PHOTO (Duke Athletics): Jalen Johnson dunks on a breakaway in the Clemson game.
By TOM SHANAHAN
The strangest of basketball seasons, thrown off kilter by the COVID-19 pandemic, just got a little stranger. Duke freshman Jalen Johnson announced Monday he’s declaring for the NBA draft.
Duke’s NCAA Tournament chances were already in jeopardy, but now he’s coach’s Mike Krzyzewski’s latest one-and-done without playing games in February or March.
“I appreciate everything about my time at Duke,” said Johnson. “Coach K, my teammates and the program have been nothing but supportive throughout this season, especially during the rehab of my foot injury. My family, Coach and I have made the decision that I should not play the remainder of this season so I can be 100 percent healthy in preparation for the NBA Draft.”
No one expected Johnson to return to Duke as sophomore just as no one predicted Duke (8-8, 6-6 ACC) could miss the NCAA Tournament. He is projected as NBA lottery pick, even though the 6-foot-9, 215-pounder has been inconsistent since suffering a foot injury December that forced him to miss three of Duke’s 16 games and play briefly in another. He is averaging 11.2 points, 6.1 rebounds.
“This was not easy, but we feel it’s best for my future,” Johnson said. “I have nothing but love for the Brotherhood and thank my teammates and everyone associated with the program. Duke will always have a special place in my heart and will always be a part of me.”
Johnson will remain on campus and receive therapy for his injury. He hasn’t signed with an agent yet. At the start of the season, Johnson spoke of valuing a year of college basketball rather than an option a quick pay day in the G League or playing overseas.
“I’d say the opportunity to play for Coach K,” said Johnson in November of what he values about playing college basketball. “To see his rich history and see what he’s done with his past players. I found that more appealing. I think I can take the education and a degree over going to get $500,000 real quick. I do that any day of the week. I’m happy with the decision I made. If I had it to do again, I’d do the same thing.”
Johnson had games of 19 points and 19 rebounds win a win over Coppin State and 24 points, 15 rebounds and seven assists in a loss to Pitt.
A generation ago, Coach K expressed concern when Corey Maggette declared for the NBA draft despite coming off the bench as a freshan in the 1998-99 season. Krzyzewski felt Maggette needed more time to mature his game, although Maggette ended up the 13th overall pick of the draft as NBA teams began to draft on potential.
Times have changed. There is more money to be made. A cloud of who is pulling the strings behind an NBA draft prospect, parents or other outside influences connected to agents, hangs over such decisions. Coaches also understand there can be fallout on the recruiting trail from negative recruiting if they’re perceived to be against players turning pro early.
Johnson also didn’t play a full season a year ago. He Nicolet High in Milwaukee for his senior year at IMG Academy, but he never played. He finished his senior year at Nicolet. The NBA, though, has a track record of weighing potential more than such maturity questions than other pro sport leagues.
What remains to be seen is if Johnson’s decision will be followed by others in upcoming seasons. Is this an aberration due to COVID-19 turning the world upside down? Or is this the new college basketball world.
“While we are encouraged by what we are seeing medically, for Jalen’s future, we believe this decision is in his best interest,” Krzyzewski said. “We are ultimately careful with every one of our players and will continue to support Jalen as he progresses toward his goal of playing professional basketball. He deserves to be fully healthy for the upcoming NBA Draft.”
Duke ended a three-game losing streak with Saturday’s win at N.C. State. The Blue Devils play at 8:30 Wednesday night at Wake Forest.
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