In the second round of the draft, general manager Daryl Morey picked up a valuable asset in 6'3" combo guard Nick Johnson. The Arizona product jumped to the pros despite questions about his role, and all he's done is excel during summer league play in Orlando and Las Vegas.
In recent years, the Rockets have unearthed some prizes outside the first round, including second-round steal Chandler Parsons and undrafted free agent Patrick Beverley. They're hoping Johnson will be a similar diamond in the rough.
His five games in Florida produced 15.8 points, 5.0 assists and 6.2 rebounds per contest, along with 45 percent shooting and electric perimeter defense. And when the scene shifted to Nevada, he continued to make explosive plays on both ends, creating offense and forcing turnovers.
Rockets fans are glad to see him thrive during summer league, but will it translate to the big stage this fall? What can we glean from his recent exploits, and what kind of player can he be for Kevin McHale?
Leading up to the draft, the 2014 Pac-12 Player of the Year was billed as a facilitating combo guard or an undersized shooting guard. He wasn't viewed as a player with a defined offensive skill set and potential for production. Therefore, he didn't hear his name called until No. 42.
If his summer league performance is any indication, he may be one of the best second-round investments of the 2014 crop. The NBA is clearly in his genes (he's the nephew of NBA champion Dennis Johnson), and he possesses the athleticism and smarts to challenge opposing guards.
He won't become a prototypical point guard who piles up assists every night as a pass-first quarterback. However, Johnson has displayed strong, polished ball-handling repertoire this summer, along with heads-up passing that enables him to expedite the offense. He looks sharper attacking off the dribble in July than he did just a few months ago.
Johnson has spent time at both guard spots with the Rockets, and when he does run the show, he looks quite comfortable navigating and finding teammates. His burst of speed allows him to drive and dish, and he's adept at hitting shooters with crisp, on-target passes. It's clear that he's got a better feel for the game than most summer league newbies.
Watch him dish 10 assists as part of his triple-double in the Orlando league against the Brooklyn Nets:
As a shooting guard, he shows a ton of promise from a skills standpoint.
We already mentioned the ball-handling aptitude, as he can change direction smoothly and dart through creases off hesitation dribbles. He'll be able to get past NBA defenders with his speed and force team rotations.
Once he gets into the lane, he can score by attacking the rim with his lightning-quick leaping ability. He's got great body control and hang time to finish above the crowd. Johnson also owns a nice floater that he's employed a couple times for Houston.
From the perimeter, he demonstrates a solid shooting stroke from mid-range and deep. He's hitting just 24 percent from three land this summer, but once he grows comfortable from NBA range, his footwork and delivery will take care of business. During his last two seasons at Arizona, he shot 38 percent from beyond the arc.
He's undersized, there's no getting around it (6'1.5" without shoes and 6'3" with shoes). But his ability to get off the ground in a blink helps compensate in a lot of situations, and his 6'7.25" wingspan makes him a bit rangier than his height would indicate.
When he operates as the off-guard, he shows superb court awareness and moves well without the ball. Johnson cuts effectively for lobs and lay-ins, and he also slides well for catch-and-shoot chances.
Given his heightened skill level and elite athleticism, it's not a stretch to think he could fulfill important offensive duties off the bench in 2014-15. He'll endure some growing pains and turnovers as he tries to create plays, but he'll do more than hold his own in Kevin McHale's uptempo system.
On the other side of the ball, Johnson is even more intriguing. He was a dangerous backcourt defender in college, and he looks ready to stir up trouble for opposing backcourts in the Association.
He's already posted four multi-steal games during summer league play, exhibiting terrific instincts and quick hands as an on-ball defender. Even when Johnson doesn't force turnovers, he impacts his adversary; he uses his quickness and situational alertness to steer ball-handlers and slashers.
Although Johnson's not big enough to check the lengthier swingmen in the NBA, he'll still be able to stop most 2-guards in addition to point men. His wingspan and explosiveness are invaluable in that regard.
Johnson's command of the game extends to his off-ball defense as well. He's always got his head on a swivel, ready to step up and rotate from the weak side. Every once in a while, an opposing slasher underestimates his bounciness and gets swatted by the springy guard. Additionally, Johnson has a great sense of when to stunt at drivers and recover back to his man.
Johnson's overall set of tools have impressed Kevin McHale over the past couple weeks, and the coach didn't hesitate to praise him.
"He's impressed me," said McHale during NBATV's telecast of Houston's win over the Los Angeles Clippers.
How much can Johnson contribute immediately? That depends largely on how efficiently he shoots during preseason and early-season appearances. It also hinges on his ability to consistently create buckets.
At the very least, he's going to provide open-floor athleticism, half-court speed and smart energy. With Jeremy Lin out of the Rockets picture, Johnson has a real chance to supplement the work of Patrick Beverley and Isaiah Canaan.
What about the long term? He could grow into a versatile combo guard who can legitimately play both guard positions. His natural gifts and promising skills give him a great chance to be a key component of the franchise—and the next brilliant under-the-radar pickup.
This article is dedicated to Daniel Francis O'Brien, lifelong sports fan.
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