Syracuse men's basketball coach Jim Boeheim attempted to clarify his comments on Duke freshman Jalen Johnson this weekend, but it only created more questions.
Boeheim addressed Johnson's decision to not play the rest of the season by blasting his contributions, or lack thereof, on his weekly radio show Thursday. It drew criticism from the men's college basketball sphere, so he tried to explain his evaluation in a four-minute statement after the Orange's comeback win over Notre Dame on Saturday.
The big takeaway is that Boeheim hasn't actually seen Johnson, a projected first-round pick in the 2021 NBA draft, play for the Blue Devils this season.
What did Boeheim say that drew blowback?
Duke (10-8, 8-6 ACC) announced on Feb. 15 that Johnson would not play for the program again this season, calling it an "opt out." The team and Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski alluded to medical factors in the decision and a desire to be 100 percent healthy by the draft.
The team's regular season ends March 6 and both Duke and Syracuse (13-6, 7-5) are on the bubble for the NCAA tournament. They play each other on Monday, which is what prompted the topic for Boeheim.
"That guy was hurting them so they actually are much better now without him," Boeheim said. "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."
Johnson averaged 11.2 points, 6.1 rebounds and 2.2 assists over 13 games. The two "monster" games Boeheim referenced were a 24-point win against Wake Forest (6-11, 3-11), and a 16-point differential over N.C. State (10-9, 6-8).
Boeheim hasn't seen Jalen Johnson play
Boeheim spoke further about Johnson after his team came back from a 20-point deficit to defeat Notre Dame on Saturday. He addressed it on his own at the end of his news conference, via Syracuse.com, and said it had "nothing to do with Jalen Johnson at all."
“I watched two games," Boeheim said. “I said two games. That was a mistake. (I watched) a half of North Carolina State and the whole game against Wake. What I saw and (ESPN analyst) Seth Greenberg saw, too, they played the best I’ve seen them play this year. Wake Forest just lost in overtime at Florida State. Duke had them down 30. NC State’s a good team, I think. They just beat Pittsburgh. I think they’re pretty good. They beat North Carolina. They crushed them in the second half without Jalen Johnson.
"This is no casting aspersion on Jalen Johnson. I haven’t even seen Jalen Johnson play this year, to be honest. He’s a tremendous player, probably will be a great pro. I just made the observation, my opinion, that I thought they played better without him in those two games.
The question here is, how can you first say a player was hurting the team, but then amend your comments to say you actually hadn't watched said player and said team?
Boeheim calls out ESPN's Jay Bilas
Boeheim's initial comments were criticized by ESPN's Jay Bilas on his "Bald Men on Campus" show for for being "inappropriate" by criticizing the player. He said the idea that Duke is better with Johnson "patently false."
Bilas also called out others who have said Johnson is selfish, listening to his "camp" or "posse" and is a quitter.
"But attacking the player, I thought, was inappropriate of Jim Boeheim, and it's been inappropriate of other commentators that have said similar things," Bilas said. "It's got some undertones that I don't like at all, and I think should be called out."
He made a clear line in his comments between Boeheim and the other commenters, but Boeheim still gave lengthy remarks back.
"Jay Bilas said I said they’re a better team without him. Permanently. I didn’t say that and I didn’t mean to say that," Boeheim said. "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," he continued. “I haven’t really seen him that much. I don’t 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. But I was not trying to downgrade Jalen Johnson in any way shape or form and Jay Bilas is flat wrong if he thinks I did that. I didn’t. I made an honest evaluation. We’re playing Duke Monday (and) this is Thursday, that I think Duke is playing the best that they’ve played. Period. That’s all."
Boeheim went on to criticize his name being attached with "attacking" Johnson. Duke and Syracuse square off Monday night on ESPN.
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