When Jalen Johnson makes a public appearance these days, he knows exactly which direction the conversation from well-meaning supporters will steer. Johnson is inarguably the best high school basketball player in the state of Wisconsin’s 2020 class, and that means anyone who recognizes him outside the house is likely to ask one question:
Are you coming to Wisconsin?
“Whenever I go to a different high school game, maybe Waunakee or different local games I go to, I’ve got a bunch of little kids and adults telling me to come to Wisconsin,” Johnson told Land of 10. “Of course you don’t even really know what to say at the time because I’m not even sure where I want to go at this point. I’ve just got to give them the same answer. ‘We’ll see.'”
As Wisconsin’s basketball team flounders through its first losing season in 20 years, the Badgers’ fan base already has begun to turn its attention to the future. Perhaps no player garners as much of that attention as Johnson, a 6-foot-8 sophomore whose stock has risen fast and furious in the past year. The fact he plays at Sun Prairie High School, located a mere 25 minutes northeast of the Kohl Center, only magnifies the attraction.
Wisconsin was the first school to offer Johnson a scholarship. That came May 12, 2017, after he averaged 14.9 points per game as a freshman. But what followed over the summer on the AAU circuit was something Johnson and his family could not have foreseen. He quickly became one of the most sought-after prospects in the country while playing for the prestigious Wisconsin Playground Warriors.
Johnson’s mother, Stacy, remembers the weekend ― June 2-4 ― that spawned all the fervor about her son. That weekend, he participated in the Crossroads Elite Invitational in Indianapolis. Johnson was dominant against some of the best competition, drawing praise from recruiting analysts. Slam Online called Johnson “undoubtedly the top player in the event” because of his ability to play all three perimeter positions, make difficult passes and control the tempo.
Paul Biancardi, ESPN’s national director of recruiting, served as the director of the camp and also took notice. Biancardi released his first rankings for members of the 2020 class on June 23. Johnson was ranked in the top 10.
“When the rankings came out and he was in the top 10, that took us by surprise,” said Jalen’s father, Rod Johnson. “But we always knew he was something special. We just didn’t know on what level.”
Johnson took an unofficial visit to Marquette on June 20 and earned his second scholarship offer. He also has collected offers from Purdue, Iowa, West Virginia and UNLV. He’s found himself being courted by college basketball bluebloods Duke, North Carolina and Kentucky. Johnson even made trips to see Duke and then Kentucky for its Big Blue Madness season-opening event in October. He was invited to participate in the Team USA junior national team minicamp in October.
But the recruitment was coming at such warp speed that Rod ultimately told Jalen he needed to put it on the backburner and turn his attention to the high school season.
“Of course from a player’s standpoint, you just want to keep going, keep going,” Jalen said. “But my dad knew what was best for me at the time. He knew I should take a break and focus on school. But as a kid, of course you just want to keep going. Eventually, we had to shut it down and say, ‘It’s time to rest your body.'”
Whether Johnson overextended himself during a taxing summer can be debated, but he did miss the first six games of his sophomore season with a stress fracture in his left foot. He wasted little time in establishing himself as a force again, scoring 30 points in his third game back from injury against Appleton West.
Johnson, a 5-star prospect, currently ranks No. 7 in the ESPN top 25 for the 2020 class and is the No. 8 player in the 247Sports composite. The last 5-star player to sign with Wisconsin was forward Sam Dekker in 2012. He also remains the last top-ranked player in the state to pick the Badgers. Given Johnson’s enormous talent and the time between landing such highly regarded players, it’s no wonder why Wisconsin fans are eager to approach him.
“It’s one of those things like let the kid enjoy the process,” Rod said. “And when he’s a junior and senior, when it’s time to get down to that top 5 or whatever it is, then that’s when you should be asking the questions. Right now, I try to tell people just let him enjoy the process. We’re nowhere near answering or knowing where he wants to go. And I know people would love for him to go to Wisconsin. But it’s still two years away before he has to make a decision.”
