Hawks look to continue taking advantage of Jalen Johnson’s versatility

Atlanta Hawks forward Jalen Johnson (1) drives against Cleveland Cavaliers center Damian Jones (30) during the second half of a NBA preseason game at State Farm Arena, Tuesday, October 10, 2023, in Atlanta. The Hawks won 108-107. (Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com)

Credit: Jason.Getz@ajc.com

Credit: Jason.Getz@ajc.com

Atlanta Hawks forward Jalen Johnson (1) drives against Cleveland Cavaliers center Damian Jones (30) during the second half of a NBA preseason game at State Farm Arena, Tuesday, October 10, 2023, in Atlanta. The Hawks won 108-107. (Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com)

Hawks third-year forward Jalen Johnson’s versatile game has taken the team’s preseason by storm.

Through the first three exhibition games, Johnson has looked confident and like he belongs among the starting five.

The 21-year-old spent his summer traveling between Los Angeles and Atlanta, sharpening his skills ahead of what could be a big year. Johnson’s progress on the defensive end last season already instilled some hope in the Hawks that they could pull the trigger on a deal that would eventually move forward John Collins to the Jazz.

“But really like the progression of Jalen, especially defensively in the last season really gave us a lot of hope this year where it’s like, ‘okay, can you put him into the more four lineups whether he’s starting or not, and add into those elements defensively, as well as his playing making ability,’” Hawks general manager Landry Fields said at media day earlier this month. “I think for him like, we’re excited for his growth this year.”

For the Hawks, the versatility that Johnson adds, of course opens up so much for them on the offensive end. Through the first three exhibition games, Johnson has averaged 11 points, 4.3 rebounds, 4.3 assists and 1.3 steals. He’s made nearly 62% of his overall shots and 60% of his attempts from 3-point range all in a shorter amount of time.

He averaged the same amount of points per game last season but did so in 27 minutes per game, while this preseason he has needed 18 minutes.

Through training camp, the Hawks have spoken plenty of playing unselfishly and it has shown through their exhibition games. They lead the league in charges this exhibition season and they’re quick to celebrate each other when they put their bodies on the line for the sake of the team. They’re also ready to reward each other when they run the floor, with nearly 60% of their 2-pointers coming off assists.

Johnson has thrived in that, doling out seven assists in the team’s exhibition win over the Pelicans on Saturday. He was everywhere and the Hawks benefited from his ability to impact the game on both sides of the ball.

If one series could sum up Johnson’s impact on Saturday, it would start just under two minutes into the second quarter. With 9:59 on the clock, Johnson lobbed a pass to Bogdan Bogdanovic for a layup. Seven seconds later he fought over screens and pestered Zion Williamson, forcing the former No. 1 pick to make extra passes.

The Pelicans would come up empty on that possession and Johnson grabbed the rebound before pushing it ahead to sophomore wing AJ Griffin for a layup.

With Johnson on the court, the Hawks put plenty of pressure on the Pelicans, eventually getting out to a 29-point lead with 9:09 left in the third quarter.

When Johnson isn’t creating plays for others, he’s getting to the rim. His teammates has rewarded his unselfishness, his willingness to run the floor and his athleticism.

With his penchants for getting above the rim, some have wondered if Johnson could become a threat in the pick and roll. Ahead of the Hawks exhibition game against the Grizzlies last Thursday, Hawks coach Quin Snyder was asked when Johnson may learn the art of setting a screen.

The Hawks coach initially joked that it’s hard to get reps to set screens as a point forward but he went on to highlight how Johnson’s versatility made a positive impact on the team. Snyder also pointed to where Johnson can continue to improve.

“Jalen is someone that as you mentioned, there’s a versatility to his game that I think allows you to use him a number of different ways,” Snyder said last Thursday. “One of the things that, as you mentioned with the point (forward), you know, when he gets a rebound, you know, let’s run and he and he can push the ball and pass the ball. You know, if he doesn’t have numbers in the break or can attack the rim, I’d like to see him get the ball to the sideline more, so he has no better angles to pass that’s new to him. I don’t think anybody’s told him to break the ball to the sideline and why.”

Snyder added that Johnson may operate in the pick and roll at times this season because it offers a different matchup versus what they have with centers Clint Capela and Onyeka Okongwu.

“But in pick and roll situations, you know, he’ll be in pick and rolls,” he said. “Some of that is our execution in situations. We’ve got a couple of guys that are pretty good at pick and roll, too. But he is different. You know, it’s a different matchup having Jalen in pick and roll than it would be Clint or Onyeka. So, it’s a good question. And I think you’ll see that over the course of the season we’ll try to use him in a lot of different ways because he’s a versatile player.”

Whenever that does happen, Johnson will be ready.

“Yeah, just continuing to get that partnership with with Trae (Young) and Dejounte (Murray) when I am in the pick and rolls and just continue to keep learning and keep taking advice from from Coach and everybody who gives me advice, Wes (Matthews) and just looking forward to keep improving,” he said.