Chances are everyone already has their own opinions on this issue. If you’ve been without power, ESPN, or Twitter, here’s a quick refresher.
Duke forward Jalen Johnson decided early last week to opt out of the rest of the 2021 season to prepare for the NBA Draft. He is ESPN’s sixth-best prospect in the 2021 draft class. The freshman had been in and out of the lineup this season while dealing with a nagging foot injury, and only played eight minutes in his last game before the opt-out. There was no specified reason as to why Johnson withdrew from the team, but the two factors above would make the most sense.
It was a two-sided issue, and a simple one at that, until Jim Boeheim chimed in on his talk radio show on TK-99.
Then the college basketball world went bananas. ESPN’s Jay Bilas called Boeheim out for his repeated criticisms of players who depart mid-season. (Last year the SU head man said Georgetown was better off without James Akinjo when he transferred to Arizona. That turned out to be false.) Pundits and critics told Boeheim to focus on Syracuse. You couldn’t find a soul that agreed with Coach B.
Let’s start with this, something that everyone who likes college basketball, fans, media or otherwise, should agree on – this whole saga is way overblown. College athletes choosing to opt out of their seasons to protect their professional potential is now commonplace. Other coaches also go out of their way to get in people’s business. Just look at Nate Oats and Coach K.
Regardless, Boeheim has tracked back and somewhat cleared the air.
It’s not a great look, especially after Boeheim’s original statement, to say that you’ve “never seen him [Johnson] play.” But here’s the thing – the Syracuse head man might actually be right.
Duke has looked clunky at times with Johnson on the floor. He’s a tremendous talent, but he hasn’t figured out the full range of his game. The Blue Devils forced him the ball at times with “boom or bust” results.
While anyone who has paid attention to the ACC this year wouldn’t call a win over NC State or Wake Forest a “monster” win (unless you’re trying to stay on the NCAA tournament bubble), beating seventh-ranked Virginia is certainly impressive. Duke looks extremely competent as a team. Whether that’s because of Johnson’s departure, or the rest of the team finally meshing, nobody except for Coach K could truly answer.
Duke’s had another freshman play big in Johnson’s absence. Forward Jaemyn Brakefield spent 29 minutes on the court against the Cavaliers, recording 11 points (including a game-winning reserve layup) and 5 rebounds. Keep an eye out for Brakefield on Monday when Duke faces SU (chances are he’ll be on Quincy Guerrier). That matchup could be the difference in a big resume game for both teams.