Hawks’ Jalen Johnson trying to figure things out in second NBA season

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The Hawks expected and needed forward Jalen Johnson to take a big step this season. Through 27 games this season, the 20-year-old still is trying to find his groove.

Hawks coach Nate McMillan told the former Duke Blue Devil to bring his ego as he worked to earn a spot in the rotation. Johnson did just that, earning enough confidence within the organization for the team to move on from Maurice “Moe” Harkless (who they acquired in the trade that sent Kevin Huerter to the Kings) before the season even began.

Through the first one-third of the season, though, Johnson hasn’t quite found the right rhythm on offense. He has averaged five points on 44.7% shooting from the floor and has knocked down only 21.7% of his 3-point attempts.

It’s been a frustrating start for Johnson, the Hawks’ first-round draft pick in 2021 who played only 22 games in the NBA during his rookie season after spending much of it in the G League. But he won’t let that be used as an excuse for his shooting slump. He averaged 20.1 points, 11.8 rebounds and 4.9 assists with the College Park Skyhawks last season.

“People can say that for me, but at the end of the day, I’m going to hold myself to the highest of standards because I know my dreams and aspirations in this league,” Johnson said. “Nobody’s gonna feel sorry for you. So I’m not looking for anybody to empathize about last year. Last year is in the past. This is a whole new year. I put in the work for it, and I just got to keep working. So you know, I’m working my way out of this shooting slump. Of course, (there is) no doubt in my mind about it.”

Johnson has shown flashes this season, including his first career double-double in the Hawks’ win over the Nuggets on Dec. 2.

In addition to that, the Hawks have leaned on him for his defensive skills, such as when they switched him onto Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo on Nov. 7. Johnson helped hold Antetokounmpo, who at that point in the season was averaging 32.6 points and 12.9 rebounds per game, to 25 points and seven rebounds.

But, Johnson, who hasn’t played a full NBA season, still has plenty to learn and figure out. He has yet to face all 30 NBA teams after playing against only 16 of the teams last season.

With John Collins sidelined with an ankle injury, the Hawks (14-15) have elevated Johnson to the starting lineup. In the past six games, he has had to figure out how to play smart and aggressive defense.

He learned that the hard way in the Hawks’ Dec. 7 matchup against the Knicks, when he picked up two fouls in the first five minutes of the game. It did not help that he drew Knicks forward Julius Randle as his primary assignment, and the 2021 Most Improved Player went at him to draw contact.

“It’s just getting experience on the floor, getting playing time, and due to some injuries, we’ve had to bump him up in the rotation,” McMillan said before Wednesday’s game against the Magic. “But I think really all season long he’s shown potential to go out there and be able to help us. It’s all about, with a young guy like that is just getting out on the floor, and getting some experience.”

Johnson scored nine points and blocked a career-high four shots in Wednesday’s loss to the Magic.

Though it may not be the start to the season that Johnson and the Hawks looked for, the 20-year-old believes that he will figure things out. Johnson does bring plenty of athletic ability to the Hawks’ rotation and an ability to create opportunities for himself and others.

He’s been most effective off the dribble, as he has made 60% of his shots when he dribbles 3-6 times. Plus, he has made 63.8% of his attempts in the free-throw lane, and he can give the Hawks more opportunities when he cuts to the basket.

“I just play basketball,” he said. “It’s not a, ‘this isn’t working out, I’m gonna do this.’ But I just trust myself as a basketball player. I’m confident in my game and what I do. And if one thing is not working, I feel that my game is good enough to where I can help contribute in other ways.

“So it’s never just my shots not falling, I’m just automatically always (going to) attack the basket. There’s gonna be other things I try to do. And of course, if the shot is there, I’m going to shoot it. I don’t care if I’m 0-for-15, I’m gonna still shoot it because I know, like I said, the work that I put in to be able to shoot at a high rate.”