'Efficient' Johnson keeps Wildcats unbeaten

2014-01-27T00:00:00Z 'Efficient' Johnson keeps Wildcats unbeatenBy Jon Gold Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star

At some point this season, Nick Johnson and one of his teammates might just come to blows.

Maybe at least a pop in the chest and a slap in the face.

Not because Johnson is shooting too much, but, his teammates declare, not enough.

The reticent Johnson exploded out of his shell once more on Sunday night, lighting up Utah for 22 crucial points in No. 1-ranked Arizona’s 65-56 win over Utah at McKale Center.

“I never want to be a person considered to be a ‘jacker,’ the person where everyone looks at him sideways,” Johnson said. “That’s just me as a person. It’s good I’m hitting shots, I guess.”

This is no guessing game.

Johnson is shooting nearly 50 percent from the field for the season and better than 80 percent from the free-throw line.

But perhaps the best reflection of Johnson’s maturation and improvement is not the volume, but the efficiency in the volume.

Sunday marked his seventh 20-point game of the year – and third in seven Pac-12 games – and in those games, he’s shooting 53 of 100 from the field.

As a freshman, Johnson had just one 20-point game, a 20-point performance in a 79-70 loss to Washington. He went 6 for 14.

A year later, he scored 20-plus twice; against Southern Miss, he had 23 points on 9-of-14 shooting, but went 2 of 6 from three-point range and had six turnovers; against UCLA, he again had 23, but went 9 for 19 and 1 for 5 from three-point range.

On Sunday, he was 9 for 18 for 22 points.

“He’s efficient, he takes good shots,” Miller said. “He has a variety of ways he can score – does it in transition, does it taking good threes, he’s developed his right hand, his left hand, his middle-range game. He deserves a lot of credit – he’s improved from high school to freshman, freshman to sophomore and sophomore to junior year.

“He’s always been a really gifted, athletic type of player.”

It’s not as if he’s exactly an unknown.

Johnson is quickly being mentioned in the same breath as the best guards in the country, including by his own coach, and by Pac-12 rivals who’ve seen him average a hair under 20 points during the last six games.

“They’re talking about him as a potential player of the year for our league,” Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak said. “He’s the guy they go to and he stepped up to the plate and made some big plays. We didn’t have an answer for him. Whether he’s dunking the ball of shooting the ball, he’s a hard guard.”

Sunday’s game was a good mixture of both. There was a clutch three-pointer, almost nine minutes into the game, which gave Arizona some life after the Wildcats went down 12-4. There was the floater that Johnson worked so hard on this offseason, and the driving layups. And, of course, the Ute-crushing baseline jam-and-foul.

“We happened to expose them on ball screens, got the big on me a few times,” Johnson said. “I just went around them or shot a floater, and really, we’re all making shots.”

Not on Sunday — aside from Johnson, the Wildcats were just 15 of 42 from the field.

That made Johnson’s mix of quality and quantity so important.

“That’s just what Nick does,” Rondae Hollis-Jefferson said. “Whenever we need Nick to get a basket, I come to him sometimes, (whispering) ‘Nick, we need you to score.’ All the time. That’s just what we need Nick to do. He knows.”

And if he doesn’t, he’s reminded.

In perhaps the Wildcats’ biggest win of the year, a 69-60 early-season road victory at San Diego State, Johnson had 23 points on 8-of-15 field goal shooting.

It took a little prompting, though. Aaron Gordon was one of the teammates in Johnson’s ear.

“At SDSU, it was my first road game and we’re playing well, but it got down to a pressure situation I went to Nick and said, ‘Come on, come on, let’s go.’”

And now Johnson is growing more and more comfortable answering the call.

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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