Duke freshman forward Jalen Johnson has opted out of the remainder of the college basketball season and entered the NBA Draft, the program announced on Monday. Johnson, a former five-star recruit, ranked as the highest-rated prospect in Duke's 2020 signing class. A 6-foot-8 forward who showcased guard skills as a ball-handler and passer at the prep level and in bursts at the college level, he leaves the program as a likely first-round draft selection.
"I appreciate everything about my time at Duke," Johnson said in a statement. "Coach K, my teammates and the program have been nothing but supportive throughout this season, especially during the rehab of my foot injury. My family, Coach and I have made the decision that I should not play the remainder of this season so I can be 100 percent healthy in preparation for the NBA Draft. This was not easy but we feel it's best for my future. I have nothing but love for the Brotherhood and thank my teammates and everyone associated with the program. Duke will always have a special place in my heart and will always be a part of me."
Johnson's bonafides as a pro prospect are not in question, but he was never able to quite fulfill expectations that typically accompany one-and-done talents at Duke. Part of that can be blamed on COVID-19 and the lack of preparation in the preseason because of the pandemic typically afforded to newcomers. Plus, Johnson had to deal with a lingering injury. He missed more than a month because of a foot ailment that spanned from mid-December to mid-January. Yet even when he returned his performances were somewhat inconsistent, and over the last few games, his playing time had dwindled. He was not in the starting lineup in Duke's last three games.
"I have confidence in him," Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said Saturday of Johnson after he played only eight minutes in a win over NC State. "We're going to keep working with him and he'll have opportunities. Today, going in another direction worked out well for us."
Krzyzewski on Monday in a statement hinted at Johnson's opting out as a decision made based at least in part on his medical future with respect to the foot injury. Just last week, he divulged in a media appearance that Johnson had undergone an MRI before the North Carolina game, adding that it could be a "major factor in his career," per The Fayetteville Observer.
"While we are encouraged by what we are seeing medically, for Jalen's future, we believe this decision is in his best interest," Krzyzewski said in the statement announcing Johnson's decision. "We are ultimately careful with every one of our players and will continue to support Jalen as he progresses toward his goal of playing professional basketball. He deserves to be fully healthy for the upcoming NBA Draft."
Duke (8-8, 6-6 ACC), with six remaining regular season games, is on a collision course to fall well short of an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament. Should it miss the tourney, it would end a streak of 24 consecutive appearances, the second-longest streak among all college basketball teams. While it still has a talented roster capable of potentially making a run in the ACC Tournament and clinching the league's automatic bid, moving forward without Johnson the team's potential is docked considerably.