Even if you didn’t see Nick Johnson’s go-ahead floater at UCLA, his game-winning free throws at San Diego State, Michigan and Utah, or any of his adrenaline-fueling dunks this season, it’s still easy to quantify exactly what the junior guard means to the Arizona Wildcats.
You just have to look at the numbers.
Johnson, the Pac-12’s Player of the Year and already a Sporting News first-team All-American, leads a balanced offense with a team-high average of 16.2 points a game.
He makes 21 percent of UA’s field goals, including floaters, midrange pull-ups, three-pointers and, of course, alley-oop dunks.
He has the second-most assists on the team, averaging 2.8 per game. He sinks 77 percent of his free throws and averages over a steal per game.
Then there’s this number: Six.
That’s the number of teammates he talked into living with him at an off-campus duplex this season, creating the kind of tighter bond he desperately craved after watching Louisville’s teamwork help it win a national title last spring despite a devastating injury to key player Kevin Ware.
“Their player went down, and you saw the whole bench get up, and some of the players were crying,” Johnson said before the season. “That’s how close they were. It was literally like they were brothers. I think if you can have that, every person does their job because they don’t want to let down their brother. It just makes the team that much better.”
Sometimes that develops through some good-natured ribbing. For example, UA center Kaleb Tarczewski and Johnson’s brother, Chris, do a lot of the cooking at the duplex, and sometimes are held responsible if things don’t turn out right.
“Everyone likes grilling, steaks, chicken, stuff like that,” Chris Johnson said. “Kaleb tries to pull out some stuff sometimes, but I don’t know.”
Then there are some more heated issues that rise up constantly, too.
“It’s not perfect,” Nick Johnson said. “We get in fights. Little squabbles, stuff like that. That’s what brothers do. But the end result is definitely what we thought it was going to be, a closer, more together team.”
While the entire team doesn’t live in the duplex, only three scholarship players who are eligible to live off campus don’t. And while UA freshmen are required to live in dorms, that doesn’t stop them from dropping by.
“Every time I wanted to get away from the dorm, I knew I had a safe place to go to,” forward Aaron Gordon said. “The basketball house. It’s fun.”
The off-court bonding has made life considerably easier for UA coach Sean Miller. From the beginning this season, Miller has cited the Wildcats’ teamwork, unselfishness, work ethic and chemistry for engineering their 30-4 season so far.
From all accounts on the outside, the Wildcats have the tightest bond of any team in Miller’s five seasons at Arizona, even surpassing the 2010-11 Elite Eight season, when Derrick Williams’ unassuming stardom helped gloss over some individual differences.
“It’s as big as anything,” Miller said of the living situation. “A lot of teams have talent, but how that talent works together especially in basketball, which is such a team sport, is crucial toward winning and we have a close-knit team.
“We have a lot of guys who live together. I think they’ve gotten to know each other. They’ve spent a lot of time around each other. That commitment is felt. I think everyone knows how hard we work to get where we’re at today.”
Engineering the rooming situation, with the help of his girlfriend’s house-hunting work, only touched on Johnson’s value to the Wildcats off the court this season. With an outgoing, easy personality, Johnson is often called upon to host recruits and is routinely cited by them as one of the things they enjoyed about their visits.
Johnson can do the same thing with fans.
“He’s in many ways kind of the face of our program,” Miller said. “Because of his personality and being from the Phoenix area and how he carries himself not just on the court but off the court. I think any coach that’s in this tournament would love to have Nick on their team.”
They would like him, too, for when a game is on the line. Whether it’s for a dunk to get the team going, a floater cutting through the lane or a pair of clutch free throws, he’s proven he can get it done.
Even when Johnson struggles, hitting a late-season slump when he went 1 for 14 from the field in UA’s Feb. 1 loss at Cal and 0 for 5 from three-point territory in a two-point UA win over Oregon on Feb. 6, Johnson knows he can still help in other ways.
