The Arizona Wildcats formally ushered Aaron Gordon and Nick Johnson off to professional basketball Tuesday, and all the requisite emotions followed: excitement, thankfulness and maybe even a little sadness.
Surprise? Well, not so much.
Unless you count the moment when freshman forward Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, he of the fast-rising NBA draft stock, swung through the door singing, “Oh Happy Day” and saying that he intended to stay for his sophomore year.
Center Kaleb Tarczewski and forward Brandon Ashley also pledged to return for what will be their junior seasons, giving the Wildcats a 2014-15 roster that will almost certainly generate a Top 5 preseason pick.
“We’re going to return a team that’s just as good or better than this year,” Ashley said.
But well before Gordon and Johnson flanked UA coach Sean Miller for the first segment of Tuesday’s news conference at McKale Center, before the returnees spoke, it was clear which way they were headed.
Gordon was an expected one-and-done virtually since the moment he committed to the Wildcats a year ago, while Johnson’s all-American performance last season suggested that his NBA draft stock couldn’t shoot much higher if he returned as a senior.
So, it was time to go.
“The feedback I got was something I was confident in,” Johnson said, after seeking input from family, Miller and the NBA. “I can’t stress enough it’s been a great experience at Arizona, but I’ve chosen to put my name in this year’s draft.”
Both Gordon and Johnson received reports from the NBA’s undergraduate advisory committee, but Gordon hardly needed his. He is widely projected as a mid-lottery pick who will earn about $5 million in guaranteed salary over two years if he lands there.
Gordon’s mother, Shelly Davis, said the family was aware that kind of financial security might not be there again if injury or other problems arise in college.
“It’s absolutely that,” Davis said. “The whole idea of what an asset is worth when healthy versus not healthy. ... And you have to be young to pursue professional sports. You go when you’re young and you have plenty of time to grow and improve.”
Davis said her son had “misgivings” about how UA’s season ended in the NCAA Elite Eight and wondered if he could make a different fate if he returned. But she said the family also recognized luck is also a factor in winning a national championship in the single-elimination NCAA format.
Of course, considering Gordon’s well-regarded passion for the game, there’s also this: Gordon also has been aching to get in the NBA since about, oh, age 6. Seriously.
“From about the first grade, I have wanted to compete on the highest level, so that’s what I intend to do this year,” Gordon said.
Johnson’s decision-making was somewhat different. Unlike Gordon, he isn’t assured of a seven-figure salary, or any salary at all. Only first-round picks in the NBA receive guaranteed two-year minimum salaries — but some high second-round picks can negotiate them — and Johnson is projected as a second-round pick.
While Johnson’s extreme athleticism and well-regarded personality suggests he can improve his stock during NBA testing and workouts, Draft Express projects him firmly in the middle of the second round of the draft.
While Johnson and Miller declined to specify where the NBA advisory committee projected Johnson to go, Miller said Johnson was not in “La-La Land” and knew what he faced. Indeed, Johnson said he knew he wasn’t a “surefire lottery pick” and had plenty of work to do in the predraft process.
“The best thing was I got some feedback and it was positive. Some was negative,” Johnson said. “But the one thing I know that really stood out for me is ‘You’re going to have to work for it. It’s not going to be easy to get drafted where you want to be. You’re going to have to come in put in work and show teams that you can do what they say you can and kind of answer some questions that they have.’ ”
But either way, it wasn’t going to be easy . Even Miller, who suggested in mid-season that leaving school early to be a second-rounder would be a significant career setback, said Johnson might not be able to raise his profile any higher next season.
“I would say generally if someone leaves early, you want them to be a first-round pick, because it’s a guarantee — they’re invested in and their future is so much brighter,” Miller said. “But learning a lot from the feedback we got, Nick, based on the year he had as a junior, based on how physically developed he is ... (he could) come back for that fourth year and maybe not be quite as coveted as he is now.”
On an emotional level, though, that didn’t appear to make it much easier on Johnson.
“It was definitely a tough decision,” Johnson said. “Playing my senior year would have been a fun thing to do. I had those goals to stay the Pac-12 player of the year and be a first team All-American. But just win. That’s where I had to sit down and think about myself and see what’s best for me.”
Miller said he “wholeheartedly” supported the decisions of both players though he, too, found the finality of it all somewhat emotional.
After all, Miller began recruiting Johnson as a Gilbert Highland sophomore the very first day he took the UA job in April 2009, and Gordon was the highest-rated player he had ever landed.
Both players, Miller has said repeatedly, also have good character.
“It’s bittersweet. People like them don’t come around too often,” Miller said. “In Aaron’s case, it’s far too short. You feel like you’re just getting started and then you wave goodbye. But like I said, it’s the right decision for him.
“And in Nick’s case, almost from the very second I became Arizona’s coach, he and I have been connected. He was our top priority in recruiting. He committed to us and obviously we were together for three years. So it’s always sad to see one of those types of guys go.
“But I’m anxious to watch both of them … two different people who are going to go on and do great things, and most importantly, represent our university and program with tremendous class for a long, long time.”