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Making the Leap: Jalen Johnson

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Finally, it’s time for Jalen to contribute.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-First Round-Wright State vs Tennessee Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

Let’s continue the “Making the Leap,” series that Terry started recently. He looked into Lamonte Turner and Jordan Bowden, and if you haven’t read it yet, click here. DO IT.

When I fired up a Google search for Tennessee redshirt-junior wing Jalen Johnson, I had to scroll all the way to the bottom of the first page before you hit the link for his UT Sports bio. Above that is all information about another Jalen Johnson, a five-star recruit who is committed to Duke in the 2020 class.

That’s not so unreasonable, as Duke’s Jalen Johnson looks like a nice player, and our Jalen Johnson hasn’t exactly excelled here during his first three seasons.

But Johnson’s lack of significant statistical contributions doesn’t mean there’s an absence of talent, skill or ability. He enrolled before the 2016-17 season, and he’s been behind in the guard/ wing rotation to players like Robert Hubbs, Detrick Mostella, Jordan Bone, Admiral Schofield and Jordan Bowden.

After a redshirt season in 2016, Johnson appeared in 13 games in 2017 and made more than half of his total field goal attempts (6-11 from 2 and 3-6 from 3-point range).

Last season, Johnson played in twice the number of games (26), accrued more than twice the number of minutes (150 from 66) and attempted about three times the number of total shots (14-29 from 2 and 9-20 from 3-point range).

So, even though his minutes-played and shots-attempted both increased significantly, his field goal percentages didn’t take a tremendous dip.

Now, sure, the sample size from his shooting numbers is too small to make an accurate determination on his shooting ability. But the fact that the numbers stayed steady isn’t a bad sign. It might mean something good, or it might not mean anything good at all. But it certainly doesn’t mean anything bad, right?

In fairness, Johnson hasn’t logged enough minutes to glean much from his performances if we’re just looking at his cumulative stats. When you look at the numbers, especially those of guys who didn’t play much, it’s more helpful to look at per 40-minute stats. These tell us what the player does per minute instead of per game, and thereby give a better idea of that player’s productivity and provide equal constraints to compare results.

The eye test shows that Johnson has good form on his shots -- he’s got a high release and looks well-balanced. Looks can be deceiving, but in this case the per 40-minute numbers reinforce that conclusion. Eliminating guys who played in fewer than 10 games, Johnson finished the season first on the team in 3-point percentage (45 percent) and second in 3-point shots made (2.4).

His five total rebounds per 40-minutes ranked second among Tennessee’s guards and wings. At 6-foot-7, he has the height and athleticism to be a competent rebounder for his position.

Okay — he’s an apt shooter and decent rebounder. So, what’s the deal?

Aside from the crowded depth chart, Johnson’s defense is what has kept him from playing more.

“I think the biggest thing, really, is defensively, [and playing] consistently on the defensive end,” Rick Barnes said last season. “We do believe that when Jalen is open, gets rhythm shots, he’ll knock ‘em down. But I think the biggest key is defensively.”

Last year, Johnson averaged 4.5 fouls per 40 minutes. That’s more than anybody who played regularly not named John “the lean, mean, foul machine,” Fulkerson. Using our deductive reasoning skills, we can conclude that Johnson fouls so often because he’s not staying in front of his man on defense. He’s getting beat and using his hands or his body to defend instead of his feet and legs.

Whatever the case, Tennessee hasn’t really needed much production from him. Not yet, anyway. That probably changes this year.

Tennessee is absolutely going to feel the loss of four players to the NBA. There’s just no way around it. Kyle Alexander, Grant Williams, Schofield and Bone accounted for 68 percent of the team’s total points and 62 percent of the total rebounds. Terry talked about how Jordan Bowden and Lamonte Turner will need to be more consistent in their production to insure the Vols don’t get run off the floor on a nightly basis. But those two are going to need some help.

If the recent success of Barnes’ players is any indication, and Johnson can start playing some defense, he could be next in line for a big season.