“I’m a leader now; I know that I’m a lot more mature than past years,” Johnson said after the Oregon game. “I know I bring to the table a lot of things that don’t show up in the box score. Everybody looks at me for confidence so I just try to stay confident for my team and knowing that those shots will go in the next game.”
Miller said after that Feb. 6 game that he told Johnson it was still one of his best overall performances, coming at a time when Johnson was playing a third position — small forward — while trying to help make up offensively for the loss of Brandon Ashley in the Cal game.
Johnson started the season at shooting guard, but now plays more often at small forward in a smaller lineup with Gabe York and T.J. McConnell at the guard spots. But he’ll still play the point if McConnell is out and sometimes shift to shooting guard, too.
And, no matter where he’s at offensively, Johnson always guards the opposing team’s best perimeter player.
“What he does on defense, that alone, he’s an all-defensive team guy,” Miller said. “He’s one of the best defensive guards probably who plays college basketball.
“You talk about differences between before Brandon and after. Nick barely played any small forward before Brandon got hurt. Since Brandon got hurt, he’s the guy who shifted over so he actually plays three different positions in every game.”
Johnson didn’t have the extreme versatility to pull off that kind of role earlier in his career. The son of former ASU player “Jumpin” Joey Johnson, Nick quickly established himself as a high-flying athlete during his freshman season of 2011-12, best able to dunk or go right on drives to the rim.
Then he converted that athleticism into defensive skill as a sophomore, able to perfectly balance UA’s “pack-line” mentality of closing gaps defensively while extending hard into the opposing ball-hander.
“Nick was a very talented freshman, but he’ll be the first one to tell you he made a lot of mistakes (defensively) in his first year,” Miller said. “But now, look at him and wow. He’s just a very, very good defensive player.”
As a junior this season, Johnson said he set a goal to become the Pac-12’s defensive player of the year. He missed that one because of the record-setting shot-blocking Jordan Bachynski did for ASU, but instead picked up another award.
That was the one called Pac-12 Player of the Year.
Johnson earned that honor not only because he could defend, lead and fill in wherever needed on the conference’s best team, but also because he hit clutch shots from all over the court. Now, he can go left, right or over opponents to put the ball in the basket.
That wasn’t the case two years ago.
“One of the things that’s really changed with Nick’s own game is he has the ability to score in the middle — 15 feet, 12 feet, 10 feet,” Miller said. “At first it was just at the rim and then he mixed in an occasional three. Then it became he would get fouled when he would get to the rim and he would make free throws.
“Now he really has almost everything covered — a floater, a runner, a pull-up — he’s very good from two. He’s a better three-point shooter, too. From an offensive perspective he’s added something to what he does every year.”
Chris Johnson has seen the change, too. He said his brother went from having just a dribble drive and jumper as a freshman to adding better ball-handling, better shooting and better passing.
“It’s all coming together for him,” Chris Johnson said.
Essentially, Nick Johnson has developed the kind of game his father has been pushing him toward since he and Chris were children. A pro player in Europe and Asia, Joey Johnson said he wondered if he was limited to playing inside because of his extreme leaping ability, so he pushed Nick and Chris to work on other skills.
“I tell Nick and his brother, ‘You have to have a well-rounded game,’” Joey Johnson said. “We worked on a lot of other things besides jumping. We really didn’t work on that. It was just there.”
The combination of all-around skill, clutch shooting and leadership leaves little doubt who the Wildcats will turn to during the NCAA tournament. Whether it’s for a key jumper, a defensive stop, a free throw or even a pat on the back, and reassuring word … it will be Johnson.
No matter what.
“He’s one of our coaches on the court, and T.J. is the other one,” Miller said. Johnson “knows what everybody is supposed to do at all times and he has a calming effect on our team.
“He doesn’t get rattled very easily because he’s been through a lot of scenarios that’s done nothing but strengthened Nick as a player. I really think more than anything, he’s our natural leader of our team.”