Duke basketball's highest-ranked 2020 signee was far from crisp during his first high school game in almost a year, but the fact he's back to competing and leading again is no doubt a positive sign.
Nicolet (Wis.) small forward Jalen Johnson missed six of his first eight shot attempts on Friday night. And the centerpiece of the next Duke basketball freshman class finished with only 14 points — on 5-for-12 shooting — to go along with four rebounds, two steals, one block, and one assist.
Of course, considering Johnson's circumstances, the signs of rust came as no surprise. Besides, the 6-foot-8, 215-pound five-star flashed several signs of the innate leadership that drew Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski to him in the first place and that drew praise from his current head coach following a 53-43 road win over conference foe Slinger.
“I thought he carried us," Nicolet's Al Hanson told Milwaukee Journal Sentinel's Mark Stewart. "I thought he led us. He’s a winner. That’s all he wants to do.”
Per Stewart, Johnson — who recently fell from No. 6 to No. 11 on the 247Sports 2020 Composite — "was pointing out things and helping to keep the defense organized" and "took on more ballhandling and decision-making duties as the game wore on."
Johnson is a bit fortunate to be playing at all, though, after leaving IMG Academy (Fla.), where he never once suited up, for undisclosed reasons in December — he underwent meniscus repair in September — and then re-enrolling in late January at Nicolet, where he directed a state championship as a junior. Wisconsin Sports Network's Mark Miller explained:
"Per WIAA transfer rules, since Johnson never established eligibility at IMG Academy, his eligibility never left Nicolet. So when he came home and re-enrolled at Nicolet, his eligibility status was not in question. What was in question was Johnson's involvement with USA Basketball last summer and that organization paying expenses for Johnson to take part in its activities. The Johnson family made restitution for Jalen getting his expenses paid by USA Basketball this week."
But even with eligibility in hand, all that's left of the regular season are three games spanning two weeks. However, with Nicolet now at 14-3 overall and in a tie for first in the North Shore conference at 11-2, Johnson should have an opportunity to play a giant role in the school's postseason quest to repeat as state champs.
In the meantime, he and his younger brother, junior point guard Kobe Johnson, may need to work on co-existing again. Kobe, who does not have a 247Sports ranking or rating and whose list of offers only includes a few mid-majors, was leading the squad at 21.9 points per game before Jalen's return but only managed seven points on Friday.
"We’ve got to get better," their coach said, "and I think [Jalen] is going to buy into it. He wants to win. Most important, he’s about sharing. He’s not a selfish teammate in any way...”
"We just want to rally around him."
The other five future Duke basketball players from Johnson's class are 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 no remaining 2020 offers on the table, Duke's haul currently ranks No. 2 in the nation, per 247Sports.