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Jalen Johnson explains why he left Duke early, and why he thinks he’ll thrive in the NBA

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Jalen Johnson of the Duke Blue Devils shoots the ball against the Louisville Cardinals at KFC YUM!

Jalen Johnson (1) of the Duke Blue Devils shoots the ball against the Louisville Cardinals at KFC YUM! Center on January 23, 2021 in Louisville, Kentucky. (Andy Lyons/Getty Images/TNS)

Jalen Johnson said Tuesday he’s happy with his decision to leave Duke early and prepare for the NBA draft.

Johnson, a projected top-15 pick in the 2021 NBA draft, worked out with the Charlotte Hornets on Tuesday morning, and after, spoke with the media for the first time since leaving Duke.

“I honestly think I wouldn’t be in the position I am in today if I hadn’t left early,” he said. “I’ve prepared myself. I’m in the best position and grateful for this next step. I think I’m more prepared than I’ve ever been.”

When asked what prompted his decision to leave Duke early, Johnson said “it was really the best decision for my family and I.”

“That’s the best way to put it,” he said. “Just had to make sure I was ready for the next step, and be as prepared as possible.”

Johnson, a 6-foot-8, 215-pound small forward, came to Duke as one of the top prospects in the 2020 recruiting class. In his first game at Duke against Coppin State, he scored 19 points and had 19 rebounds.

In all, Johnson played 13 games for Duke, but missed three because of a foot injury. Johnson later returned after recovering from the ailment and averaged 11.2 points and 6.1 rebounds per game on the season.

But in February, he abruptly withdrew from Duke and declared for the NBA draft, citing a desire to enter the NBA draft process 100% healthy.

Keon Jonhson broke an NBA Draft Combine record when he recorded a max vertical jump of 48 inches in the vertical jump drill.

At the time, Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said he was supportive of the move, adding that he had talked with Jalen and his family about the decision.

“I’m a coach because of players, and these kids should have the choice to do whatever they want,” Krzyzewski said in February. “We’re going to give them our guidance and talk to them about it, and then I’m 100% behind him.”

Johnson said he was criticized for the decision in February. At the time, Duke was struggling and in jeopardy of missing the NCAA tournament, and eventually did after finishing 13-11.

But Johnson said the criticism made him work harder.

He hasn’t played much over the past two years. Johnson, who played at Nicolet High School in Glendale, Wisconsin, transferred to IMG Academy for his senior season, but transferred back before playing in a game there. He played in only nine games at Nicolet during as a senior.

Despite that, Johnson said he doesn’t feel he has to prove himself. He just wants to show people his game.

“At the end of the day, I’m not playing this game to prove people wrong,” he said. “I’m doing it because I love it. At the end of the day, the work will show, so I’m just confident that it’s going to show and take people by surprise.”

The Ringer’s Kevin O’Connor projects Johnson to go No. 11 overall in the 2021 NBA draft to the Hornets. But with small forwards Gordon Hayward and Miles Bridges returning, the Hornets’ biggest need remains a center. It was an area where they struggled most during the 2020-21 season.

One option at center is Alperen Sengun, a 6-foot-10, 240-pound 19-year-old from Turkey.

Johnson said if the Hornets were to draft him, though, he would add versatility to the roster. He he can guard positions one through five, he said.

“I think the NBA is going to be easier because there is more open space,” Johnson said, “and that’s where I thrive at. I think I showcased that pretty well.”

The draft is July 29.


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