Inside Hawks forward Jalen Johnson's relentless pursuit of NBA stardom

There was no trip to Cabo, no sand to scrunch between Jalen Johnson’s toes. While many within the NBA scattered to beaches and cruised on private boats, Johnson, the third-year Hawks forward thriving in Atlanta, dialed his trainer and jetted to Los Angeles. It's become tradition, an annual ritual. Johnson spends every All-Star break taking anything but a breather, renting an Airbnb and spending each day’s first workout tuning elements of the Hawks’ development plan tailored just for the 22-year-old. His second training focuses on ironing out his evolving jumper. In between, he’ll find a third session, often contorting his 6-foot-9, 220-pound frame through pilates and yoga.

“It lets you know how unsatisfied he is,” said trainer Chris Johnson, by way of the mental and skills coach’s partnership with Klutch Sports. “He’s a starter now, he’s getting everything he wants, and he’s still unsatisfied. He has this desire to be the best version of himself.” Then, the man who works out LeBron James offered this, like he’s stating the obvious: “Jalen Johnson is the next superstar in the making.”

“He’s so good. He’s so athletic. He can guard every position,” one general manager told Yahoo Sports. “And he’s just beginning to figure out how good he can be.”

If Johnson has a greatest strength, it’s that exact understanding of how maximizing the talent pulsing through his powerful legs will come incrementally and with consistency. His rare court vision unlocks all different positions and places from which Johnson operates during this breakout campaign. He leaps so gracefully, his jog almost a levitation off the floor, Johnson stands out even among the largest competitors on hardwood. His 15.7 points on 52.2% shooting, 8.6 rebounds and 3.4 assists have more than doubled his production from last season in double the minutes, making Johnson a clear-cut profile for the NBA’s Most Improved Player. And still, it seems none of that would have rounded into this dynamic form without the mind behind all his muscle. Why he’s as wise a bet to capitalize on potential as any player approaching his second contract this summer.

Few Johnson’s age can accept how change happens over time. That change is cumulative, even during an era of instant gratification. Throughout our 40-minute conversation inside the Hawks’ training facility in February, beads of sweat still pearled along his brow, Johnson repeated one word most often: eventually. A trust that results will come tomorrow, even if frustration can blind you today.

“I watch a lot of guys who do everything,” Johnson told Yahoo Sports. “That’s my mindset. I don’t want to have there be a lapse of why I can’t finish out a game. I want to be at least solid in every department, whatever that may be. And then eventually just keep building on that, just keep adding bits and pieces.”

ATLANTA, GEORGIA - NOVEMBER 21: Jalen Johnson #1 of the Atlanta Hawks goes up for a shot during the second quarter against the Indiana Pacers during an NBA In-Season Tournament game at State Farm Arena on November 21, 2023 in Atlanta, Georgia. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Todd Kirkland/Getty Images)
Jalen Johnson has all the tools to be one of the NBA's best. (Photo by Todd Kirkland/Getty Images) (Todd Kirkland via Getty Images)

He’s building into something Atlanta believes, and believes quite strongly, will serve as strong a foundation for the Hawks as any player in their building. You see it after practice, at the far basket near the enclaved trainer’s room, with head coach Quin Snyder hovering over Johnson’s extra shots. Snyder, who shares Johnson’s Duke playing roots, is stretching the forward’s skills and then rolling him back again into packed puddy, ready to be shaped into something more.

In an offense that’s been so largely engineered by All-Star guard Trae Young, Snyder still finds lanes to put the ball into Johnson’s massive hands. When Johnson rebounds and pushes, flying down the floor like Blake Griffin in his prime in Los Angeles or Ben Simmons’ heyday in Philadelphia, Snyder has steered him toward the sidelines. That way, he can attack from the wings, barreling straight toward the rim at the court’s 45-degree angle. Snyder encourages him to isolate. With Young’s recent injury, before a bum ankle nicked Johnson off the floor for a few games, Johnson was handling the rock even more as a small-ball five.

“When you see certain things, we try to give him those opportunities,” Snyder told Yahoo Sports. “And sometimes, you know, it doesn’t work out right. Sometimes you fail. But you learn from that. And that’s been, I think, the most impressive thing about him, is how he’s handled so many new situations.”

The backyard beginnings

That’s been Johnson’s precise path and at certain points his plight. From the first days of his father, Rod, training three sons around town, to Johnson’s nomadic high school career, and his short stint with the Blue Devils that ultimately left Johnson slipping past teams now wishing they’d plucked him sooner than the Hawks’ 20th pick in July 2021.

Rod met Stacy Johnson before his first game playing at Wisconsin-Milwaukee in 1995, when a mutual friend introduced the undersized centers who each flashed low post prowess for the Panthers’ men’s and women’s teams. Yet once their children all gravitated toward their beloved orange ball, the couple agreed their sons would not be parked on the block and stuck in the past. Rod’s favorite player was always the Lakers’ superstar who shared his same surname, known around the world by only one word: Magic. “We wanted the boys to have those same skills,” Rod said.

