Houston Rockets rookie Nick Johnson has the tools to become the latest in the franchise's recent string of second-round steals.
The Rockets have shown a knack for finding talent late in the draft. In 2007, they landed Carl Landry (No. 31 overall) in a draft-day trade with the then-Seattle SuperSonics. In 2009, Houston bought the No. 44 overall pick from the Detroit Pistons, which it used on athletic swingman Chase Budinger.
In 2011, the team drafted the biggest steal of general manager Daryl Morey's career in small forward Chandler Parsons. Houston may have also struck gold in last year's second-round pick, point guard Isaiah Canaan (No. 34 overall).
This past June, Morey used the No. 42 overall pick on Johnson, a high-flying guard out of Arizona. Johnson is the reigning Pac-12 Player of the Year and was a consensus First Team All-American. As a junior, he averaged 16.3 points, 4.1 rebounds, 2.8 assists and 1.1 steals per game for the Wildcats.
He also shot 43.2 percent from the field, including 36.7 percent from three. While undersized for a shooting guard at 6'3", Johnson makes up for his lack of ideal height with a 6'7" wingspan and an astonishing 41.5-inch vertical.
The kid known as "Bunnies" (for his insane hops) also has a good bloodline, as he's the nephew of former Boston Celtics legend Dennis Johnson.
The rookie wasted little time showing off his skills in the pros. He was impressive in summer-league action, both in Orlando and Las Vegas. In five games in Orlando, he averaged 15.8 points, 6.2 rebounds and 5.0 assists. In Vegas, Johnson contributed 12.5 points, 4.4 rebounds, 2.3 assists and 1.8 steals in eight games.
Both summer-league stints were sprinkled with highlight dunks. In the Orlando opener against the Pistons, Johnson put center Tim Ohlbrecht on a poster with a ridiculous one-handed jam. He followed that up with a nasty 360-degree jam against the Brooklyn Nets and later finished an alley-oop with a reverse dunk against the Sacramento Kings in Vegas.
While the early highlight reel is a nice feather in his cap, Johnson will have to use those impressive hops to leap over a few hurdles in the NBA. He'll have to prove he's more than just a dunker and that being a little short won't hinder him from being a viable pro.
Let's take a further look into Houston's latest second-round prize.
What Johnson Does Well
As mentioned earlier, Johnson is an explosive athlete. With his speed and amazing leaping ability, he's an excellent finisher at the rim and is going to be a joy to watch when he gets the ball in the open court. The dunk on Ohlbrecht shows that Johnson's not afraid to attack the basket (as well as whoever's under it), and he had many moments at Arizona where he seemingly embraced contact.
That fearless approach will serve him well in the pros, though too much unnecessary punishment in the paint could take its toll on his body down the road (see Wade, Dwyane).
One thing that will help out Johnson is his reliable jumper. Johnson has a strong mid-range game, and while it didn't seem like it in the summer league, he can knock down some shots from behind the arc.
While he'll always be more of a scorer than distributor, Johnson's assist numbers in Orlando allow for some hope that he can be a serviceable point guard in the pros. He also showed a knack for forcing turnovers in Sin City, which is a plus for a Rockets team that doesn't have many good perimeter defenders beyond Patrick Beverley and Trevor Ariza.
What Johnson Needs to Work On
All of the stretches in the world won't make Johnson any taller. His lack of height is something both he and the team will have to work around. If the plan is to play Johnson at point guard, it will be interesting to see if he can stay with quicker floor generals such as Tony Parker and Chris Paul on the defensive end.
If the Rockets play him at the 2, he's going to have to find a way to hinder the offense of much taller guards. Teammate James Harden has managed to become an NBA superstar without showing much desire for defense, but the Rockets can't afford to have another guard who's only effective on one end of the court.
Beyond that, Johnson's deep ball could use some more practice. While he didn't have a problem knocking down treys in college, that wasn't the case in the summer league. He shot just 29.2 percent from three in Orlando and followed that up by converting 20.8 percent from deep in Las Vegas.
Could that be an aberration owing to possible jitters? Sure.
However, the league has seen quite a few college marksmen lose their shooting touch when they get to the pros (Xavier Henry, for example). The Rockets are a team obsessed with the three-ball. As nice as it is to be a great dunker in the YouTube age, the ability to drill shots from downtown is what keeps players in the NBA long after their physical talents decline.
Also, regardless of what position he plays for Houston, Johnson will need to improve his ball-handling skills. That will cut down costly turnovers as well as allow him to create offense for himself and others.
How Johnson Fits with the Houston Rockets
Playing time with the Houston Rockets will be scarce for Johnson. Even after trading point guard Jeremy Lin to the Los Angeles Lakers earlier this summer, the team's backcourt is pretty crowded. Beverley and Harden will draw the bulk of the minutes as the starting guards.
Behind them, promising second-year man Canaan and emerging shooter Troy Daniels will see some of the remaining playing time. The team also signed veteran guard Ish Smith, who will be factored into the equation as well.
Could Johnson use his youthful exuberance to blow past Smith and maybe even snatch away some minutes from Daniels? Possibly. But that's not likely to happen anytime soon.
Luckily, the team gave Johnson a fully guaranteed three-year contract, so it clearly sees a future for him. In the meantime, he can hone his craft in the NBA D-League until his time comes, much like summer-league teammate Robert Covington did last year.
Once he's ready to go to the pros, Johnson's athletic skills and mid-range jumper could make him a dangerous weapon in the pick-and-roll. Obviously, working on his three-point shot will help tremendously, too.
Johnson could also mold himself into a solid two-way guard if he continues to display quick hands and proves capable of holding his own on the defensive end. One thing's for sure, the long wait on draft night has certainly motivated Johnson to succeed, per AZCentral Sports' Paul Coro:
I just don't think there are seven Pac-12 players better than the Pac-12 Player of the Year, and not (41) players better than me in that draft class. That's what we have the whole career for. It's not where you start. It's where you finish.
I am very confident in myself. It was a tough night on draft night, but that just adds fuel to the fire.
Johnson would also go on to say that he's "played with a chip on his shoulder since high school." That kind of determination worked out well at Arizona and could again in the NBA if he doesn't get discouraged by the naysayers or having to wait his turn.
On tape, he looks a lot like journeyman combo guard Shannon Brown (a comparison NBADraft.net used for Johnson as well). Brown has had his moments throughout his eight-year career (including a couple decent seasons with the Phoenix Suns) but has still played for seven teams and is 28 years old.
Johnson is in a position to be better than that. He's a talented kid on a team with a proven track record of developing second-round picks. If Brown is Johnson's floor, his ceiling could be a poor-man's version of Boston Celtics guard Avery Bradley, assuming he shows improvement defensively and shoots better from three.
That's pretty good for the 42nd pick in the draft.
College stats and measurements courtesy of DraftExpress.com.
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