Nick Johnson efficiently contributes to Arizona basketball
Before Arizona’s recent two-game stretch, head coach Sean Miller went out of his way to bring up sophomore Nick Johnson in a weekly press conference.
Miller talked about how the young guard’s contributions to the team shouldn’t be overlooked, and at least in the Wildcats’ two wins after that, Johnson responded well to the praise.
In a 93-50 win against NAU, Johnson led Arizona in assists and steals and played the defensive stopper role against the Lumberjacks’ Gabe Rogers. On Saturday, the sophomore was the game’s top scorer with 18 points and added five rebounds in Arizona’s first road win of the season, a 85-57 beat down of Texas Tech in Lubbock, Texas.
“[I’m] just trying to make smart decisions, not forcing anything, but trying to find my teammates,” Johnson said after the NAU win.
“I think I’m a playmaker and when I get comfortable I just make plays and my teammates are knocking down shots.”
During the Wildcats’ perfect five-game start to the season, Johnson has been a quiet but efficient contributor for Arizona.
“He is a real key to our team,” Miller said. “If you watch us play, a lot of the time the guy who seems to be orchestrating for other players or is really in tune with his other teammates, it’s Nick.”
Johnson leads the team with 4.2 assists a game, even though he’s played primarily at the shooting guard spot. But even more impressive is his turnover rate — he only gave the ball away four times in the first five games, resulting in an assist to turnover ratio of 5.25:1.0. His mark is better than either of the team’s point guards, junior Jordin Mayes (1.25:1.0) or senior Mark Lyons (0.8:1.0).
“(Johnson’s) really developed a great floor game,” Miller said.
“He’s one of those guys that’s really fun to play with because he’s engaged in almost every phase of the game.
“There’s no question he’s a much better player right now than he was a year ago, and that’s all to his credit. He also is ego-less when he plays; it’s not about scoring for him and I think that complements our team really well because he’s always trying to make plays.”
Miller said Johnson had a tremendous all-around game against the Lumberjacks, but as his 18 point effort against Texas Tech showed, the young guard can do a little bit of everything.
Johnson shot 7-for-11, including 2-for-3 from beyond the arc, which raised his season shooting average to 53.8 percent. His efficiency from the floor stands in stark contrast to his sporadic shooting last year, when Johnson hit just 37.2 percent of his shots as a freshman. Over the summer Johnson concentrated a lot on improving his shooting touch, and through five games, it’s paid dividends.
“If the ball [didn’t] go in the basket a year ago, he would let it kind of affect other parts of his game, which happens a lot to freshmen,” Miller said. “He’s more confident in that area, but I really believe if he didn’t make shots that it would take away from all of the other things he’s learned to do.”
With the way Johnson has found open teammates this season, Miller said it’s been like having another point guard on the floor at times. But after the NAU game, Miller emphasized that Johnson’s spot at the two-guard is exactly where he should be.
Miller wants to let Johnson focus more on developing into a shutdown defender and keep him at the two. With the departure of senior Kyle Fogg, someone needs to step into the role as a lockdown defender, and Miller believes Johnson has that potential.
Johnson limited NAU’s second-best scorer, Rogers, to just seven points in the game, including zero in the second half, and he leads the team with 10 steals. But there’s a big difference between holding the third-highest scorer in the Big Sky Conference in check and containing a player like Cal’s Allen Crabbe, who’s 10th in the nation with 22.0 points per game.
Still, Miller said the sophomore is light-years ahead of where he was as a defender last year, and overall Johnson has impressed.
“He’s fun to watch for me coaching right now because he’s playing the way you’d want a guard to play,” Miller said.