability in the half-court game. Isn't nearly as physical as his frame would indicate. Plays a finesse game on both ends. Will get manhandled by physical wings and bigs. Can be a turnover machine when attempting risky passes or just being lazy with the ball. Isn’t always engaged and effort sometimes wanes on defense.”

Fit with the Warriors

Gabe: “With consistent shooting, Johnson could play alongside Draymond in a semblance of the ‘Death Lineup’, but I am not a believer in his shot translating at a high level. Couple that with his general lack of scoring instincts and high turnover percentage, and I have a number of guys I would much rather see the Warriors pick at 7, and probably even at 14.”

Dulow: “Gives second unit a versatile, athletic back-up big wing. Fits into ‘track meet’ style of second unit and adds another ball-handler alongside Jordan Poole. Has a lot of talent, but needs to develop his skill set in probably limited minutes behind Andrew Wiggins, Green and Juan Toscano-Anderson. Immediate impact wouldn’t be significant.”

PMC: “Johnson himself gave us his ceiling comparables in Penny HardawayMagic JohnsonLeBron James and the aforementioned Simmons, in the clickable video near the top of this article.

Not being a consensus Top Three pick, as those big names were, suggests that Johnson won’t ever reach those heights, but it’s conceivable that Dray could pass the torch to Jalen in terms of future franchise play-maker. Let’s call him a Poor Man’s Ben Simmons who can shoot better than Ben (caveat: not a tremendous hurdle to say that).

In that context, Johnson could be an enticing pick especially if you consider that Green probably projects to be the first to retire out of DubNation’s trio of Hall of Famers in him, Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson — strictly in macro terms of torch-bearers.

As I have said with many an athletic wing, I don’t buy the notion that athletes with long wingspans but without proven skills ‘can’t contribute to a win-now franchise’. Again, all Johnson or any of these young wings would has to do in the 2021-22 campaign is play above-average defense, not make dumb fouls, rebound, run the break, not fall in love with taking jumpers or threes, and finish said breaks. Perhaps the 14th pick can spend most of the year in G League and get more of an opportunity if and when there are any significant injuries (knock on wood, albeit inevitable). Ergo, imo Johnson for sure can contribute this year. Whether his ceiling is real and how far he can reach it, in comparison with other possible picks, that is the question.”