Johnson’s coming out party lifts Arizona
LAS CRUCES, N.M. — With Arizona reeling after two straight losses, something needed to change. Someone needed to take the reins and come up with a breakout performance.
Someone — anyone, really — needed to take the lead role on an Arizona team that hasn’t had any semblance of a go-to player since Derrick Williams went No. 2 overall in last June’s NBA draft.
Nick Johnson was that player on Tuesday night.
The freshman guard scored 19 points and hit a big shot nearly every time the Wildcats needed it. Johnson gave a struggling Arizona team exactly what it needed, when it needed it en route to an 83-76 win, Arizona’s first victory in nearly two weeks.
Oh, and the Gilbert, Ariz., native did that in his first start and playing in the first true road game of his career.
But as talented as the 6-foot-2, 198-pound guard is, he doesn’t just get by on physical ability. Johnson has the intangibles — work ethic, feel for the game and drive — that makes him Arizona’s most dangerous player.
“When you combine talent and attitude like that,” head coach Sean Miller said, “he’s really going to be a terrific piece to this year’s team and beyond.”
As surprising as it might be to see a true freshman playing in the first true road game of his career put on the performance that Johnson did at New Mexico State, it’s nothing new to Arizona’s players.
They see his freakish athleticism every day in practice. They fly — or in this case, drive — hours with him every time they leave Tucson. They see a kid that has something special about him, even if they can’t pinpoint what it is.
“That’s just how it goes,” said junior forward Solomon Hill before gushing over Johnson’s physical ability. “I wish I could just jump for no reason. He’s just blessed with that talent.”
They even have some expectations that might not even be realistic, let alone fair.
“I kind of expect him to get up the court and make crazy plays and dunking,” freshman guard Josiah Turner said.
But that’s what Johnson did for a stretch on Tuesday.
On one trip down the floor, Johnson sifted his way through traffic and hit a reverse layup, his first of two spectacular layups. On another possession, he took a pass from Turner and slammed home a 180 degree dunk on the baseline, silencing a crowd of just fewer than 8,000 and getting the few dozen Arizona fans at Pan American Center out of their seats.
But on another trip, Johnson had as embarrassing moment as anyone can have on a basketball court, getting stuffed by the rim on an uncontested dunk attempt.
We’ll let that one slide.
Still, as impressive as it was, Johnson’s performance wasn’t a one-man show. Arizona had four players score in double digits, and Hill put together his fifth straight good performance after struggling mightily during Arizona’s exhibition slate and early-season schedule.
Turner also played a solid game, scoring 12 points and dishing three assists, and Kyryl Natyazhko knocked down a pair of jumpers to at least give the Wildcats a much-needed offensive threat from the center position, in turn taking pressure off of Arizona’s guards. But Johnson did something that can sometimes be hard to do: He took advantage of the good situations his teammates put him in.
That didn’t come as a surprise to Miller.
“He’s wise beyond his years,” Miller said. “He has a maturity about him that allows him to shine. He’s on the right path.”
— Alex Williams is the assistant sports editor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.