One thing that college is supposed to do is serve as a transition between childhood and adulthood, getting people ready for the “real world.” Jalen Johnson is now fully there, making a decision about what’s best for himself and his family, and getting ripped for it by some dope who only sees the world through college basketball lenses.
Johnson, a freshman at Duke, has decided to opt out of the remainder of the season, citing a desire to be “100% healthy in preparation for the NBA Draft.” He’s worked his way back from a foot injury, and talked through it with Mike Krzyzewski, who offered his support, saying, “We believe this decision is in his best interest.”
But that’s not good enough for Jon Rothstein of CBS Sports, who’s already a running joke of a Twitter personality for his “This is March” shtick. To him, Johnson needs to be painted as a villain for not caring about college basketball as much as he does.
This isn’t just about Rothstein. It’s about a mindset and culture that rewards this thinking with thousands of likes and retweets, and a sentiment that’s echoed on sports talk radio from coast to coast in similar situations. How dare a college athlete — an unpaid college athlete — do what’s best for himself?
Johnson’s draft projections vary. In its mock draft, USA Today puts Johnson at No. 5, Yahoo places the 6-9 forward at No. 7, SB Nation says No. 9, NBC Sports has him at No. 14, NBADraft.net at No. 21,
The variability makes sense. Johnson has played only 13 college games, with eight starts, averaging 11.2 points and 6.1 rebounds per game in 21.4 minutes. Those aren’t eye-popping stats, but neither were the numbers last year for Patrick Williams, who played 29 games off the bench for Florida State, and averaged 9.2 points and 4.0 rebounds in 22.5 minutes per game. Williams went No. 4 in the draft to the Bulls and so far has averaged 9.9 points and 4.6 rebounds a night in 27.6 minutes as a starter in 25 NBA games.
But this isn’t about Johnson’s draft stock or whether he’ll succeed in the NBA. The range of where he lands in mock drafts speaks to great uncertainty about exactly what he is as an NBA prospect, albeit with agreement that he definitely is a first-round talent.
That being the case, what more does Johnson have to do at Duke? The Blue Devils are tied for eighth in the ACC, have an 8-8 overall record, and already were a fringe bubble team for the NCAA Tournament before Johnson opted out. Not even the mayor of Krzyzewskiville has been looking at this as a potential championship year for the Dukies, and it’s not like Johnson was going to boost his draft stock with a star turn in the NIT.
In another generation, Johnson may have jumped straight from high school to the NBA. In another year, Johnson would have been able to look forward to dazzling crowds and scouts in March Madness. But this is a year that’s not only a down season for Duke, but in which basketball is being played in the middle of a pandemic, which of course is why Duke has only played 16 games.
Johnson was never going to stick around Duke until he got his degree. It always was a marriage of convenience: Johnson needed a place to play until he qualified for the NBA draft, and Duke was more than happy to present him a way station in exchange for being able to make money off his back, hopefully culminating in him being part of a championship team.
It hasn’t been great for either side, because Johnson hasn’t become a surefire lottery pick, and Duke stinks this season. So, now, it’s over. Johnson doesn’t need Duke anymore, Duke doesn’t need him anymore, and they can go their separate ways.
Quitting? No. Johnson completed his course of studies at Duke University. With the Blue Devils not headed to the Tournament, he has nothing more to accomplish there, and his departure will free up minutes for others to show what they can do, and to build chemistry among the players who will be part of the team next year. In the meantime, Johnson doesn’t risk his basketball health by going out and playing meaningless games, nor his general health by traveling for basketball in the middle of a pandemic.
Is this good for college basketball? Absolutely not. But that’s not Johnson’s problem. That’s an issue that the NCAA and NBA have to work out. A better model already exists in baseball, where players can go pro after high school, or commit to playing at least three years of college ball. With more players choosing to forego college for options like the G League Ignite or international ball, there’s a path available for college basketball to move away from the one-and-done system.
In the meantime, it is wrong as can be to rip Johnson for “quitting” on Duke when he’s never seeing a dime from the work he put in at the university, he was only there in the first place because of a system designed to take advantage of athletes to enhance the prestige of colleges, it’s not even like he’s walking out on a team that was doing anything, and again, we’re in the middle of a pandemic.
Johnson has nothing to gain from traveling to Wake Forest to play 20-something minutes of basketball on Tuesday, nor from any of the rest of the games on Duke’s schedule. There are only risks: re-injuring his foot, suffering another injury, catching the virus. Duke doesn’t have anything to gain at this point either — they’re not winning it all this year.
By opting out, Johnson is showing exactly the kind of ability to make a tough decision that you’d hope for your own kid to learn to make in college. If only college basketball talking heads could learn the same kind of lesson.