Jalen Johnson’s game-winner is just the latest encouraging sign

Atlanta Hawks. (Photo by Meg Oliphant/Getty Images)
Atlanta Hawks. (Photo by Meg Oliphant/Getty Images) /

It wasn’t that long ago that some pockets of Atlanta Hawks fandom had an eye towards the future. Even as the team has clawed itself out of the doldrums and back into its typical competitive self, there are questions with regards to the handling of some of the younger talent on this roster.

Second-year guard Skylar Mays was a player who seemed to show enough of something last season to deserve a bigger opportunity this season.

That’s rarely the case for younger players on teams with championship aspirations.

Atlanta Hawks rookie Jalen Johnson continues to impress in the G-League

Such is the case this season for rookies Sharife Cooper and Jalen Johnson. Cooper, for example, would seem to profile as a solid stand-in for the energy Trae Young brings offensively but that will be in due time. As it stands, the Hawks have found something good with Delon Wright manning the backup point guard position.

But would giving Lou Williams minutes to Cooper be a more prudent solution?

Similarly, could the Hawks be making better use of Jalen Johnson, the 20th-overall pick in the NBA Draft back in July?

Both he and Cooper – who the Hawks took 48th-overall – are back with the Hawks ahead of Wednesday’s matchup with the Sacramento Kings. But playing time has been sparse for both players.

Johnson is averaging fewer than five minutes per contest when up with the big club.

He’s seen more than five minutes three times and 10 minutes twice. That may be a bit surprising considering all of the injury and COVID issues this team has dealt with.

In the two games he saw at least 10 minutes, Johnson has scored four points in both outings, struggling to find a rhythm in the first outing, a 1-for-3 shooting performance against the Orlando Magic. The second instance was also a loss, this time to the New York Knicks. But Johnson did go 2-for-3 from the floor and managed to haul in seven rebounds.

The former Duke forward is a different animal for the College Park Skyhawks in the G-League.

Johnson averages 19.5 points, 11.5 boards, 4.1 assists, 1.4 steals, and 1.3 blocks in 35 minutes per contest over 15 appearances. He had 18 points, 12 rebounds,  and four assists adding 2 blocks, a steal, and the game-winning three-point play for the Skyhawks on Tuesday.

He is shooting 43.9 percent overall and 35.0 percent from deep with the Skyhawks. He’s at 47.1 percent and 33.3 percent, respectively, with the Hawks.

Unfortunately, the 6-foot-8 forward has shot free throws like the big man the Hawks utilize him as, shooting just 56.5 percent at the charity stripe down in College Park. He’s also hit just two of his last 10 triples. The silver lining is that he’s shooting 66.7 percent at the line with the Hawks and his willingness to shoot the longball answers one of the questions some had about him.

It makes more sense now that the Hawks are healthy and the likes of Danilo Gallinari regaining his form and Okongwu healthy.

But not seeing Johnson get more tick during the dark days of this season will always be a headscratcher when they were trotting 10-day guys out there with regularity. They turned to Onyeka Okongwu with some regularity by this point last season.

The Hawks center position was arguably deeper then than forward is now.

It could be as simple as a lottery pick compared to one that was taken in the latter stages of the first round.

The good news is that Johnson has handled it all very professionally, even going so far as to request being sent to the G-League so he could play. That bodes well for his development going forward – his maturity was probably the biggest question after his exit from Duke.

Next. The Hawks upcoming homestand is critical for their turnaround. dark

But his game-winner and performance throughout the season for the Skyhawks ensures fans will always have at least one eye towards the future.