The best story coming out of the Atlanta Hawks these days is third-year forward Jalen Johnson, the No. 20 overall pick in the 2021 draft who is enjoying a breakout campaign.
He is averaging career-highs with 15.0 points, 8.3 rebounds, 3.1 assists, and 1.3 steals while shooting 40.3% from beyond the arc. Johnson had a career-high six steals in the Hawks’ win over the San Antonio Spurs on January 15.
Asked if he wants his teammates to lean on him defensively, Johnson was candid about his role.
“Personally, I just try to play hard on defense, and then just making the right reads, making the right plays,” Johnson said via atlhawksfans after the game.
“I feel like as a unit we were a lot better in that first half tonight, which led to a lot of easy steals for me. A lot of the time, most of my steals came from one of our guys getting stops and the ball is on the ground, and that comes up as my steal. But I think it was just a collective team effort as far as just taking pride in our matchups and forcing them into tough situations.”
Johnson also had 16 points, 10 rebounds, and seven assists in 37 minutes versus the Spurs.
“He's been playing really well as he's been out there,” Young said of Johnson. “Just being aggressive and just attacking the paint.”
Jalen Johnson keys on Hawks’ biggest issue
Johnson also provided some insight into why the Hawks keep struggling in the second halves of games. They nearly let the Spurs back into the game despite owning a 35-point lead going into halftime.
“I really think it's uh probably those first five minutes of the half,” Johnson said. “A lot of the times we get a good lead in the first half, we call a timeout because they go on a run. We got to just cut back on that. Stop allowing that to happen, because that gives the other team confidence.
“We seen it tonight. They cut the lead. I think it was six at one point. So just understanding we just need to do it in the second half. We can do it in the first half all we want but, yeah.”
The Hawks rank 20th in third-quarter scoring on the season entering play on January 16. They also rank 29th in third-quarter points allowed, setting them up for the second-half collapses they have endured.
Add to it a 9-15 record in clutch games – games decided by five or fewer points.
It helps that they have Johnson back after he missed 14 games with a fractured wrist. The Hawks are 12-13 when he is active and 11-11 with him in the lineup compared to 4-10 without.