Growing concerns about Duke basketball signee Jalen Johnson

Duke basketball head coach Mike Krzyzewski (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)
Duke basketball head coach Mike Krzyzewski (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images) /

Now that a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity has slipped away for the Duke basketball program’s highest-ranked 2020 prize, worrisome speculation is on the rise.

Five-star small forward Jalen Johnson, who ranks No. 6 overall on the 247Sports 2020 Composite, has not played for any prep team this season. The Duke basketball signee left IMG Academy (Fla.) — his third school in three years — several weeks ago for undisclosed reasons.

Unfortunately, as a result, the 6-foot-8, 215-pound Wisconsin native is now ineligible for the McDonald’s All-American Game at the Toyota Center in Houston on April 1. In other words, Johnson will not own the prestigious title that peers of his caliber will proudly carry with them for life and one day repeatedly tell their grandkids about.

Tuesday’s hundreds-long list of nominees for the legendary annual showcase — final selections for the East and West rosters will come out on Jan. 23 — did include Duke’s other five signees from the senior class: Paul VI Catholic (Va.) five-star point guard Jeremy Roach, Whitney Young (Ill.) five-star combo guard D.J. Steward, Huntington Prep (W.Va.) four-star power forward Jaemyn Brakefield, Trinity Episcopal (Va.) four-star power forward Henry Coleman, and IMG four-star center Mark Williams.

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With Johnson’s exclusion now re-stirring rumors about why he’s no longer at IMG — none come from credible sources and are therefore not yet worthy of mention here — recruiting scout Kendyl Provost Jr. tweeted that the 18-year-old, who turns 19 on Dec. 18, is indeed eligible for the 2020 NBA Draft. He even went as far as to express surprise that “many more aren’t connecting the dots that he could enter this draft…”

Tweets aside, though, per Article X, Section 1(b) of the still-in-effect 2017 NBA Collective Bargaining Agreement, turning 19 during the same calendar year as a draft fulfills only one of two requirements to enter the draft:

"“(A) The player is or will be at least 19 years of age during the calendar year in which the draft is held, and (B) at least one NBA season has elapsed since the player’s graduation from high school (or if the player did not graduate from high school, since the graduation of the class with which the player would have graduated had he graduated from high school).”"

That poorly worded last part in parentheses — of the woulda-coulda-shoulda variety — might be vague enough to serve as a loophole for Johnson’s draft entry. Should he be planning to seek an NBA ruling on the matter, 1) he’d be wise to refrain from graduating high school this year (consider that there are no reports of his attending any school at the moment), and then 2) depending on what his transcripts look like, he could argue that he would have graduated with the 2019 class had he known about in advance whatever issues he ended up facing at IMG.

Not saying it would work. Also not saying it wouldn’t.

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Last year, though the situations are not identical, another Jalen — former N.C. State 2019 signee Jalen Lecque, who wound up spending five years in high school — successfully petitioned his eligibility to the league (the four-star guard did not hear his name at the 2019 NBA Draft but did then immediately sign a four-year deal with the Phoenix Suns and is currently playing for the franchise’s G-League affiliate in Northern Arizona).

Based on talent alone, Johnson — whose frame and game bring to mind a mashup of Duke basketball legends Shane Battier and Grant Hill — has long appeared NBA-ready (possibly even worthy of a lottery pick despite his meniscus repair in September and lack of competitive play ever since):

So until either the Johnson camp publicly addresses the murky happenings in his life with more than “Don’t believe everything you read!” — what Jalen’s dad, Roderick, tweeted in late December — or news surfaces of his enrolling at another high school, talk of the NBA and other seemingly possible plans will almost certainly continue to pick up steam on social media.

That said, Johnson does still appear in a Duke basketball jersey on his Twitter profile pic, and he retweeted over the weekend a fan’s tweet expressing excitement about seeing him as a Blue Devil next season.

The thought of Johnson in Durham fuels anticipation that all Duke basketball faithful should share. Losing him to the NBA — or for any of the hearsay reasons out there — would no doubt go down as a historic bummer for the program.

But without the hoops phenom putting to rest this understandable chatter — or Mike Krzyzewski, for that matter, as the NCAA permits coaches to publicly talk about signed recruits — the doors to the rumor mill are going to remain open.

Silence is deafening.

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