As the Arizona Wildcats take the floor this fall, all eyes are on Aaron Gordon, the highly touted freshman big man projected as a top-5 pick in next summer’s NBA Draft. Coming off a Sweet 16 appearance and a deep Pac-12 Championship run, the Wildcats have their eyes set on a National Championship this season.
Having an NBA-level talent in Aaron Gordon is a good place to start, but he’s arguably not even the most important player on the team. That distinction likely belongs to Nick Johnson, the 6-2 combo guard who’s entering his junior season with the Wildcats and who, over the past two years, has emerged as a highly-skilled leader on both ends of the court.
Coach Sean Miller has shown a great deal of confidence in Johnson at various points, and now that the Wildcats’ two biggest scoring threats – Solomon Hill and Mark Lyons – have moved on, Johnson will likely assume an even bigger role. Though Johnson suffered a few droughts in production during his first two seasons, the Wildcats are a much tougher and a much more successful team when he’s at the top of his game.
Last season, Johnson averaged 11.5 points, 3.6 rebounds, 3.2 assists and 1.9 steals with 44 percent shooting, 39 percent from behind the arc. This season, Johnson has the luxury of playing under the tutelage of Damon Stoudamire, the longtime NBA point guard and Arizona alum who was added to the coaching staff this summer.
Two of the main hallmarks of Johnson’s game – his composure and his interplanetary athleticism – are underscored by his ability to play under control and unleash that explosiveness at precise moments. Though Johnson has worked diligently this summer to round out the other parts of his game, most notably his jump shot, pure athleticism was something that always came easily to him.
He says, “Everybody always asks me where I get it from, and I just say ‘I was blessed.’”
Nick is the son of ‘Jumpin’ Joey Johnson, the former ASU standout who also played professionally in Sweden, the Philippines, and Argentina and was, by all accounts, a preternaturally gifted athlete. According to legend, the elder Johnson was rumored to have a 52-inch vertical leap. As a high school athlete in California, he won the national junior championship in the high jump twice, and in 1990, he won a slam dunk contest in Atlantic City on an 11-foot-7-inch goal that earned him a $50,000 prize. But if there was one thing Johnson understood, it was that athleticism alone isn’t going to get you to the next level.
“That was my coach,” the younger Johnson says. “Every single time me, my brother, and him would get on the court, we’d work on something. He was definitely a great athlete, but he always wanted more for us. He pressed us to work on our jump shot, our handles, and other qualities of the game. He’s definitely been a huge part of my development.”
The basketball pedigree doesn’t stop there. The boys’ uncle was none other than the late great Dennis Johnson, the Boston Celtics legend who was known both for his toughness and his smothering defense. Watching Nick harass opponents these past two seasons – locking down the other team’s best player, coming up with steals, blocking shots – that brand of defensive tenacity seems to be something that is simply encoded in his DNA.
“It’s something that in high school and even earlier that I took pride in, and it’s carried on in college,” he says. “A lot of people who watch me knew my uncle, and I kinda play like him with a chip on my shoulder, so I think I got it a little bit from my family.”
Though Nick is too young to have seen his uncle play, he got something of a crash course in his illustrious career during the 2008 NBA Finals.
“When the Celtics and the Lakers had their championship series in ’08, they kept playing all the replays of all the old games, so I got to watch that a little bit,” he says. “It was pretty cool just seeing him in action. He was one of the toughest players on their team, and they had a pretty big variety of great players, so it was just really interesting to watch.”
And the gene pool doesn’t stop there. Nick’s brother Chris joined the Wildcats this season as a walk-on transfer. Chris last played for Grand Canyon University from 2010-2012, where he averaged 7.5 points and 3.2 rebounds. At 6-6 and 215 pounds, Chris gives the Wildcats another athletically gifted wing player.
“He’s an athlete,” Nick says. “He’s 6-6, he can run the floor, he can jump, so it’s definitely gonna be fun to have him on the team.”
And Nick isn’t the only one who’s excited to have his brother on the team. The boys’ mother, Michelle Mayland, has been traveling around the country to watch them play since they were in high school. Having them both attending Arizona is meaningful for another reason as well: their grandparents both received their PhDs from Arizona.
“I can’t explain the feeling of watching my kids play college basketball,” Mayland says. “It’s the best feeling to see how their hard work has paid off. Now that they’re both in the same place it’s even better. It’s going to be a really special moment when they step out onto that court together.”
Nick Johnson spent parts of this summer deep-sea fishing in Mexico, which he says is one of his biggest hobbies, and has a chance to be an Academic All-American this year. But most fans will want to talk about his future on the court. Will he enter the NBA Draft next summer? DraftExpress has him as the No. 16-ranked junior, and his mother admits the NBA is something Nick dreams about. However, Nick won’t say whether he’ll declare for the draft next summer and instead would rather focus on what the Wildcats are trying to accomplish in the coming season, where they’re looking to build off last year’s run to the Sweet 16.
“Our main goals are to first win the Pac [Pac-12 Championship] and then play our way to Dallas,” he says. “But we know that first we have to honor the process and work hard every single day and take it one game at a time.”