He brought the kids to local gyms where Rod still ran pickup after playing professionally in Poland, drilling the boys before or after he played. Rod placed cones across courts and parks for ball-handling work. He barked for line runs and shuttle slides. He strapped weighted vests across their chests and dribbling goggles around their heads, blocking their vision from looking down to keep surveying what’s in front of them. He pulled the boys with resistance ropes to boost their burst.

Stacy served as the kids’ sounding board, and the results are the results. Jalen’s older brother, known to the family as Little Rod, would go on to play at UT Chattanooga. His younger brother, Kobe, 13 months his junior, now plays at USC. And Jalen, well, he always sported something different. How many kindergarteners were out there dropping dimes? “He just had that natural feel that you can’t teach,” Stacy said. “He was always one step ahead.” Johnson sought the meaning behind each repetition and every sprint. “Why we gotta do this? Why we gotta do this many?” Jalen remembers pleading with his father, perhaps mixing a complaint within a query. “I know, in his head, if you do 10 down-and-backs, you’re gonna be more conditioned,” Jalen said. “So he’s thinking more game-like things, just trying to prepare us as much as possible.”

When Jalen joined Sun Prairie, 13 miles northwest of Madison, Wisconsin, the freshman helped the school reach the regional final. Head coach Jeff Boos slated him as his “swing guard,” a form of point forward, marveling at his decision-making in the open floor. “For some reason, I got this, like, adrenaline rush from hitting somebody for an open layup, a long fastbreak pass. Those are the type of plays that kinda fulfill me,” Jalen said. “I think that’s where my passing came from. Just being able to hit somebody for a dunk or something, knowing that play started with you.” Opposing coaches now rue his lobs to teammates flying along the baseline.

Jalen rose up recruiting rankings and stepped squarely into the spotlight. Rod and Stacy reminded their boys to keep their heads down and their sneakers squeaking one direction. The parents showed articles of past prodigies’ mistakes, “pretty adamantly, pretty often,” Stacy said. “We didn’t want anything to be the front page of the paper.”

The league quickly became Johnson’s directive. Why Duke’s recruiting pitch, preparing him for the NBA during one season just like Jayson Tatum and Brandon Ingram, resonated so strongly – before COVID-19 closed the school and stopped the globe. His whole family, “The Johnson Five,” as Rod and Stacy proudly claim, reconvened at home, while lockdowns persisted and the Blue Devils delayed and delayed the starting date for incoming recruits. June bled into July, and then Johnson tested positive for the virus. He was the last player to arrive in Durham for that 2020-21 season. “It was just off from get-go,” Stacy said.

When Cameron wasn’t Cameron, Jalen wasn’t Jalen

Johnson finally moved into his room inside the Washington Duke Inn, a gothic building perched with a storied Durham golf club, its dim lighting down the halls disappearing into drab carpet. “I hated the hotel on my visit, and then they told us we gotta live there for the season, I was kinda like, ‘Oh …’” Johnson said. “That was an adjustment, for sure.” Duke tallied quite the bill renting an entire wing, quarantining their players in order to keep from infection, and yet those old confines weren’t meant for long-term stays. Daily testing burned the players’ nostrils, aware of the increased risks for head coach Mike Krzyzewski, then 73 and piloting his penultimate season. They played home games in front of cardboard cutouts, not Crazies. The stadium’s silence was deafening. “I went to Duke, but didn’t really go to Duke,” Johnson said. “Everything was altered or some type of modification to something. Like, no fans in Cameron? You can’t even imagine no fans there now.”

Even though Johnson would erupt for a 20-point, near triple-double against Pitt and flush a ridiculous poster against Clemson, Duke’s roster never seemed to piece together. Johnson was supposed to be the latest freshman phenom leading the Blue Devils to the Big Dance, and yet they were a bubble team from the jump and prone to burst amid a global pandemic. The weight stacked and stacked onto his broad shoulders. “You gotta understand, how coach, how he coached his players, how he demanded the best out of his guys, I just didn’t know how to take all that at the time,” Jalen said. “Just as far as staying sharp and staying even-keeled amongst everything.”

There was little leeway for balance. He went to practice and went back to the hotel. He went to play and went back to the hotel. Everything always led back to that hotel. Johnson began counting down the days until the season was complete, stirring restless inside his washed-out room. He’d wake in the middle of the night, still trapped in the same repetition. The darkness began to swallow him. For the first time, he sought the counsel of a therapist. “I talked to somebody. Because you need it,” Jalen said. “You need somebody, an unbiased voice sometimes just to be able to talk things through.”

Stacy packed for Durham that second semester, sacrificing being home for the final weeks of Kobe’s senior year. She found an apartment near campus, still unable to attend home games, but regrouped each day with her son to provide guidance and emotional support. What came next wasn’t overnight. Little by little, conversation after conversation, it made clearest sense to the family for Johnson to remove himself from school and refocus on the draft process that lay ahead. “That’s when I tapped into my mental side and understanding how important that was,” Jalen said. “Because I’d have games where I’d have a great stat line, we’d win, but then it was like …” He nodded quietly. “That was a changing point.”

