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The Rise of Jalen Johnson

Jalen Johnson Hawks
(AP Photo/John Bazemore)

The Atlanta Hawks selected Jalen Johnson with the 20th pick in the 2021 NBA Draft. In his rookie year, he only played about five minutes per game. The majority of those minutes came in “garbage time” in the fourth quarter or when COVID-19 ravaged the NBA landscape, and few players were available. The six-foot-nine-inch combo forward has waited three years for his chance to break out and prove he can make a difference for Atlanta in the rotation. If the first four games of the 2023-2024 season are a preview of what is to come, Johnson appears destined for long-term success in his NBA career.


The Preseason Hype

After trading John Collins this past off-season, Atlanta’s power forward spot was up for grabs, and Saddiq Bey and Johnson were the two candidates to start. Johnson jumped into action at the second preseason game at State Farm Arena against the Memphis Grizzlies. He displayed versatility, dropping 14 points with two three-pointers, three assists, three rebounds and two steals. In the first quarter, Johnson generated a steal and took the ball coast-to-coast, converting an and-one opportunity. His great vision and finishing ability are maximized when the Hawks force the opposition into live ball turnovers.

Last season, Hawks fans saw flashes of Johnson’s potential as an elite threat in transition on both ends of the court. However, some were still skeptical of his ability to bring those skills into the halfcourt setting when the game slows down. At media day on Oct. 2, I asked Johnson about improving his outside shooting to complement his rim pressure.

“That’s something I’ve been working on all off-season… I know I need to get better at it,” said Johnson confidently. 

He is already showing the results of his hard work through the first four games of the season, shooting 40% on 2.5 threes per game.


Johnson’s Spark Off the Bench

Johnson was one of the few bright spots for the Hawks in the season-opening 116-100 loss to the Charlotte Hornets. He dropped 21 points, seven rebounds, two assists, two steals and a block. Head Coach Quin Snyder encourages his players to shoot without hesitation from beyond the arc, and Johnson cashed in one of his three attempts from beyond the arc. 

The Hawks forced the Hornets into 19 turnovers- 12 of which were steals. Live ball turnovers give Johnson the best chance to utilize his strong finishing on fastbreaks. When he came in off the bench, the Hawks’ defensive intensity picked up, generating three steals on three possessions. Two of those ended in a Johnson dunk, and one came off the back of a flashy off-the-backboard pass from Trae Young.

However, as a team, Atlanta only turned those turnovers into 12 points and struggled mightily from beyond the arc (5-29), leading to a tough opening night defeat.

Against the New York Knicks, Bey started at power forward again, but Johnson outplayed him. With just over three minutes left in the first quarter, Johnson sent Hawks fans into a frenzy with an emphatic slam over seven-foot center Isaiah Hartenstein.

Throughout the first half, Johnson deflected passes and scored in transition. He finished with 11 points and nine rebounds and added a steal and a block. Bey finished with only five points. In addition, when he is not scoring, Johnson’s defense and offensive versatility provide more value for Snyder.


Johnson Gets the Call to Start

Snyder chose to insert Johnson as the starting power forward Sunday night against the Milwaukee Bucks. Giannis Antetokounmpo and Brook Lopez form a big frontcourt, and Johnson’s size was useful in keeping the Buck’s superstar from taking over. As a result, Atlanta dominated the title-contending Bucks 127-110, holding Damian Lillard to just six points.

Johnson made two of three shots from beyond the arc, finishing with 14 points, seven boards, and two steals. Before the season, Hawks fans questioned if a Johnson and Clint Capela frontcourt could provide enough spacing. If Johnson keeps shooting from the outside like this, it should provide plenty of space for Young and Dejounte Murray to operate.

At the end of the first quarter, Johnson hustled back on defense after an Atlanta turnover and chased down MarJon Beachamp’s dunk attempt. The referees initially called a foul on Johnson, but Snyder used his challenge aggressively, as Johnson knew he had a clean block. The Hawks forced Milwaukee into 23 turnovers, converting those into 22 points, leading to a comfortable victory.


Hawks Shock the Wolves

On Monday, Oct. 30, against the Minnesota Timberwolves, Johnson started and guarded Karl-Anthony Towns. He had some trouble keeping Towns from backing him down in the paint during the first half, but the Hawks could not defend the three-point line. The Wolves put up 79 points in the first half and entered halftime with a 79-60 lead.

Murray led a miraculous Atlanta comeback, finishing with 41 points, outscoring the Timberwolves by himself in the third quarter with 25 points. Johnson was much better defensively in the second half, keeping Towns from getting the ball deep in the post. In the fourth quarter, Johnson cemented Atlanta’s great comeback with a steal and thunderous windmill dunk to send Hawks fans home happy. He filled up the stat sheet again, finishing with 12 points (5-7 FG), five rebounds, three assists, a steal and a block.


A Look Ahead

Atlanta is 2-0 when Johnson enters the starting lineup. However, both games came against teams that have unusually big frontcourts. Will Snyder stick with Johnson’s strong play, or will he go back to utilize Bey’s floor-spacing ability? This is an important element Hawks fans should pay attention to over the next few games. On Wednesday, Nov. 1, the Washington Wizards visit State Farm Arena, where the Hawks will look to extend their win streak to three games to go above .500 early in the campaign.


Michael Kobrinsky is a writer for Back Sports Page. He studied communication and journalism at North Carolina State University and graduated in May of 2023. Michael lives in Atlanta, GA, and primarily writes basketball content for Back Sports Page. Outside of a career in writing, you can find him playing golf, basketball, and video games. Follow Michael on Twitter:

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