NORTH AUGUSTA, S.C. — Shortly after Phenom University’s 84-72 loss to Boo Williams on Friday afternoon, Nicolet rising senior Jalen Johnson emerged from the gym, wearing a white T-shirt with a blue Duke emblem.
Years ago, Johnson probably never would have worn the shirt. The 6-foot-8 wing, considered a five-star prospect and the No. 4 overall recruit in the class of 2020 according to the 247Sports Composite rankings, did not grow up a Duke fan. Nearly the opposite, in fact.
“I was a Kentucky fan,” Johnson admitted.
But Johnson’s childhood fandom didn’t come into play during his recruitment, which included Wisconsin in his final four. He committed to Duke on July 4, choosing to play for the team he grew up disliking.
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Why? It was the best fit for him — and Mike Krzyzewski did the best job of recruiting him.
“He just sees so much potential in me, and that made me feel like — I trusted him,” Johnson said. “That’s the biggest thing I needed when deciding on a school. I just wanted to have that trust in a program. Having that trust in Coach K was crazy.”
According to Johnson, Krzyzewski has been in contact with either Johnson or those around him for several years, starting after an Under Armour camp that took place the summer following Johnson’s freshman year of high school.
The turning point of Johnson’s recruitment occurred during an unofficial visit to Duke last August. Johnson could tell that Krzyzewski wanted him by the way he interacted with both Johnson and his father. The trip dispelled any prior notions that Johnson held about Duke.
“Honestly, I was not a Duke fan growing up,” Johnson said. “Hated Duke. But once you get to see Duke, there’s nothing to hate about it. I love that school. I can’t wait to get there.”
While Phenom University, Johnson’s AAU team, has had mixed results at the Peach Jam, losing its past two games after winning its first two, Johnson has for the most part played well.
Through four games, he’s averaging 18.2 points on 47.1 percent shooting, along with 8.0 rebounds, 5.2 assists and 1.8 steals per game. While Johnson has struggled with the consistency of his outside shot on the AAU circuit, he’s still able to score consistently by getting to the rim.
And if all goes right, Johnson will be the latest blue-chip recruit to pass through Duke before he reaches the NBA.
“It’s Duke,” Johnson said. “You got a chance to play with the best coach, so. Just seeing what his track record is with all the players that were similar to me, just seeing what they’re doing in the NBA, I feel like Coach K can really turn me into something special. I really believe in him and his coaching staff.”