And yet the gossip swirled, his downslope weaponized. Angry commenters labeled Johnson a quitter on social media, having abandoned Duke’s leaky ship after he’d already left Sun Prairie following his sophomore season for Nicolet — over in Glendale, 15 minutes north of Milwaukee — before flocking to IMG Academy, only to return back to Nicolet for the second half of his senior year of high school. Scouts willingly traded stories about Johnson that weren’t founded. Duke would sometimes yank him late in games, and so he earned demerits in NBA teams’ databases for being considered uncoachable and perhaps running a stalling motor.

“Most and a lot of what is said and or done is based off of opinion and perception,” said Stacy. “Not off of truth.”

“And you know where the rumors are coming from, because there’s only certain people in those situations,” Jalen said. “It’s kinda like, those things kinda hurt just hearing those rumors about you. These people are supposed to be here to protect you and protect your name.”

The grapevine continued, twisting back to Johnson and his family the very morning of the draft, alleging his struggles with marijuana consumption, the same allegations that followed him since IMG, even though the league no longer tests players for cannabis.

“And it’s like, now look, that’s not even me,” Johnson said. “We’re in a hotel room. I’m not that naive of a kid to smoke in a hotel room or something like that. I got morals, I got principles, I got respect for people, for where I’m at, for where I’m standing, where I’m gonna lay my head. Understanding what’s around me, knowing those types of things, I’m not dumb enough to put myself at risk just to be high.”

The great rebound in Atlanta

Johnson worked out for Charlotte, holding the No. 11 pick, on three occasions. But when the Hornets’ selection came and went, Johnson realized he was becoming the next suited prospect to lag in the green room behind many of his peers. His representatives at Klutch Sports, Lucas Newton and Rich Paul, worked at the tables inside Barclays Center to pinpoint their ideal landing spot with Atlanta, where executive Landry Fields, now the Hawks’ general manager, shared a similar vision of nurturing a former five-star recruit behind a young team that just reached the 2021 Eastern Conference finals.

Jalen stitched himself back together the only way he knew how. He’d been training with Chris Johnson in L.A. since that February — their first All-Star break together, before he ever entered the league — altering his hand placement on the ball, correcting his long fingers from engulfing the leather, so that his release rolled off his front two digits and not his pinky or thumb. When he touched down in Atlanta, Paul Jesperson, a Hawks assistant also from Wisconsin whose older brother played in local 3-on-3 competitions with Rod, sat him on a box to further work through his mechanics. Jalen asked Fields if he could play in the G League. “You just don’t see that nowadays,” said Steve Gansey, Jalen’s head coach with the Hawks’ affiliate team in College Park. “A lot of guys consider it a demotion.”

“It was definitely a struggle. But at the end of the day, nobody in the pre-draft was gonna really know who you are until they pick you and to know you every day. And that’s what I’ve been focused on as a person, a teammate, a player. And keep showing it. That’s what I’m trying to do every day,” Jalen said. “That was my mindset, once I got drafted, ‘I’m breaking every false narrative about me.’ I just gotta create myself from everybody around me who’s invested in who I am.”

“He’s definitely seen what he can trudge through, what he can push through, and where he can go after feeling rock bottom,” Stacy said.

He climbed, whipping one-hand looks to the opposite corner that made Gansey dub him a “mini-LeBron.” When Snyder took over the Hawks last spring, he sat Johnson down and laid out how the coach’s read-and-react, quick-decision philosophies were perfect for the burly kid wearing No. 1. Atlanta has used Johnson on both sides of the pick-and-roll equation during this third season. He’s gone over the proper footwork to explode off screens, or hold the defender on his hip before rolling, more than dancers rehearse choreography.

He’s taken further shooting counsel from Kyle Korver, once the retired marksmen joined Atlanta’s braintrust. He’s taken lessons from LeBron while working out together within Klutch’s training lab. “He told me there should be no reason I shouldn’t be on All-Defensive teams,” Jalen said. He’s sought the meaning behind every method of his work, just like he’s back on his father’s playground.

With all the uncertainty that shrouded Atlanta’s roster during this past trade deadline, whether All-Star guard Dejounte Murray would be traded, whether anyone else could be dealt this summer, it is Jalen who’s emerged as the surest piece of this Hawks puzzle, having flipped his script line by line.

“He faced adversity. When that happens, it knocks you back a little bit. But more than anything it’s what you do with it,” Snyder said. “He’s thrown himself into his game. He’s worked. Not just on the court. He’s worked in the weight room. As much as anything, he’s worked mentally to fight through. And as you do that, it becomes something that’s a strength. You don’t carry things with you. You get to the next play. I coach him hard. I’m trying to be really demanding because he deserves it and he wants it. It’s pretty amazing when you get those two things lined up.”