Jalen Johnson and Sharife Cooper Are Ready To Make Plays

The Hawks' 2021 draftees will try to find their NBA niche in the upcoming season

By KL Chouinard @KLChouinard 

After spearheading a late comeback over the Grizzlies with 10 points, 3 assists, and some feisty defensive ball pressure, Sharife Cooper deadpanned that he wanted to be a shot in the arm for the Hawks.

"I definitely want to be an energy boost for the team. I know we've got a lot of old guys," he told Lauren Jbara of Bally Sports Southeast.

How young is Cooper? The 20-year-old doesn't have any first-hand memories of the assistant coach who has worked with him most. Cooper was just 4 years old when Nick Van Exel played his final NBA game.

"I've seen some highlights of the Lakers," Cooper said. "When (Coach Van Exel) finally got here, I actually looked a little bit. It's crazy to have a coach like that – who is kind of similar – to be able to teach me and work with me every day."

Both Cooper and fellow 2021 draftee Jalen Johnson have contributed meaningful minutes in the preseason. Cooper has averaged 6.3 points and 3.7 assists in 16.1 minutes per game. Johnson has added 3.7 points, 3.0 rebounds and 0.7 blocks in 17.6 minutes. 

But the fact of the matter is that Cooper and Johnson are coming into the NBA in a different way than their recent predecessors, Trae Young and John Collins, who entered the league on Hawks teams that won 24 and 29 games, respectively, in their rookie seasons. This Hawks team has a deep roster and postseason aspirations, and those aspirations move the development of young players into a different light.

"We're still developing, but we're competing now. It's not about giving that guy that opportunity and continuing to just let him work on it," head coach Nate McMillan said. "We're not in that developing stage where we are giving things to our young team. We need for them to be productive in their growth."

Even so, the Hawks could need Johnson and Cooper, and the preseason has already borne that notion out. Injuries to Trae Young, Delon Wright, Clint Capela and Onyeka Okongwu have shrunk the Hawks' depth and opened opportunities for the two draftees in the preseason. When the veterans return, those windows of in-game opportunity could narrow, but the rookies will still be able to work on their game behind the scenes.

Lou Williams, who is going into his 17th NBA season, had a quick example when asked if he could recall a situation where rookies had to earn a spot on a deep team.

"Yeah, me," Williams said of his experience of joining the Philadelphia 76ers straight out of South Gwinnett High School. "I didn't have an opportunity to play my first two years. I was behind Allen Iverson and Kevin Ollie. Obviously, there wasn't going to be a lot of minutes there for me."

"Every day was a learning experience for me," Williams added. "Every day was something I was able to build on – out of practice, out of games. A lot of just traveling and being around this environment of being a professional athlete."

Cooper, in particular, is with the Hawks on a two-way contract that will see him spend time with the Hawks' G League Affiliate, the College Park Skyhawks, but he can also be on the Hawks’ active roster for up to 50 games during the upcoming season.

 McMillan was pleased with Cooper's play after Cooper directed the fourth quarter comeback on both ends of the floor over Memphis

“I thought he did a good job of running the team and organizing the team down the stretch," McMIllan said. "I love the energy that he’s bringing. He’s scrappy, he’s playing scrappy basketball, and he’s trying to make a statement.”

The defense and scrap complement Cooper's best trait: his ability to pass and run an offense, as evidenced by the 8.1 assists per game that he averaged in his season at Auburn and the Trae-like lobs and nutmegs that he has thrown for assists in the preseason.

Johnson's greatest strengths are similar to Cooper's: he looks quite comfortable making plays to set up teammates with the ball in his hands. 

"They're letting me make a lot of plays out of the mid-post area as a 4," Johnson said. "I'm just trying to make the most of it."

His head coach is ready to empower him as a facilitator, but the NBA is a steep challenge for rookie decision-makers.

"He has the ability to push the ball down the floor and make decisions with the basketball – both in transition as well as the halfcourt," McMillan said. 

Johnson's level of playmaking is more unique considering that his first role in the NBA will be as a power forward, and it may enable him to play multiple positions at some point in the future.

"I look at him really right now just as a 4. You don't want to put a lot on his plate as a rookie coming in," McMillan said. "His ability to handle and shoot allows him to think about playing some 3. His size and his athleticism allows him to play some 5, too, because of his big frame – and he's going to get even thicker."

Williams echoed that sentiment.

"He's a talented big who can play above the rim and rebound at a high clip. He's one of those hybrid guys who can shoot, run the floor and give us a couple of different looks. Over time, I'm sure his game will get loaded and he'll find out where he can be successful and he'll hone in on that.

 Johnson believes that the floor-spacing of the NBA game is better suited to his style of play than college was.  

"You can make more things happen. This style of play is meant for my game. It feels organic. It feels natural."

While both of the Hawks' new young playmakers may need to observe and learn at the start of their NBA careers, both Johnson and Cooper have shown flashes in the preseason that bode well for their long-term prospects.

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