Hawks Jalen Johnson's next absence could prove to be the most costly

Jalen Johnson will miss the Atlanta Hawks' next outing, and it could prove to be his most costly absence of all.
Atlanta Hawks forward Jalen  Johnson
Atlanta Hawks forward Jalen Johnson / Alex Goodlett/GettyImages

The Atlanta Hawks (30-38) won’t have third-year forward Jalen Johnson for their tilt against the Phoenix Suns, the last contest on a five-game trip, due to an ankle injury suffered in the loss to the Los Angeles Lakers. And he will miss at least four games with the injury.

They are 5-12 without him this season and have dropped four of their last five games overall.

This stretch of absences is most costly for Johnson, whose breakout season had him firmly in the discussion for Most Improved Player.

Unfortunately, there are just 14 games left on the regular season slate.

Johnson would max out at 61 games on the shorter end. That means he will fall at least four games with his reaggravated ankle and short of the newly implemented requirements, per league rules. The league and the Players Association collectively bargained for the stipulation this past offseason.

Players have voiced opposition to its implementation.

Johnson’s 16.1 points, 8.6 rebounds, 3.5 assists, and 1.1 blocks this season are all career-high marks. He is just shy of 1.0 blocks as well at 0.9 per contest, also a new career best.

He averaged 5.6 points, 4.0 boards, and 1.2 assists in 2022-23.

All may not be lost for Johnson in terms of the MIP race, though. This is despite the NBA’s ruling on games and minutes played.

“Players must play 20 minutes in at least 65 games – with protections against season-ending injury (62 games), near misses in minutes (2 games at 15 min.), bad faith circumstances,” The Athletic’s Shams Charania reported on X in April 2023.

Johnson would have to play in 11 more games to qualify for the season-ending injury clause.

Hawks’ Jalen Johnson could have last-ditch option to remain in award race

Even then, he is already on track to fall short. That would leave him to consider a last-ditch effort to secure the award.

“Once a player has officially fallen short of being able to reach 65 games played, the rule states they'll have two days to file a grievance. An arbitration hearing between the player, team, league and players' union will follow,” ESPN NBA insiders Tim Bontemps and Bobby Marks wrote on January 16.

“To file a grievance, a player must have clear and convincing evidence that the team limited the minutes or games played by that player with the intention of depriving the player of eligibility for one or more awards.”

The Hawks are not holding Johnson out for some artificial reason, to be clear.

"Jalen Johnson left Monday’s game ... in the fourth quarter due to injury," the team announced on X on March 21. "Johnson’s preliminary diagnosis is a right ankle sprain. He will be re-evaluated in one week and his status will be updated as appropriate."

Perhaps the former Duke forward can argue that for something from earlier in the season when he missed 14 games with a fractured wrist.

Johnson and the Hawks could very well be more concerned with getting him healthy enough for the postseason. But his has been one of the most encouraging stories, not just for the Hawks, but also around the league.