Nick Johnson, 6-foot-3 shooting guard, Arizona
2013-14 stats: 16.3 PPG, 2.8 APG, 4.1 RPG, 1.1 SPG, .432 FG%, .367 3P%
The nephew of late Hall of Famer Dennis Johnson and the son of a Los Angeles playground legend, Johnson has the pedigree of a star but had to earn his way into a starring role in college after playing for a similarly loaded high-school squad. The high-flying athlete carved out a niche for himself as a tough defender and solid offensive player, before emerging as Arizona’s leader and top scoring option as a junior, leading to him deciding to forgo his final year of college eligibility. Still, despite his stellar season, questions remain about his professional future and whether or not he would have been better off staying in school.
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Career highlights: In a disappointing season for the Wildcats, Johnson had a solid debut campaign, averaging an even nine points per game and making the Pac-12’s All-Freshman Team. As a sophomore, his role increased, and Johnson quietly developed into a steady all-around player, averaging 11.5 points, 3.6 rebounds, 3.2 assists and 1.9 steals per game, while shooting 44.8 percent from the floor and 39.3 percent from 3-point range, as Arizona advanced to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament. Johnson took on the role of primary scorer this past season — playing next to a true point guard in floor general T.J. McConnell helped define his role — and took off, helping Arizona win its first 21 games of the year before helping the Wildcats advance to the Elite Eight, winning Pac-12 player of the year, making the conference’s all-defensive team and earning All-American honors along the way.
Strengths: Johnson’s athleticism stands out immediately when watching him, as he utilizes both his lateral quickness, particularly on the defensive end of the court, and his leaping ability to make dynamic plays. A spot-up shooter that has to be respected, even if he’s a bit streaky, Johnson is capable of getting hot from the perimeter and when opposing defenses adjust, penetrating for pull-up jumpers or getting all the way to the rim and finishing, also possessing the confidence to take and make shots under pressure. A dogged defender, he has the ability to guard either backcourt position due to his strength and foot speed, as well as playing the passing lanes and making weak-side blocks that belie his size. While not an advanced playmaker, Johnson is unselfish with the ball in his hands but can play off the ball and will contribute on the glass.
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Weaknesses: Though he’s had opportunities to function as a point guard during his college career, it’s become clear that isn’t Johnson’s natural position and unfortunately, he doesn’t possess ideal size for a shooting guard. He can’t be considered an absolute knockdown perimeter shooter either and experienced bouts of inefficiency as Arizona’s featured scorer. Perhaps more opportunities in that role would have solidified him as capable of being able to make the transition to the next level more convincingly, though it’s easy to see the rationale in passing up his senior year after the stellar season he had.
Draft projection: Despite his athleticism and intangibles — he’s viewed as an excellent teammate, willing to make hustle plays and being a leader — Johnson is pretty firmly cemented as a second-round prospect. That said, there’s reason to believe, based on his work ethic and development in college, he can evolve into a solid NBA contributor. Having played alongside several talented players in both high school and college (including high school teammate Tristan Thompson of the Cleveland Cavaliers and Wildcats teammate and likely lottery pick Aaron Gordon), he’s proven that he can thrive in a complementary role. Johnson should be able to carve out a niche for himself as a high-energy, defensive-minded backup and as both his floor generalship and consistency as a scorer improve, envisioning a coach prizing his attributes and putting him into a key situational role isn’t difficult.