Among Arizona players, Aaron Gordon understandably gets the most attention. He's the high-profile freshman star bound for the NBA lottery. That's just the way these things work. Ask anyone in Tucson about the heart and soul of this Wildcats roster, though, and you'll hear a never-ending wave of support for Nick Johnson.
The junior guard's ascent has been a slow burn. From heavily used but mostly ineffective bit player as a freshman, to solid starter last season and all the way into the fringes of the national player of the year conversation in 2013-14, Johnson's natural progression mirrors an old-school mentality that is decidedly lacking in his game.
Make no mistake: Johnson is a gunner. Only 10 times during the regular season did Johnson have single-digit shot attempts, and most of those came in early blowouts. He's the fulcrum of the Wildcat offense, exuding a veteran's confidence and a well-rounded game honed by his father. Joe Johnson (no, not that Joe Johnson) was a longtime overseas player, but he never garnered much respect for his all-around game—something he instilled in his young son early in his budding career.
"My dad knew from the very start what his label was,'' Nick Johnson told ESPN's Dana O'Neil last month. "He didn't want that for me. He knew I had a gift for being an athlete. I got it from him, but he wanted more for me.''
Now, Johnson will have the opportunity to flash his game on college basketball's biggest stage. Despite boasting quite a few talented teams, Sean Miller has never gotten past the Elite Eight since arriving at Arizona in 2009. These Wildcats may be his best chance to change that. Equipped with perhaps the best mix of veteran leaders and elite young prospects, Arizona won its first 21 games of the season and is still considered by some as the best team in the nation.
The Wildcats' regular season tapered off a bit, but they're a firm favorite in the West region as the No. 1 seed.
Whether they're able to finish off the job depends a ton on how Johnson handles these next couple weeks. If Arizona has one weakness, it's on the offensive end. The Wildcats went through a midseason stretch where they scored fewer than 70 points in seven of eight games. They were below this mark in three of their four regular-season losses, and it's little coincidence that Johnson struggled every time out.
With his draft stock—Johnson is considered a likely second-round pick—still not quite where it needs to be, he cannot afford any bad showings. To push himself into the back half of that first-round conversation, Johnson needs to prove he's ready to be an instant contributor on both ends of the floor. Here's a look, then, at everything you need to know about Johnson and how his March will play out.
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- Johnson shot a combined 19-of-66 (28.7 percent) in Arizona losses this season. I wasn't kidding when I said the offense craters when he's not playing well.
- Johnson is the nephew of Basketball Hall of Famer Dennis Johnson, whose No. 3 was retired by the Boston Celtics.
- One factor working in Johnson's favor from a professional level is his numbers out of the pick-and-roll. He averaged 0.917 points per possession as a pick-and-roll ball-handler during the regular season, placing him in the 78th percentile nationally, per Synergy Sports (subscription required). He also ranks in the 70th percentile or better as a spot-up shooter, in transition and on hand-off plays.
- Just don't ask Johnson to produce in one-on-one situations. He shot a dreadful 26.7 percent in isolation during the regular season, giving credence to the notion he'd be more efficient as a secondary piece rather than a primary scorer.
- You can, however, ask Johnson to guard someone in one-on-one situations. Opposing players shot just 32.3 percent against him in isolation, per Synergy. Overall, he's in the 74th percentile of individual defenders.
- ESPN's Chad Ford (subscription required) ranks Johnson as the No. 54 player in the 2014 NBA draft. Ford is a little low on him for my taste, but not egregiously so. He's a second-round prospect in this deep class, though it's possible we look back a few years from now and wonder how a team nabbed such a bargain. Even if Johnson never latches onto an NBA rotation, he should have a long international career when he leaves school. I would advise him to return for his senior season either way.
- Johnson believes in ghosts:
- Like the rest of us, he was wildly incorrect about this year's Super Bowl:
- He was once the star of a YouTube clip called "Nick Johnson has STUPID BOUNCE..." in case you were wondering about that sort of thing.
- Said "STUPID BOUNCE" allowed him to pull off this demoralizing feat of athleticism against Cal this season.
From an individual standpoint, it's difficult to see Johnson doing much to improve his standing nationally. He was already one of the semifinalists for the national player of the year award on one of the country's most high-profile teams. Scouts know who he is at this point.
Unless Johnson is just so determined to leave college that nothing will change his mind, returning for his senior season would be prudent. Like Solomon Hill, Johnson could vault to the latter part of the first round in a questionable class of players. That's not happening in 2014.
Ultimately, his success will be determined by how Arizona does, and there is plenty of reason for optimism. Even after losing Brandon Ashley, the Wildcats remain a deep, smart team with an intriguing mix of talent. They didn't face the same intraconference gauntlet as other teams—the Pac-12 was decidedly down this season—but that might ultimately be a good thing.
Arizona theoretically shouldn't be as worn down as other teams late in the tournament. While it's fool's gold to throw any massive generalizations out and ride your bracket on them, it's just one of a few factors pointing toward a deep tournament run.
The Wildcats are the nation's best defensive team, bar none. They're not prone to upset in the first two rounds, simply because they'll lock down well enough to get past mediocre teams. Even when the offense wasn't entirely clicking, Arizona showed a propensity to scrape by in spite of itself.
How far they go, though, ultimately depends on how well Johnson leads the offense. He's the only player on the roster equipped to handle a star-level scoring burden. Gordon, for all of his potential, just isn't reliable enough on either end to expect a breakout.
Conservatively, an Elite Eight run seems like a solid endpoint. But don't be shocked if Johnson finally gets Miller over the Final Four hump.
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