Arizona basketball: Nick Johnson finds rhythm after rough month

Nick Johnson, driving against Larry Drew II, had 10 points and played well on defense in UA's loss at UCLA. "He was in a better place," said coach Sean Miller.


LOS ANGELES - Through the Jan. 31 evening he helped keep Washington gunner C.J. Wilcox to just 4-for-16 shooting, Nick Johnson's presence for the Arizona Wildcats was undeniable.

The UA sophomore guard scored often with his uniquely athletic flair, averaging 13.4 points a game while shooting 46.7 percent from the field to that point.

He played a quasi-point guard role along Mark Lyons, who like Johnson is also something of a combo guard, averaging 2.7 assists per game through January. He was often assigned an opponent's top perimeter scorer on defense, and averaged a team-high 2.3 steals per game.

February was a different story. Johnson contracted an illness early in the month, and struggled on both sides of the ball afterward. He scored in double figures only once in February, while opposing perimeter players often succeeded against him on defense.

But Saturday, in UA's 74-69 loss at UCLA, Johnson had 10 points on 4-for-10 shooting. He also helped minimize the UCLA perimeter attack of Shabazz Muhammad (6-for-15 shooting) and Jordan Adams (1 of 5). It was the 6-foot-9-inch Kyle Anderson who caused UA the most trouble with 17 points on 8-for-16 shooting.

Johnson's effort came after he was just 1 for 9 in Wednesday's loss at USC, where the Trojans' three perimeter starters totaled 44 points.

"He was in a better place here (at UCLA) than he would have been at USC," UA coach Sean Miller said. "Nick is a heck of a player. For a long period of time this season, he was arguably our best player, certainly one of them. You can't play that well for that long and all of a sudden lose it."

He didn't lose all of it. Even as he struggled offensively last month, Johnson managed to post an eye-opening 2.7-1 assist-turnover ratio, directing traffic in the manner he knew he was supposed to.

"Coach always says I'm a playmaker," Johnson said. "I'm not a scorer or anything like that. Maybe my shot's not falling. Maybe I take a little less and I create more for my teammates."

In Johnson's view, his biggest failing wasn't on the offensive side at all. It was defensively, where opponents have shot over 45 percent in five of the Wildcats' past seven games.

While it's difficult to quantify Johnson's performance on the defensive end, because even the player he is assigned may be defended by others at times, Arizona has allowed several perimeter players to have big games recently.

"I haven't been doing my job the last few games," Johnson said. "I've got to get back to that on the defensive side."

Saturday, while dealing with UCLA's explosive freshman perimeter players, Johnson managed to keep a rhythm going on both sides of the court. He appeared to miss badly on an early three-point attempt but said he was fouled on the play, and picked up momentum after hitting a floater inside midway through the first half.

"My shot felt good," Johnson said. "All the ones I took felt good, so I'm fine."

As the game wore on, Johnson said he continued attacking the basket with confidence.

It was the kind of confidence and resiliency that Miller wants to see as Johnson and the Wildcats head deeper into March.

"Every player has that moment where the ball doesn't go in and for Nick, the challenge is to not let that bother him," Miller said. "He does a lot of things for our team and hopefully tonight that gives him that renewed sense for the stretch run."

Up next

• Who: ASU at No. 11 Arizona

• Where: McKale Center

• When: 2:30 p.m. Saturday


• Radio: 1290-AM, 107.5-FM, 990-AM (Spanish)