Nick Johnson working among the bigs
SAN DIEGO — There’s a saying that every athlete wants to be a musician and every musician wants to be an athlete.
Well, 6-foot-3 Arizona guard Nick Johnson wants to be like his 7-foot teammate Kaleb Tarczewski.
“I think every guard wants to be a big man and every big man wants to be like a guard,” Johnson said, laughing.
Weber State sophomore forward Joel Bolomboy (21) tries to block Arizona junior guard Nick Johnson's (13) shot during Arizona's 68-59 win against Weber State in the second round of the NCAA Tournament at Viejas Arena in San Diego on Friday.
At first glance, Johnson doesn’t jump off of the page. He is a moderately big point guard who is too small to play shooting guard or forward at the NBA level.
Then, you see him jump, and he soars to unexpected heights. His obvious athleticism has been documented through countless highlights.
(1) Arizona vs. (8) Gonzaga
When: Sunday, approx. 6:40 p.m. MST/PDT
But besides the obvious, what has turned Johnson into a cut above the rest of the athletic basketball players in college is how well-rounded he is.
Johnson has played three positions since coming to Tucson in 2011, sometimes three in one game. His ability to excel at a variety of positions and to lead the Wildcats to a No. 1 seed in the NCAA bracket now has his NBA stock rising almost as high as his dunks.
“I think Nick is the best player in the country,” 6-foot-1 Wildcat point guard T.J. McConnell says. “He can do everything.”
The classified “guard” made a noticeable decision to elevate his game by participating on big men drills.
Roughly two hours before each game, the Wildcats go to the court to stretch, warm up and then break up into position groups. Johnson and the rest of the guards start by working on dribbling, shooting and layups while the big men sit and watch.
Once the guards’ drills are complete, all except Johnson head to the bench. Johnson stays, and the big men take the court and practice their post move, rebounding and put back drills.
“It was about five or six months ago,” undergraduate assistant coach Joseph Blair said. “One day, he just asked if he could hop in and I said, ‘Why not?’ Anything that can help improve his overall game, I think, is good.”
Blair, a former Wildcat, rejoined Arizona this past summer. A post player himself, Blair leads the big man drills prior to each game.
“We have a pretty flexible motion offense, so he could end up on the post or the block tomorrow night,” Blair said. “If that’s the case, I want him to be ready to make whatever move he needs to so he can put it in.”
As for the rest of the big men on Arizona’s roster, they have no problem with the shorter Johnson infringing on their drill.
“He’s just trying become the best well-rounded player he can be,” freshman forward Aaron Gordon says. “It helps the team, so I encourage him to jump in.”
Johnson stands out during the drills. Before the Wildcats’ second-round game of the NCAA tournament against Weber State, Johnson was around five inches shorter than everyone else participating in the six-player drill.
But alongside 6-foot-10 Matt Korcheck and 7-foot Tarczewski was Johnson making every post shot, grabbing every rebound and jumping higher than everyone to put back a missed shot.
“It was a little uncomfortable standing by myself next to all those giants,” Johnson said about the first time he did the drill. “But at the end, I thought I looked pretty good and was as good as the other guys.”
Johnson is the only Arizona player that participates in the pregame guard and frontcourt drills, and it will probably stay that way.
“Nick is a gifted athlete that can do so much on the court,” McConnell said.
— Follow Luke Della @LukeDella