Jalen Johnson leaves Duke, will opt out to prepare for draft

The Blue Devils will attempt to earn an NCAA bid without one of their most talented players

Duke's Jalen Johnson (1) gets a rebound in front of Pittsburgh's Justin Champagnie (11) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game, Tuesday, Jan. 19, 2021, in Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)

Duke’s attempt to finish the regular season strong and compete for an NCAA Tournament berth took a hit Monday when freshman Jalen Johnson left the team and opted out of the rest of the regular season.

The top recruit in Duke’s six-man freshman class, Johnson started his Blue Devils career with 19 points and 19 rebounds in the opening game. After suffering a December foot injury that kept him out for three games, Johnson struggled to regain his position as a focal point in the Duke offense.

In recent games, coach Mike Krzyzewski gave extended minutes to center Mark Williams and forward Henry Coleman, with Johnson seeing his playing time decrease. After starting eight of the first 10 games he played as a Blue Devil, Johnson came off the bench each of the last three games.

Johnson logged just eight minutes on Saturday against NC State, the least playing time he’s seen since logging four minutes in his return game following the foot injury. Afterward, coach Krzyzewski discussed the freshman’s playing time.

“Today – you saw the game – it was really physical,” Krzyzewski said. “We had him in there a couple times and he was knocked back. I would’ve put him back in, but Jaemyn [Brakefield] and Henry and those guys — it didn’t knock them back. Jalen will keep playing. That’s the thing that all freshmen have to learn. Mark now has learned that. The physicality of this game is huge. I have confidence in him. We’re going to keep working with him and he’ll have opportunities.

“Today, going in another direction worked out well for us, and getting Mark more minutes. Mark, I think he played 27 minutes. Playing the two big guys — at one time, Matt [Hurt] and Jalen were the two bigs, so if there’s a big guy playing like Mark is, you’ve got to play him. Mark and Matt, they were really good today. So, it’s nothing against any kid. It’s just that sometimes, some kids are better in a ballgame.”

A statement from Duke said that Johnson is leaving to prepare for the NBA Draft, which he will enter following the season.

“I appreciate everything about my time at Duke,” said Johnson. “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.”

“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. “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.”

Johnson was third on the team in scoring at 11.2 points per game, second in rebounding (6.1) and third in assists (2.2).