Atlanta Hawks secret weapon to keep an eye on in the preseason

Atlanta Hawks, Jalen Johnson. (Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images)
Atlanta Hawks, Jalen Johnson. (Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images) /

The Atlanta Hawks made several moves this offseason but their biggest one removed one starter from the equation.

While they have been linked to Toronto Raptors star Pascal Siakam in trade rumors for some time, they might be better off going with an in-house candidate. One who could be their secret weapon if he shows the right things in the preseason. That player is third-year forward Jalen Johnson.

Johnson, 21, was the No. 20 overall pick in the 2020 draft by the Hawks and averaged 5.6 points, 4.0 rebounds, and 1.2 assists last season while making 70 appearances with six starts last season.

He averaged 8.0 points, 6.3 rebounds, and 2.3 assists in those six starts.

Therein lies the intrigue around Johnson, a projected lottery pick going into his freshman season at Duke.

An injury and subsequent departure from the team raised more red flags after similar events took place while he was in high school. All that means is the Hawks got a potential lottery pick in the latter stages of the first round and, now, they need to capitalize on what they have.

“Very enticing skillset for a 21 year old,” tweeted NBA University on June 26. “One of the most efficient passers I’ve seen at his age. Breath of fresh air for that offense. Quick touch passes, quick decisions, good reads, and super athletic. Really like his long-term projection.”

His biggest obstacle will be translating his individual successes to the team.

Jalen Johnson vs Saddiq Bey a battle to watch in Hawks training camp

Early money should be on Saddiq Bey to get the first crack at starting at power forward next season.

The Hawks were 1-5 with Johnson as a starter, though they were missing other key pieces in each of those games. But they also posted a minus-5.1 net rating with Johnson at power forward without Bey on the floor last season without Bey, and a plus-18.5 net rating with Bey at power forward and Johnson off instead, per Cleaning The Glass.

Bey, 24, averaged 11.6 points, 4.8 rebounds, 1.2 assists, and shot 40% with Atlanta last season.

It was a small sample size – just 11 regular season games – but his ability to stretch the floor aligns with head coach Quin Snyder’s ethos more closely than Johnson’s on-ball style, especially with Trae Young and Dejounte Murray soaking up plenty of minutes. Snyder’s Utah Jazz teams relied heavily on the three-ball during his tenure.

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If there is a rub, it’s this: over the final six games, Bey drew five starts. He averaged 13.2 points, 5.4 rebounds, 2.4 assists, and 1.8 steals but he also shot just 29.6% from beyond the arc in those contests.

Everything was in flux last season so training camp and the preseason could be a time of revelations.

One of those revelations could be that the coaching staff needs to find ways to get the ball into Johnson’s hands more often and let him go to work. If his three-point shot shows real progress, he could put that much more pressure on the competition for the starting power forward spot, be it Bey or another teammate or outsider.

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The Hawks have a couple of other players who could be considered their secret weapon from Bey to second-year man AJ Griffin, and perhaps even some of their rookies. But Johnson figures to make a surprising impact whether he starts or comes off the bench.