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Jalen Johnson's Opt-Out Could Be Just What the Doctor Ordered for .500 Duke

Kerry Miller@@kerrancejamesCollege Basketball National AnalystFebruary 16, 2021

Jalen Johnson
Jalen JohnsonKeith Srakocic/Associated Press

In stunning news Monday night, Jacob Polacheck of ZagsBlog was the first to report that Duke's possibly NBA lottery-bound freshman Jalen Johnson opted out of the remainder of the 2020-21 men's college basketball season.

This was just the latest chapter in what has been a tumultuous, confusing couple of years for Johnson.

There's no denying his talent. He was sensational in high school. In his collegiate debut against Coppin State, he racked up 19 points and 19 rebounds. He later had 24 points, 16 rebounds, seven assists, four blocks and two steals in a game against Pittsburgh.

When he was locked in, it wasn't hard to see why most NBA scouts have been willing to overlook the red flag that he wasn't even nominated for the 2020 McDonald's All-American Game after leaving prep school powerhouse IMG Academy without playing a game.

Then, four games into this seasonless than a week after Duke's decision to cancel the remainder of its nonconference gamesJohnson was indefinitely sidelined by what Duke announced was a foot injury. (Stadium's Jeff Goodman said Dec. 17 on The Field of 68 podcast that he wasn't 100 percent buying that injury.)

Johnson missed three games and was a Jekyll and Hyde player after his return. He was stellar in the aforementioned game against Pitt. A few days later, he committed six turnovers in a disastrous performance against Louisville.

After he had another dud in a bad loss to Miami, Mike Krzyzewski had Johnson on the bench to start a marquee game against North Carolina. One week after that, Johnson played just eight minutes in a win over NC State. And now he's leaving the 8-8 Blue Devils to focus on the NBA draft.

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Might Duke finally be able to turn a corner now that he's gone?

It defies logic to suggest that a team might improve after losing its most talented player, but even the best square pegs still don't fit into round holes. And outside of a few fleeting moments when it all seemed to click and Johnson took over games, it often felt like the Blue Devils were trying to force something that wasn't meant to be.

It had ripple effects throughout the roster.

Matthew Hurt
Matthew HurtRobert Franklin/Associated Press

Matthew Hurt has had metronome-like consistency as Duke's leader. Per KenPom, the sophomore stretch 4 has had an offensive rating of at least 110 in all but one game this season, and even in the lone exception, he had 20 points and 11 rebounds on the road against Virginia Tech. As rough as this season has been for the Blue Devils, Hurt still might be in the mix for first-team All-ACC.

But everyone else has been all over the place.

Sophomore forward Wendell Moore Jr. has had five impressive games with at least 15 points but also eight games with five points or fewer. Freshman guard Jeremy Roach has had a similar all-or-nothing season in which the seven most recent entries in his points log read: 2, 16, 16, 2, 12, 0, 0.

Freshman guard DJ Steward has been a good deal more consistent in the points column, but there's no telling if he'll score his 13 points on eight shots with minimal turnovers or on 15 shots with sloppy ball-handling. Freshman big men Mark Williams and Jaemyn Brakefield have provided good value when they've played, but their playing time waxed and waned based on Johnson's availability and effectiveness.

Now, by no means are all those players' inconsistencies on Johnson. They may well just be inconsistent players, at least at these early stages of their playing careers.

However, there's no way they benefited from having no idea which version of the most NBA-ready talent on the roster they were going to play alongside on any given night.

So while there's now less talent on the team, at least the remaining Blue Devils might finally figure out their roles within the system.

You know, sort of like six years ago when Rasheed Sulaimon abruptly left Duke 20 games into what turned out to be a national championship campaign.

At that point in the 2014-15 season, Duke had lost three of its last six games and was starting to turn into a dumpster fire on defense. But right after Sulaimon left, Justise Winslow posted the first double-double of his college career and played a much bigger role the rest of the way, Matt Jones' role grew larger and more defined, and a freshman by the name of Grayson Allen started getting some legitimate runs for the first time in months.

The talent was always there. It just didn't mesh or balance until a key member of the rotation who was unhappy with his role was out of the picture.

Before you get up in arms, I'm not suggesting this Duke team sans Johnson will transform into a title contender.

But I am suggesting the Blue Devils could still make the 2021 NCAA tournament.

Because we've seen the "addition by midseason subtraction" thing work for this program once before. And it's not like Duke has been that bad. Its record is an eyesore, for sure, but seven of its eight losses came by seven points or fewer. The one game that got out of hand was a 15-point loss to a title contender in Illinois that shot 63.6 percent from three-point range.

Duke is 34th in the KenPom rankings, and we're deep enough into the campaign that preseason ratings have little, if anything, to do with that formula.

This isn't a team that needs a miracle or a drastic makeover to be competitive. Better-defined roles on the court and one fewer off-the-court distraction could do the trick.

Maybe Duke (6-6 in the ACC) will lose to Wake Forest (6-9, 3-9) in less than 48 hours and I will look like a buffoon for suggesting it still had an at-large pulse.

Or maybe Johnson's decisionin conjunction with Saturday's 16-point win at NC State in which he barely played—will be the catalyst that leads to wins over Virginia, Louisville and North Carolina over these final three weeks of the regular season.

Johnson's college career is finished, but don't put that final nail in Duke's 2020-21 coffin just yet.

             

Statistics courtesy of Sports Reference and KenPom.com.

Kerry Miller covers college football and men's college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter, @kerrancejames.

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