Jalen Johnson is a keeper for Hawks

He’s become the best of team’s post-Trae Young draft picks.
Atlanta Hawks head coach Quin Snyder confers with Atlanta Hawks forward Jalen Johnson (1) during the first half in an NBA basketball game at State Farm Arena, Wednesday, December 3, 2024, in Atlanta. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)



Atlanta Hawks head coach Quin Snyder confers with Atlanta Hawks forward Jalen Johnson (1) during the first half in an NBA basketball game at State Farm Arena, Wednesday, December 3, 2024, in Atlanta. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

For five years, the Hawks have tried to draft a future All-Star to play alongside franchise point guard Trae Young. The best they could do is De’Andre Hunter, an OK starter. Now they’ve finally done better with Jalen Johnson.

Johnson has provided an immediate boost since returning last week after a 14-game absence because of injury. He scored a career-high 24 points during the victory at Washington on Sunday. Johnson topped that with a team-high 28 points Wednesday at State Farm Arena as the Hawks beat the Thunder, one of the NBA’s better teams.

Johnson was a bit player for two years after the Hawks drafted him 20th overall in 2021. Now he could get some votes for the NBA Most Improved Player award if he keeps it up and helps the Hawks (14-19) move up the Eastern Conference standings.

“I think it’s getting comfortable within the game, understanding the NBA game a lot more,” Johnson said of his development. “Understanding where I can take advantage in certain areas. I think I’m just getting a lot smarter as the games and days go on. I think that’s a huge thing for me.”

It’s big for the Hawks, too. One reason they wobbled from late November through December is that Johnson was out with a wrist injury. They were 4-10 without Johnson, who can do everything they were missing.

Johnson finishes strong at the rim and rebounds. He can play as a big wing (6-foot-9 with a 7-foot wingspan) or an athletic power forward. Johnson can handle pretty much any defensive assignment while guarding all areas of the floor. He’s unique among Hawks forwards for his ability to score and pass off the dribble.

“His, whether you call it playmaking or facilitating, I think he is getting more and more comfortable,” Hawks coach Quin Snyder said after the victory over the Thunder. “And our team is getting more comfortable with him having the ball in his hand, whether in transition or in situations (like) tonight where they were coming to double (team) and trying to impact our guards. He’s capable of making plays and making plays for other people as well.

“You’ve seen him do that in practice settings. But I think his comfort and confidence doing that in games against a good team, that’s something that’s unique to him with his size and athleticism.”

Johnson is the type of two-way forward that all teams covet: big, versatile and skilled. He’s especially important to the smallish, guard-dominated and defensively challenged Hawks. Johnson leads the Hawks in defensive rebounding (6.7 per game), is tied for second in steals (1.2) and has the team’s best defensive rating (points allowed per possession when he’s on the floor).

Johnson is averaging 15.3 points per game as one of the more efficient scorers in the league. Per Cleaning the Glass, Johnson ranks first in points per shot attempt among forwards who’ve played at least 500 minutes. He’s converted 73% of his shot attempts at the rim, tied for fifth in that group. Johnson has improved his 3-point shooting, too, and now is making 42% of his nearly three attempts per game.

Johnson likely will end up as the best of the Hawks’ post-Young draft picks even though he was selected the latest. He’s giving them more than Hunter (acquired with the No. 8 pick in 2019), Cam Reddish (No. 10 in 2019, traded in 2022) and Onyeka Okongwu (No. 6 in 2020). Johnson has a higher ceiling than the two players the Hawks drafted in the first round after him, AJ Griffin (No. 16 in 2022) and Kobe Bufkin (No. 15 in 2023).

Johnson’s rapid improvement is a bright spot for the Hawks during a so-far disappointing season. There’s room for him to grow because he’s 22 years old with only 1,740 minutes played in the NBA.

“The more reps he plays, the more comfortable he’s going to get,” Young said. “It’s just continue to get him more reps, more shots and more touches in the game. He’ll continue to surprise even more people.”

Young is the Hawks’ best player. He’s played great over the past six weeks, yet his team lost more games than it won. Johnson was out during most of that time. It’s evidence that he might be the team’s most important player because of his uniqueness. It’s a sign of their flawed roster that the Hawks rely so heavily on a player who wasn’t a rotation regular until this season.

The Hawks have been stuck in the middle for going on three years. To break free, they must make a significant trade for a veteran player before next month’s deadline. No deal should include Johnson unless the Hawks get back a high-level starter under contract for multiple seasons. Johnson’s rookie-scale contract expires after next season. To keep him beyond then, the Hawks either will have to fend off free-agent suitors or sign Johnson to a contract extension.

They’ll have to shed the contracts of some high-priced players to do that and avoid paying the luxury tax. Hunter and Dejounte Murray are obvious candidates. Johnson is better than Hunter. If the Hawks trade Murray for a bigger guard or wing who’s a rugged defender, then Johnson can take on some of Murray’s scoring and playmaking duties.

Trading away Murray and increasing Johnson’s role also would help alleviate offensive stagnation late in games. There have been too many possessions with Murray and Young dribbling out the clock. The traps and blitzes that opponents deploy with big defenders wouldn’t be as effective with “point forward” Johnson as a primary option.

The Hawks finally found another potential star in the draft with Johnson. Keeping him for the long term and increasing his role should be a priority.


Hawks at Pacers, 7 p.m., BSSE, 92.9