Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim has attempted to walk back comments that seemed critical of Duke freshman Jalen Johnson, who elected to forgo the Blue Devils’ final six regular-season games and instead prepare for the NBA draft.
Boeheim commented on Johnson’s decision during his weekly radio show Thursday, saying the former five-star recruit was “hurting” his team and that his absence actually helped Duke to two wins. Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski and teammates have supported Johnson’s decisions, leading many to pan Boeheim’s comments; ESPN analyst Jay Bilas, for instance, called them “inappropriate.”
Following the backlash, Boeheim on Saturday tried to clarify his statement: What he intended by his comments, Boeheim said, was that Duke was merely playing its best ball all season in the game-and-a-half he watched after Johnson opted out.
“This is no dispersion, casting dispersion on Jalen Johnson,” Boeheim said. I haven’t even seen Jalen Johnson play this year, to be honest. He’s a tremendous player. Probably be a great pro. I just made the observation, my opinion, that I thought they played better without him in those two games. Jay Bilas said I said they’re a better team without him, permanently. I didn’t say that. I didn’t mean to say that.
“Just in those two games, game and a half, they were a better team than I’ve seen this year. Nothing against Jalen Johnson. Some people have said he shouldn’t have left school — I didn’t say that. Some people have said he’s not thinking about his team — I didn’t say that. I don’t even know Jalen Johnson, I really haven’t seen him that much, I don’t even know how good he is and Duke could be better if he was back. We’ll not know that because he didn’t come back.”
Below are Boeheim’s original comments on Johnson (via Syracuse.com).
“That guy was hurting them so they actually are much better now without him. He was just doing some things and keeping other people from playing that are good. They’ve had two monster wins since he’s opted out and they’re playing good basketball. They’ve got very good talent. You knew they were going to play out of this thing and now they’re playing well. Every game we play is a very difficult game, a great challenge and we look forward to it.”
Regardless of Boeheim’s intent, it’s probably best practice not to comment on other teams’ players, especially in a manner that could be construed as negative. This isn’t the first time he has made those kinds of comments, saying Georgetown guard James Akinjo — who left the program in 2019 — “wouldn’t pass the ball to anybody.” Akinjo averaged 5.1 assists over 40 games with the Hoyas.
Syracuse plays at Duke on Monday.