Johnson is not a high-volume scorer like Dekker was, although he is capable of scoring plenty. Dekker averaged a state-best 35.2 points per game as a senior at Sheboygan Lutheran. Johnson is averaging 18.2 points per game. But what separates Johnson from many top prospects is his versatility, unselfishness and passing ability. Although he is more apt to camp out in the high post because that’s where his high school team needs him, he is equally adept at playing point guard to set up the offense.
Rod said Jalen is the type of player who is constantly thinking two steps ahead on the court. During the summer before Jalen’s freshman season, Rod watched as some of Jalen’s passes hit teammates in the back of the head because they weren’t prepared to look for a pass. All Jalen needs is the slightest crease on a backdoor cut to fire a pass through traffic for a layup. Rod called Jalen a “position-less player” who can play all five positions on the floor. Plus, he’s still likely to grow two or three more inches.
“He can handle the ball in the open court and play in space,” Sun Prairie boys basketball coach Jeff Boos said. “You don’t see a lot of guys like him. They come along once in a while and not too often. He’s special in that way, and that’s just the way it is. He’s a game-changer. We’re fortunate to have him, and we’re blessed to have him. I can tell you that.”
Johnson plays on a team in which he does not necessarily need to score in bunches. Guard Marlon Ruffin is being considered for a potential walk-on spot with Wisconsin’s basketball team. Guard Marty Strey has accepted a walk-on spot with the Badgers’ football team. Johnson, meanwhile, isn’t even halfway through his high school career and continues to develop.
On Thursday night, his Sun Prairie team defeated Madison Memorial 41-32 in a slugfest that tested Johnson’s patience. He committed two quick fouls and sat the final 13:55 of the first half. But he showed flashes of the player recruiting analysts saw on the AAU circuit.
He skied for a quick putback layup, blocked a shot against a guard while standing flatfooted and scored on a nice post-up turnaround jumper that few players in the state could guard. Johnson finished with a season-low 7 points and 5 rebounds.
Two nights later in a game against Madison West, Michigan coach John Beilein arrived to watch Johnson play the first half. Johnson was terrific. He dribbled past half-court on a fast break, sped through two defenders near the free throw line and soared for a dunk. Twenty seconds later, Johnson collected a pass under the basket and dunked again.
Before halftime arrived, he crossed over between his legs into the lane, leapt in the air and delivered a clever over-the-shoulder pass to an open teammate under the basket. Johnson sat most of the second half and finished the game with 15 points, 8 rebounds and 4 assists on 7 of 12 shooting from the field during an 82-37 victory.
While his individual brilliance is clear, Johnson has tried to narrow his focus to this season. Sun Prairie has never reached the state finals, but the Cardinals are 18-1 overall, 15-1 in the Big Eight and ranked No. 2 in the Associated Press Division 1 poll.
“Night in, night out, there’s a lot of pressure on your shoulders to bring a big performance,” Johnson said. “But it’s more about winning for players like me. I don’t come to play for the stats. I just play to get the win and the main goal at the end is to get to the Kohl Center in March. That’s all I want to do right now.”
Still, Johnson continues to maintain an eye on his future and has stayed in contact with Badgers coach Greg Gard and assistant coach Joe Krabbenhoft. He has taken unofficial visits to Marquette and Wisconsin the past few weeks. Johnson attended Wisconsin’s 83-72 loss against Michigan on Sunday.
“Me and the coaches are really tight,” Johnson said. “Probably the tightest relationship I have at this point is Coach Krabbenhoft. They always keep in contact with me and my dad a lot. Since my dad is the assistant coach now to the JV basketball team, they’re able to contact him directly. So that’s been a lot easier and nicer to have.”
Johnson’s college recruitment has only just begun, and his family is committed to taking the time to ensure he makes the best decision for him. But Wisconsin certainly will garner strong consideration as his recruitment continues to heat up. Meanwhile, Badgers fans across the state and beyond will be watching closely.
“Back when I was at Wisconsin in September, Coach Gard told me with everything coming at you, just enjoy it and be humble through everything,” Johnson said. “That really stuck with me. Coach Krabbenhoft and all the other coaches are telling me the same thing.”