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Jalen Johnson doesn’t owe Duke anything

Jalen Johnson realized Duke needed him, more than he needed Duke.

NCAA Basketball: Duke at Pittsburgh Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Jalen Johnson shocked the college basketball world on Monday when the Duke freshman announced he would opt out of the remainder of the season to focus on preparing for the NBA Draft. Johnson, seen as a lottery pick before the season began, leaves the team in exactly the same spot. He will almost assuredly be picked early, but his decision to leave the team in February is getting a lot of people really riled up.

Pundits branding Johnson with the “quitter” moniker are intentionally ignoring the nuance of the situation. A talented player, who took to the court in a middle of a global pandemic, playing on an objectively terrible Duke team, decided it was in his best interest to prepare for the next level. There was never much nobility in the idea of trying to carry a disappointing Blue Devils to the NCAA Tournament in a trying season for everyone involved. Instead, Johnson prioritized his own health, safety, and future by using his time to train for the draft rather than finish out a lost season.

In a sport that so often shows a lack of care for athletes, Johnson decided to take care of himself — and people are mad.

There’s been long-held anxiety about Johnson, when it comes to Duke fans.

Regarded as one of the best forward recruits in the country, and the No. 13 player in his class by ESPN, Johnson was the crown jewel in Duke’s 2020 recruiting haul. A star for Nicolet High School in Wisconsin, Johnson made the decision to go to Bradenton and play for the prestigious IMG Academy as a senior. He then decided to leave IMG without playing a game.

Returning to Nicolet in the middle of Covid, Johnson managed to play just nine games his senior season due to the pandemic, but proved in that short time that he was still the same dominant player who garnered attention during the recruiting process.

However, the decision to leave IMG in mysterious circumstances had message boards buzzing. Some feared it was a sign Johnson might skip Duke all together, and find an alternate path to the NBA, especially after Johnson posted a cryptic tweet which some took as a sign he was getting cold feet about playing for Duke.

Those fears never materialized, and Johnson arrived in Durham as planned, but the general uneasiness never went away. This is why the majority of fans now might be angry, or disappointed that he decided to opt out — but not surprised.

The decision to leave sparked the same old debate.

The struggle for the rights of student-athlete is a direct challenge to the old guard of college sports. A system that, for years, has benefitted, thrived, and made enormous amounts of money off the backs of unpaid athletes, who are paid in the “potential” of being noticed and getting a major pay day in the pros. Yes, they receive athletic scholarships the average person couldn’t get, but in exchange coaches and athletic directors became some of the highest paid state employees. As the money swelled in college athletics, it diminished the sheen of getting a scholarship and little else.

For decades this has been a one-sided relationship. Colleges knew that they stood as a gatekeepers for players to get noticed by NBA scouts, which gave them the luxury to call all the shots. If you fail to fall in line then your minutes, your place in the rotation, and your chance to showcase your skills would all diminish — meaning it was in the player’s best interest to continue participating in the system, like it or not.

Recently things have changed. Athletes are learning that the system needs them more than they need it, and for the first time since players began jumping to the NBA straight from high school, young players are making decisions for their future with autonomy. It’s stuck coaches in a bit of a catch-22. On the one hand they obviously need star players to fall in line so they can be successful, but they also can’t push back too strongly and scare off future recruits.

It’s why the greatest condemnation for Johnson leaving for Duke is coming from the old guard of writers and coaches, while the younger generation, like Duke assistant head coach (and former player) Jon Scheyer are handling the situation gently.

The tone was very different from North Carolina coach Roy Williams, who on February 1st went in on players potentially skipping the NCAA tournament. Williams has been steeped in the culture of the one-sided relationship since entering NCAA coaching circles in 1978.

This is Williams is coming face-to-face with the reality that the control he’s benefitted from for decades is being whittled away. There’s a newfound fear that a player, given a commitment to excellence and winning in their living room during a recruiting pitch, might bounce and look out for themselves when the team can’t uphold its end of the bargain and compete at the highest level.

In every player who talks about sitting out for their future Williams sees the reflection of every top player he’s recruited, who could decide it’s best for them to take off and prepare for the draft, rather than play out the remainder of the season.

So we’re left with the threats.

Take a stroll around Twitter and there’s no shortage of people saying that Johnson leaving Duke “destroyed his draft stock.” A myth, perpetuated by those who want to keep the status quo, using the last arrow in their quiver — fear. A masterful manipulative power that intends to scare a player into falling back in line with the threat that their dreams of making it to the NBA are directly linked to whether or not they keep playing out the college season.

Of course, we know this is bullshit. NBA teams aren’t myopic enough to get caught up in babble about “quitting.” They see talent, and nothing more, and are teams are willing to take risks on personality if it means getting that talent on their rosters.

Heck, look no further than LaMelo Ball. Here’s a kid who skipped the entire process all together. LaMelo didn’t attend UCLA as planned, went pro in Lithuania, then to Australia — and early in this process people joked that he would never be drafted as a result. In the end talent shined brighter than any threat of disrupting the status quo. Ball was selected No. 3 overall, and is en route to winning the NBA Rookie of the Year award.

Every time a player succeeds in the NBA by skipping the college process like LaMelo, or thrives in the league by coming from Europe like Luka Doncic, it erodes the mystique that playing for a Division 1 school is the only way to make it in the pros. That is terrifying for the old guard of college athletics, who realize there needs to be a greater incentive to get players to stay in school and fuel March Madness — paying them.

What’s next for Jalen Johnson?

We had Johnson as the No. 9 overall pick in our mock draft earlier this month.

Entering this season Johnson was seen as a lock to be selected in the lottery, and he leaves in exactly the same place. Nothing that happened at Duke was enough to propel him into consideration for a top 3 pick, nor was it enough to bounce him out of the lottery. Remember: The NBA believes in talent more than internet outrage, and Johnson still has enough upside to entice dozens of teams on draft night.

Make no mistake though, this is a reckoning. Maybe Johnson leaving will be a one-off and won’t start a snowball effect, but there’s a possibility, albeit slim, that players in the future will look at their place on college teams, where they’re projected to go in the NBA Draft, and decide that playing for free just isn’t worth it anymore.

That is the existential threat to the system that guys like Roy Williams fear. For now, Johnson is putting himself first and doing what’s best for his future.