Duke basketball: Jalen Johnson now has tens of millions at stake

Duke basketball forward Jalen Johnson (USA TODAY Sports)
Duke basketball forward Jalen Johnson (USA TODAY Sports) /

Jalen Johnson’s payday greatly depends on how his Duke basketball days end.

During Tuesday night’s 74-67 defeat at Virginia Tech, Duke basketball rookie Jalen Johnson at least proved healthy enough to play a bit after sitting out a month with some sort of foot issue.

By doing so, the Milwaukee native has returned to where he signed up to be: in the brightest of spotlights, under the most magnified microscope, as a heralded Blue Devil.

With caution, the Duke basketball staff allowed Johnson to contribute to the No. 19 Blue Devils (5-3, 3-1 ACC) for four minutes against the No. 20 Hokies (10-2, 4-1 ACC). Although the 6-foot-9, 220-pound combo forward looked a tad lost once or twice on defense, given his extended absence and limited floor time, his two points and one dime didn’t exactly signify a disappointment.

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But like it or not, Johnson’s brief appearance significantly damaged his season averages for the time being. And yes, those basic numbers do indeed matter — even if only at a subconscious level — to potential employers at the next level.

Johnson wowed in Duke’s season-opening victory over Coppin State, to the tune of 19 points with zero misses and 19 rebounds. Yet his pre-injury averages were only 11.5 points, 8.3 rebounds, and 23.8 minutes in four games while hitting 54.3 percent from the field, 33.3 percent from beyond the arc, and 50.0 percent from the charity stripe.

Now, he’s averaging 9.6 points and 6.6 boards.

Sure, altogether, that’s not too far off what one should expect out of the gates for a highly touted five-star freshman at Duke like Johnson. However, now that the 19-year-old is back in action for a group of young Blue Devils who are struggling to find their identity and have yet to beat an opponent with a current winning record, the pressure is dialed up several notches.

The link between Jalen Johnson’s stock and Duke basketball hopes come March

Granted, the general assumption is there’s no way Jalen Johnson returns for a sophomore campaign, regardless of what happens from here on out this season.

Yet the difference in salary between going No. 1 and No. 30 overall at the 2021 NBA Draft is set to be roughly $21.2 million across the first three years in the league. That doesn’t account for the fact a franchise can offer contracts at 80-120 percent of the rookie scale. Also, consider the sizeable gap in endorsement deals between a high lottery pick and a low first-rounder.

At the moment, despite his time away, Johnson seems to hang around the same spot on most mock drafts as when he arrived in Durham: a mid-to-late lottery pick.

On the other hand, there is one top site that appears to think he’ll wait until 2022. Meanwhile, one gets a sense that he is suddenly on the verge of slipping to the bottom half of the first round on others. So let’s just take a quick look at where Johnson sits on the first five that come up in a Google search:

Now, if the Blue Devils were 8-0 or 7-1 and hadn’t been without their most versatile athlete for three contests and most of a fourth, then it’s likely Johnson would be wearing a “top five” tag on some sites at this stage. Plus, it’s probable a few of his teammates would occasionally show up as projected first-round selections; as it stands, none do on any of the above mock drafts.

Of course, really the only conceivable way Duke could’ve won the games it has lost thus far is if Johnson had played like one of the premier threats in the country.

Except for his Duke basketball debut, there’s no question he hasn’t.

Instead, as is pretty much true for every player in Durham right now outside of maybe sophomore stretch-four Matthew Hurt, Johnson remains a giant question mark. Naturally, giant question marks don’t usually equate to stable draft stocks.

Furthermore, fair or not, unsubstantiated rumors had swirled in December around Johnson possibly not returning. And let’s just say that such lingering questions — especially if fueled by his missing more games in the future — might pose unwelcome distractions when it comes time for him to answer said questions during interviews with NBA brass.

Long story short, this Duke basketball squad desperately needs Jalen Johnson to shine before skipping town. Likewise, Jalen Johnson desperately needs Jalen Johnson to sparkle as a Blue Devil.

Finishing the season in early March with no wins over ranked opponents — coinciding with nothing but mediocre production from Johnson — would be a big step in the wrong direction for both parties. Conversely, finishing the season as a well-oiled machine and with a bonafide stud leading the way would be lucrative for everyone involved.

Finally, what about those folks who wonder how things would pan out for Duke and Johnson if he was to just call it quits?

Stop asking. Assume there’s no need to go there…

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