Hawks bolster forward spot by drafting Duke’s Jalen Johnson
ATLANTA (AP) — Jalen Johnson was entertained by Trae Young and the Atlanta Hawks in the playoffs.
Now Johnson says he wants to help Young and the Hawks take the next step to the NBA finals.
The Hawks bolstered their depth by selecting Johnson, a forward from Duke, with the 20th pick in the NBA draft Thursday night.
“They’re a crazy young talented group,” Johnson said. “Like it’s so fun to watch. Trae, he was a bucket the whole playoffs and he was just entertainment, pure entertainment. I’m excited to play with him, the other guys, Cam Reddish. It’s just a great young talented group. I feel myself fitting in just great there. So, they’re definitely going to make some more noise in the next couple years.”
With their second-round pick, No. 48 overall, the Hawks selected Auburn point guard Sharife Cooper, who will compete for a spot as Young’s backup. Cooper, from McEachern High School in the Atlanta area, averaged 20.2 points and 8.1 assists as a freshman at Auburn.
The Hawks missed the playoffs three consecutive years before making an improbable run in the playoffs. They lost to the eventual NBA champion Milwaukee Bucks in the Eastern Conference final.
“They came off a great season this past year,” Johnson said. “I’m just willing to do whatever it takes to add on to that. The next goal is the finals now, make it to the finals.”
The 6-foot-9 Johnson gives Atlanta important depth as the team faces the possibility of losing forward John Collins to free agency. The Hawks will open the season without forward-center Onyeka Okongwu, who had surgery on July 21 to repair a torn labrum in his right shoulder and is expected to be fully recovered in about six months.
Johnson played only 13 games as a freshman at Duke last season before opting out. He averaged 11.2 points and 6.1 rebounds.
Hawks general manager Travis Schlenk said Johnson had “some issues at Duke” and “some stuff in high school as well.”
Schlenk said Johnson is “extremely talented” with “great size, great ball skills” and can play either forward spot.
Schlenk said his information showed that Johnson was “moving in the right direction” following a foot injury at Duke. The Hawks’ medical staff will examine Johnson on Friday.
Schlenk, blessed with a deep roster, entered the draft with plans to take the best available player instead of draft for need. Johnson, who was highly regarded entering the 2020-21 season, projected as a possibly lottery draft pick, might fill both categories.
Johnson made 52.3% of his shots from the field while also averaging 1.2 blocks and 1.2 steals in his abbreviated season.
The Hawks built through the draft. Young, Collins, Okongwu, Reddish, Kevin Huerter and De’Andre Hunter were first-round picks who were the foundation of the team that finished 41-31.
Collins is a restricted free agent. The Hawks have the option to match offers from other teams, but it could be a difficult decision as they face future contract decisions with Young and other young players.
Other key players from that team — including center Clint Capela and shooting guard Bogdan Bogdanovic — are expected to return.
Also returning is Nate McMillan, who was named the full-time coach on July 5. The Hawks were only 14-20 before firing coach Lloyd Pierce and finishing 27-11 under McMillan as interim coach.
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