NBA Awards Rankings: New No. 1 in Most Improved Player race

As the Atlanta Hawks' season slips away, one player continues to rise to the occasion.

Mar 5, 2024; Houston, Texas, USA; Houston Rockets center Alperen Sengun (28) celebrates after
Mar 5, 2024; Houston, Texas, USA; Houston Rockets center Alperen Sengun (28) celebrates after / Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports
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1. . F. Hawks. Jalen Johnson. Jalen Johnson. 125. 1. player.

15.9 PPG | 8.7 RPG | 3.4 APG | .522 FG% | .344 3P% | .727 FT%

Is Jalen Johnson the Atlanta Hawks' second-best player? Well, he could become the first if Trae Young gets dealt in the offseason. Johnson has completely changed the trajectory of this Hawks team. We were always going to reach an inflection point with Trae, but Johnson seems to make the decision easier. If Atlanta does pull the plug, they're not starting from scratch. Johnson was listed time and time again as the Hawks' only untouchable next to Young at the trade deadline, and we now know Young was not as untouchable as initially thought.

Johnson's ascent has been whiplash-inducing. He was a nice bench piece last season, averaging 5.6 points in 14.9 minutes. He did enough to encourage optimism in the future, but few could have projected such a dramatic escalation — even with John Collins out the door. It took two games for Johnson to claim a spot in the starting lineup, and not much longer for him to cement his reputation as the Hawks' most impactful co-star.

The popular comparison for Johnson back at Duke was Ben Simmons, or some lesser version of the former No. 1 pick. Turns out, Johnson is everything Philly fans hoped Simmons would one day become. Simmons' ceiling was higher before the injuries, but Johnson has embraced a role Simmons never did. More than an aggressive 6-foot-9 slasher, Johnson is comfortable setting screens, picking apart defenses with short roll passes, or populating the 3-point line. He's a good-not-great shooter, but Johnson only needs the most basic level of respect beyond the arc to open up his vicious downhill attacks.

He deserves a ton of credit for his defense, too. If the Hawks were a more competently built team, Johnson's versatility in the frontcourt (especially compared to Collins) would be the talk of the town. He's a truly excellent running mate for Trae Young. That factor cannot be discounted, but if Atlanta decides to hit the reset button in the offseason, rest assured that Johnson will be just fine in 2024-25. Don't be shocked if he's getting All-Star votes next season.

March Madness arrives, as does Kentucky's backcourt. March Madness arrives, as does Kentucky's backcourt. dark. 2024 NBA MOCK DRAFT