Why Houston Rockets Rookie Nick Johnson Will Have a Long Career in the NBA

Jonathan Wasserman@@NBADraftWassNBA Lead WriterJuly 23, 2014

Getty Images

The Houston Rockets only had one first-round pick in the 2014 NBA draft, but after snagging Nick Johnson at No. 42, they might as well have had two. 

A low ceiling likely limited Johnson to just second-round consideration for most teams. At 6'3", Johnson falls short of the NBA 2-guard height requirement. And he's not a point guard—at least not by traditional standards.

There isn't exactly a position on the floor where Johnson has a distinct advantage, and without that mismatch potential, his upside is perceived as limited. 

But that's just why he wasn't taken with a first-round pick. 

I'd be willing to bet Johnson would have gone in the top 25 had he measured in two inches taller. 

Johnson's limited upside might keep him out of All-Star games and starting lineups, but it shouldn't stop him from bringing something to the table as a role player. The Rockets apparently feel the same way, given they just inked him to a fully guaranteed three-year deal, per Shams Charania of Realgm.com.

He finished his first Summer League experience with averages of 13.7 points, five boards and 3.3 assists through 13 games in Orlando and Las Vegas. And though some of his flaws and weaknesses were exposed, so were his strengths, which should hold legitimate value in the NBA, even if it's to a supporting cast.

Johnson ultimately does enough things well to help make up for the drop-off his scoring average will see caused by a lack of size and length.

One of things that should help neutralize Johnson's physical disadvantage is his superhero-like athleticism. We're talking about one of the best leapers you'll see at any level, having got up for a whopping 41.5-inch max vertical leap at the NBA combine. Johnson gives off the impression that he's got springs in his kicks or that the paint is his own personal trampoline.

He ended up shooting 68.2 percent at the rim last season, per Hoop-Math, a reflection of his ability to finish high above it.

The fact that he ended up in Houston, where the Rockets have finished in the top five in pace in back-to-back seasons, bodes well for Johnson, given how potent he is on the open floor. 

The big question surrounding Johnson has always concerned his projected role in the half court, where he lacks the instincts of a facilitator and the measurements of a scorer. This question likely led to teams passing on him 41 total times. 

However, Johnson excels in a few areas offensively that should allow him to thrive without a natural NBA position—especially as a member of a second unit.

For starters, he shot 38.4 percent on his catch-and-shoot three-point attempts last year, per DraftExpress. His pull-up game brought his shooting percentage down, but when placed off the ball, his accuracy in spot-up situations should translate favorably.

ORLANDO, FL - JULY 11: Nick Johnson #3 of the Houston Rockets drives to the basket against the Brooklyn Nets during the game during the Samsung NBA Summer League 2014 on July 11, 2014 at Amway Center in Orlando, Florida. NOTE TO USER: User expressly ackno
Fernando Medina/Getty Images

And though not the craftiest ball-handler or shot-creator, Johnson can at least put pressure on the defense with the dribble, whether he's pushing the ball up the floor or attacking an open lane.

Johnson might not be able to run an offense at the point for long stretches of a game, but as a secondary ball-handler he's a willing passer with a high basketball IQ. 

Still, one of the things scouts raved about most over the past year was Johnson's leadership and competitiveness. An off-game from Johnson in the box score doesn't necessarily mean an off-game on the floor. 

That's what ultimately separates Johnson from other combo guards or tweeners who haven't been able to stick. He's the type of guy who can make an impact on those days when his shot just isn't falling.

LAS VEGAS, NV - JULY 15: Nick Johnson #3 of the Houston Rockets shoots against the Los Angeles Clippers during the Samsung NBA Summer League 2014 on July 15, 2014 at the Cox Pavilion in Las Vegas, Nevada. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agre
Bart Young/Getty Images

One of his more memorable college moments came this year in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament, when he missed his first 10 shots against San Diego State and then erupted for 15 points on jumpers and free throws in the final three minutes.

He's fearless, which shows during pressure situations, and he's relentless, which shows up on defense. Johnson doesn't exactly have lockdown tools, but with his drive, energy and athleticism, he's capable of pestering opposing ball-handlers from baseline to baseline.

I like the Avery Bradley comparison for Johnson in terms of how he can contribute at both ends of the floor.

Johnson spoke about his transition and why he'll fit into the pro game, per Lang Whitaker of NBA.com: 

I think my game fits really well. In the NBA, I have the ability to use my athleticism a lot more than I did in college. I believe that the floor, the spacing is a lot wider with so many shooters around. I saw that a little bit in both of these summer leagues. And with my ability to make plays and get after it on the defensive end, I feel it will translate pretty well.

Johnson won't win any awards, and chances are he'll spend most of his career coming off the bench. But every winning team needs role players, and a few inches in height and length shouldn't stop Johnson from presenting himself as one with value. 

Between his jaw-dropping bounce, his team-first intangibles and threatening ball-handling and shooting ability, Johnson should last a long time supporting featured scorers and playmakers.