Duke basketball: Projecting Jalen Johnson’s draft stock after season

Duke basketball (Photo by Lance King/Getty Images)
Duke basketball (Photo by Lance King/Getty Images) /

Duke basketball’s top newcomer is in the right place to impress NBA scouts.

Of the six Duke basketball freshmen, who together represent the No. 3 crop of rookies in the country, Jalen Johnson is the only one who arrived on campus last month as a surefire one-and-done in the eyes of media and fans. But just how high should the 6-foot-9, 220-pound combo forward out of Milwaukee figure to go at the 2021 NBA Draft?

Well, the answer should largely depend on three factors: 1) whether the alpha playmaker proves to be at least a solid outside shooter, 2) whether the versatile athlete performs to the level that most expect by leading the Blue Devils in multiple statistical categories, and 3) how Duke fares as a team with Johnson as its perceived best player entering the season.

So, obviously, his stock still has a full season to either rise to the top or totally plummet. Currently, perusing six of the most recent 2021 mock drafts out there, five project Johnson as a lottery pick; as for the other one, he sits just beyond that benchmark at No. 15 overall. At the same time, however, none of the six see him landing among the top four. Yet half have him at exactly No. 5.

In order to get a sense of Johnson’s potential to sky higher than No. 5 by the time his probable draft night rolls around more than eight months from now, let’s glance at the names consistently above his own: Oklahoma State freshman guard Cade Cunningham, Southern Cal freshman forward Evan Mobley, plus two G Leaguers in guard Jalen Green and forward Jonathan Kuminga.

While all four of the above guys rank well above Johnson, No. 13, on the final 247Sports 2020 Composite, it’s no secret that the Blue Devil dinged his position by sitting out more than half of his senior season of high school. That was due to his transferring to and then suddenly out of IMG (Fla.) — without any explanation as to why — after never once lacing ’em up for the academy.

Remember, though, at the time of his commitment to Duke on July 4, 2019, Johnson boasted a No. 4 composite ranking; a month before that, he had been as high as No. 3.

In other words, outside of losing a head-to-head Peach Jam battle with Kuminga last summer, it doesn’t seem as if there is anything Johnson did or didn’t do during his time on the court to drop his ranking down the stretch of his prep career. Rather, it’s a matter of not being on the court as often as Kuminga, Cunningham, Mobley, Green, and others who finished above him.

Again, on a positive note, Johnson has an entire season of college hoops to prove his pre-senior ranking is much more indicative of where he truly belongs. And by the time it’s all said and done, No. 3 or so could in fact be where the Blue Devil ends up among his peers in terms of draft stock.

A centerpiece role for Duke basketball equals a prime opportunity

One thing’s for sure: barring a sudden, unexpected shift in the national landscape, Johnson is in the most ideal position of anyone in the country to shine under an ultra-bright spotlight.

Duke annually draws supreme ratings, significantly higher than G Leaguers are likely to draw and surely much higher than Cunningham or Mobley will see at OSU and USC. Plus, it’s not like Johnson will be competing with a Zion Williamson or Vernon Carey Jr. for touches; no, it’s a perfect year in Durham for a star with his repertoire to be the man for a deep group of solid talents.

ALSO READ: Why one Blue Devil should redshirt this season

Therefore, Johnson has as high a probability as any to be a household name this college basketball season. He could be a cross between Grant Hill and Ben Simmons. Keep in mind, neither the former Duke basketball champ nor the former LSU sensation exited the college ranks with an exquisite outside jumper; nevertheless, neither exactly struggled upon debuting in the NBA.

Like Hill and Simmons, Johnson has the necessary cannon and vision to pull off remarkable floor-length outlet passes and various dimes in the halfcourt setting. He also has a few post moves in his toolbox and is an aggressive, instinctive, strong rebounder. All in all, he consistently makes his presence known while appearing to play as if he always has something to prove.

Whether decades ago, decades to come, or nowadays — despite the growing trend to stock up on sharpshooters — pro franchises never take for granted triple-double forwards who create like guards and do damage in the paint like big men. There’s no reason to think Johnson can’t be exactly that for Duke and then at the sport’s top level.

Wrapping this up, by taking into account his unique opportunity as a Blue Devil, in addition to the NBA-ready physique and explosiveness that have kept his draft stock from falling to the degree of his composite ranking, Ball Durham projects Jalen Johnson will ultimately come off the board at No. 3 next summer. Before G Leaguers Kuminga and Green. But after Cunningham and Mobley.

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Stay tuned to Ball Durham for more on Jalen Johnson plus other Duke basketball news and views.