Hawks’ Jalen Johnson tunes in to ‘what got me here’ as he finds spark

Atlanta Hawks forward Jalen Johnson (1) drives to the basket against Brooklyn Nets guard Seth Curry (30) during the first half in an NBA basketball game at State Farm Arena on Wednesday, December 28, 2022. (Daniel Varnado/For the AJC)

Credit: Daniel Varnado

Credit: Daniel Varnado

Atlanta Hawks forward Jalen Johnson (1) drives to the basket against Brooklyn Nets guard Seth Curry (30) during the first half in an NBA basketball game at State Farm Arena on Wednesday, December 28, 2022. (Daniel Varnado/For the AJC)

The Hawks have been looking to second-year forward Jalen Johnson to take a step forward with his extended minutes in the rotation. He’s shown flashes this season, but has been hunting for consistency in his play. Now over his past three games, he has attacked the basket, and that is yielding good things for him.

Heading into this past week of games, Johnson had averaged 4.6 points and 3.5 rebounds in 15 minutes. But he’s been trying to find his rhythm, and over the past three games something has clicked.

He averaged 12.3 points on 50% overall shooting, with eight of his 11 shot attempts coming within five feet of the basket, and seven rebounds. Roughly 63% of his shots have been unassisted over the past five games, and he’s looking for more opportunities to use his body to his advantage.

In the Hawks’ loss to the Pacers on Tuesday, Johnson helped a stagnant offense when he came off the bench. He looked to play through the Pacers’ contact and earned eight trips to the free-throw line after averaging .7 free-throw attempts in his first 31 games.

He carried that mentality into the Hawks’ loss to Nets and continued looking for moments to find favorable mismatches and attack the hoop. With 9:41 left in the first half, Johnson took the ball up court. When he saw that it was only Seth Curry between him and the basket, the 21-year-old spun into the paint to beat the Nets guard and drew the foul as he laid the ball in.

He ended up tying his career-high in points, then 14, toward the end of the third quarter of Wednesday’s game.

“Just doing what I do and doing what got me here to this point,” Johnson said at shootaround Friday. “And just staying true to that. I think I got away from that for a little bit. I was overthinking. Just trying to find a way to maximize my time on the court. So, but doing what I do, that’s the truth behind it. That’s what it is. It’s nothing crazy, I’m doing nothing, I’m switching nothing, just being who I am.”

Coming into the NBA, scouts praised Johnson for his athletic ability, as well as his ball-handling, vision and passing skills for a forward.

This season, the Hawks coaches wanted Johnson to tap into those skills. First, they encouraged him to crash the glass, which would open up more opportunities for him to take the ball up court. Johnson has only one double-digit rebounding game this season.

“We want to be aggressive,” Hawks coach Nate McMillan said. “When you’re open, shoot it. And when you have a lane to the basket, we always want our guys to attack. So, don’t think too much out there; react to the play that is given to you. And I thought he did that in our last game. He was aggressive, attacking the paint, making some passes and knocked down a couple shots, and a couple of those shots didn’t fall for him, but we want him to remain aggressive.”

But the Hawks (17-19) will need him to crash the glass even more now with the absence of Clint Capela. The Hawks big man has missed six of the past seven games with a right calf strain, and the team has needed all hands on deck in rebounding.

In Friday’s loss to the Lakers, Johnson finished the first half with 10 points, five rebounds, one block and two steals. That was the second consecutive game in which he had at least 10 points and five boards in the opening half and fourth time he has done so in his career (all four games have been done this month).

He scored another five points and had another two rebounds in the second half to pick up another career-high in points.

The Hawks will need more performances like this from Johnson as they look to get back on the right side of .500. The Hawks have tried to navigate this season with several injuries knocking top players out of the rotation throughout the year.

So, they’ve tried to empower their young players such as Johnson, Onyeka Okongwu and AJ Griffin to step up in the absence of Capela and De’Andre Hunter.

“That’s just a part of being an NBA,” Johnson said. “You just got to be prepared for whatever situation like last year, when we had all those COVID cases, like we had a whole new team. So, you just got to be prepared for whatever injuries happen. That’s just a part in this league playing 82 games. So yeah, it’s not really nothing crazy getting adjusted to that.”

The Hawks head to the West Coast for a four-game trip beginning with a stop against the Warriors on Monday.