Following the Atlanta Hawks‘ sometimes frustrating, sometimes encouraging six-game loss to the Boston Celtics in the first round of the 2023 NBA playoffs, many fans, dispirited after a second straight early postseason exit, have been floating around ideas on how Atlanta may look to add another star to a roster that already features former All-Stars in Trae Young and Dejounte Murray.
Some have suggested that Celtics guard Jaylen Brown, an Atlanta native and a player who has not-so-subtly hinted at his discontentment in Boston, maybe someone that the Hawks look into pursuing should he become available via trade or free agency.
Others have floated around the possibility that Atlanta could look into a trade package centered around some of their younger players like De’Andre Hunter, AJ Griffin, Onyeka Okongwu, and others in hopes of bringing back a bona fide star.
And still, others have gone as far as to suggest that Atlanta trade its best player this side of the Reagan administration in Trae Young, although those talks have quieted down considerably following the point guard’s (mostly) stellar performance in this year’s playoffs.
What if the Atlanta Hawks already have a future star waiting in the wings?
Jalen Johnson just completed his second year as a Hawk after Atlanta drafted him in 2021. While he struggled to find minutes in his rookie season, the 2022-23 campaign saw him find a more consistent spot in the rotation, especially after Quin Snyder took over toward the end of the year.
In fact, Johnson ended up beating out fellow youngster AJ Griffin for playoff minutes, and although he struggled pretty severely in the first two games in Boston, he eventually looked relatively comfortable by the time the series concluded.
Let’s cut to the chase: if Johnson reaches his full potential and becomes the best version of himself, he has the talent to become a perennial All-Star in this league.
A look at his measurables alone is enough to reveal why he was on almost every first-round draft board two years ago. At 6’8″, 220 pounds with impressive lateral quickness and explosive leaping ability, Johnson is already the Hawks’ most physically imposing player, having filled into his frame more quickly than most first and second-year players.
His numbers thus far, in limited minutes, are not eye-popping. This season he averaged 5.6 points and 3.3 rebounds in 15 minutes per game off the Atlanta bench. What is eye-popping, however, is the immeasurables that Johnson brings to the table.
To start, Johnson is the only big on the Atlanta roster that can grab a rebound and ignite a fast break by himself. This is a huge luxury because when a big man has to wait and find his point guard, countless transition opportunities go out the window as the defense has more time to recover. But as we’ve seen with other ball-handling power forwards and centers including Draymond Green and Bam Adebayo, having a big who can start the fast break adds a whole new dimension to the offense.
Johnson also has an uncanny passing ability unusual for someone his size. While he still has a lot to learn and made a lot of the mistakes that you’d expect from a young player, Johnson still sees the floor well and can make passes that every other big on the roster simply can’t.
Johnson also has the unique ability to guard 1-5. Let’s be clear: he isn’t a great defender yet, and he often struggled to stay in front of Boston’s guards, particularly Malcolm Brogdon, when they wanted to get to the hole. But what he does have is the size, strength, wingspan, and quickness to theoretically become Atlanta’s most versatile defender, and it will come down to mechanics and, more importantly, experience, for him to reach that lofty potential.
Combine this unorthodox skillset with Johnson’s undeniable explosiveness and athleticism, and it’s easy to see why Snyder was eager to let him see the floor as much as possible in his limited time with the Hawks this season.
The part of Johnson’s game that he most needs to work on this summer is his three-point shooting, as he shot below 30% from the land beyond this season and was consistently left open by the Boston defense. He was able to knock down a few threes later on in the series but not with enough consistency to throw a wrench in the Celtics’ strategy.
Atlanta fans know very well what it’s like to have a theoretically insanely talented power forward who can’t get out of his own way due to his inability to understand why he’s always left open on the perimeter (we still love you, Josh Smith).
But if Johnson can improve that part of his game, he has all of the physical tools, and the impressive basketball IQ, necessary to be the next star Hawks fans are hoping for.