It’s not very often you walk into a suburban high school in Wisconsin and get a glimpse into the future of the NBA. But that’s just what happened Saturday outside of Milwaukee at Brookfield Central High School. It was the night of the 2018 NY2LA Sports Classic, and with standing room only, 2,000 people witnessed an insane matchup of two elite basketball prospects: Patrick Baldwin Jr. and Jalen Johnson.
The similarities are striking: They both go to high school near Milwaukee, they’re both right around 6-foot-8, and both play like guards despite being bigger than everyone else on the floor. Hell, they even both play for the same AAU team, Wisconsin-based Phenom University. But these similarities are unfair to make, because each is unique, and both are special.
We’ll start with Baldwin, currently ranked by ESPN as the nation’s No. 1 sophomore. Hailing from Sussex-Hamilton high school, the 6-foot-8, 200-pound small forward is alarmingly similar to the unicorns that dominate today’s NBA. His arms seem to never end, and his silky-smooth athleticism allows him to get to the bucket at will any time he wants. But where he thrives is as a perimeter threat. Baldwin Jr. has the ball on a thread, and that paired with his touch from deep make him unstoppable on the offensive end.
But he’s not just a scorer. Even though Baldwin is the best player on his team by leaps and bounds, the ball never gets stuck in his hands. He is willing to make the extra pass every trip down if it means an open shot for a teammate, and never himself takes a bad shot. On the defensive end, his length and coordination allow him to dominate smaller defenders and swat shots left and right.
Jalen Johnson, on the other hand, is his own rare breed. He too stands at 6-foot-8 but adds an extra 15 pounds on his frame that gives the raw strength he needs to finish through defenders. Currently ranked by ESPN as the #4 junior in the country, Johnson pairs high-level athleticism with elite playmaking skills that allow him to play a sort of point-forward role. He is an elite, in-your-face defender that can guard anyone, and once he gets on the break there’s no stopping him. He throws down ferocious dunks, and like Baldwin, has the confidence and ability to pull up from anywhere on the floor.
They are both listed as Small Forwards because of their size, but that doesn’t tell the whole story. Johnson plays like a point guard, and has been compared to the likes of Lonzo Ball and even (yet far-fetched) Scottie Pippen. Even if he was 4 inches shorter, he’d still be a heavily recruited point.
On Saturday night, in their first time meeting as foes, the two put on an absolute show. Fans, myself included, wrapped around the building waiting to get in up to 3 hours before tip, and the two stars did not disappoint.
Right from the tip, the two went back and forth right at each other, and by halftime, Johnson had 17 points compared to Baldwin’s 15. However, it was Baldwin and his Sussex-Hamilton Chargers who had an 8-point lead at the intermission. The crowd was absolutely electric, and the two had grown men jumping out of their seats every 20 seconds
With the second half came a furious comeback from Johnson and his nationally ranked Nicolet squad. There were alley-oops, huge blocks, and deep threes plenty, yet the Baldwin-Johnson matchup was at the center of it all. They never took their eyes off each other, both wanting to prove their place as the top prospect from the state of Wisconsin.
With a fury of late buckets, Johnson prevailed 78-70, although it’s still unclear who the better long-term prospect is. Johnson got the W and a 30-point, 11-rebound, 10-assist triple-double. But Baldwin came home with 21 points, 16 rebounds, 4 assists, and an 8 point loss to one of the best teams in the nation…. AS A SOPHOMORE.
Its impossible to tell right now who will be better, but you need to remember the names Patrick Baldwin Jr. and Jalen Johnson. They are both future NBA key-players, and you should be hoping your favorite team can get one of them one-day.