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Why Jalen Johnson could be the missing piece to the Spurs’ young core

The 19 year old freshman out of Duke may be one of the most disputed prospects in this years draft class, but in a summer where the Spurs have a fresh slate, Jalen Johnson could be their home run pick at #12.

NCAA Basketball: Duke at Miami-Florida Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

The San Antonio Spurs will have the 12th pick in this years NBA draft. This is the first time in franchise history that the Spurs have had consecutive lottery picks, having selected G/F Devin Vassell with the 11th pick in the 2020 draft. The Spurs enter this summer following a 33-39 season which registered 10th best in the Western Conference. This was good enough for the play-in tournament, which the Spurs ended up losing to the Memphis Grizzlies.

They come into the summer with a chance to have a proper reset of the franchise as they have $50+ million in cap space to spend while also having the four players on the roster who were in their 30’s out of contract. San Antonio will now have one of the youngest teams in the NBA with another chance in this years draft to take a home run swing on a prospect for the future. The DeMar DeRozan-led Spurs were too good for a high draft pick, and this means the Spurs who have the 12th pick will not get a chance at one of the top prospect unless they trade up. The front office may feel as if this is the best time as ever to take a risk, and even if they are unable to trade up, they may choose to pick a prospect with a high ceiling even though there’s a chance he flames out.

Enter Jalen Johnson. The 19 year old forward out of Duke is one of the most disputed and controversial prospects in this years draft class. The split opinions from draft analysts, front office personnel and scouts have led to him ranging anywhere from a high lottery pick to one that would be selected in the 20’s in mock drafts. Johnson was a 5 star recruit out of Wisconsin. He transferred four different times during his high school years, including attending the IMG Academy in Florida before shortly later returning back to his home state.

He was the number 13 overall recruit in his class and had offers to play D1 college ball all over the country. On the 4th of July 2019, Johnson committed to Duke University and had a brief college career, playing just 13 games before deciding to forgo the rest of the season and focus on the upcoming NBA draft, risk free of injury. The four transfers in high school and the decision to only play a part of the college season has led to some talk about his character and attitude, although this could be overhyped and not necessarily indicative of the type of person or player that Johnson is. Over the past few years we have seen more and more players decide to sit out of college games or transfer schools in order to put themselves in the best situation possible before they enter the NBA.

Below are his stats from his 13 games at Duke:


  • Size

Measuring in at 6 foot 9 inches in shoes while weighing 220 pounds, Johnson’s size is a huge reason as to why he is high up in the draft class. His size should translate to him being a great NBA rebounder and a driving threat to the basket. He also does a great job at recognizing his size advantage on most players and plays with great explosiveness and physicality.

  • Transition Game

Not only does he have the size to play in the NBA, but he has the rare combination of size and speed. This will make him a threat in transition with or without the ball. His athleticism combined with that size and speed could mean he will have a few highlight plays in his career, especially when he gets going in transition.

  • Playmaking

One of the most impressive parts of Johnson’s film tape is his playmaking and understanding of the game. He reads the defense better than most college players do and especially non-college point guards. He is able to dish in transition, from the low or high post and has even shows glimpses of being an effective playmaker in the pick and roll.

  • Rebounding

At his size, Johnson has put together some really great rebounding games. In just his 13 games for Duke, he had 7 games with over 5 rebounds, including a 16 and 19-rebound games. Early on in his NBA career, he should be able to get defensive boards and push the ball in transition, where he could pick up easy points for himself or his teammates.

  • Defensive Presence

There is a real possibility that because of the size and speed combination, Johnson could defend every position in today’s NBA. He has the body strength and athleticism to be a solid rim protector as well. He for sure is not going to be an easy beat for offensive players looking for quick points.

If you want a complete performance from where he showcased all five of the aforementioned points, then watch his highlights the game he played against Pittsburgh earlier this year.


  • Shooting

The one big worry for Johnson is his shooting, as he has shown to be a stiff and mechanical shooter who doesn’t have much fluidity to his shot. While he shot 44% from three in college, the sample size of only 18 shots is tiny, and most of those were wide open off-the-catch opportunities. Johnson also only shot 62 percent from the free throw line, which may be an indication that the 44% is an anomaly and with a bigger sample size his three-point shooting would drop astronomically.

  • Turnovers

As good as a passer as he is, he has a tendency at times to get turnover prone. Sometimes it would be him not focusing on the teammate he was passing too or trying an audacious pass when it wasn’t necessary, but turnovers were common for him in his one year at Duke — 33 in 13 games to be precise, including six games with 3 or more turnovers and only two with 0 turnovers, one being the aforementioned Pittsburgh performance.

  • Defensive Awareness

As much defensive presence as Johnson possesses, he sometimes had a tendency to get lazy or not read the opposition offensive set. This would lead to him missing back cuts, losing his man, or missing a rotation. There’s hope that the awareness part of his defensive game is more of a mindset thing, and when he comes into the NBA he will show more focus on that end of the court, as he has put forward on occasion the ability to be a really special two way player.

Final Thoughts

Jalen Johnson has the opportunity to be a really impactful player in the NBA thanks to his skill set along with the physical tools. His mindset and willingness to get better will be the thing that either holds him back or pushes him into being a great NBA player. That’s the risk and reward stakes that NBA teams will go through later this month when deciding weather or not to draft the 19-year-old freshman out of Duke.

For San Antonio in particular, they have nothing to lose. This is a summer of reset with tons of cap and roster space, and this young core is in need of a potential star. If Johnson can get his mental game right, there is a chance that he could do big things in the best basketball league in the world. Will San Antonio make a pick that has as much risk as he may have? Well we’ll find out soon enough, but Spurs fans what do you think? Should the San Antonio Spurs do something they have never shown the willingness to do and select a boom or bust prospect like Johnson with the 12th overall pick, or should they play it safe and select a prospect that has a higher floor but a lower ceiling? Let me know down below what you would do if you were general manger Brian Wright, and which prospects are you liking the look of right now as we close in on the 2021 NBA draft!