As the Houston Rockets’ director of player development, Matt Brase says draft night decisions don’t come through him.
The former Arizona Wildcats player and assistant coach works with guys who are there, not those who might be.
But when it came to the Rockets’ No. 42 pick on Thursday, his input was unavoidable. The organization knew exactly where he stood on Nick Johnson.
“I always talk about Arizona to all our scouts,” Brase said. “Nick came in here, had a good workout, and I’ve always been high on him.”
For a long, long time. Brase said Johnson first caught his eye as a seventh-grader attending a UA basketball camp, then followed his early high school success at Gilbert Highland even before Johnson moved to Findlay Prep in Nevada as a junior.
Then, just as Brase started working in Houston’s basketball operations department in 2011-12, he began spending the next three years watching Johnson as a Wildcat from afar.
“He was a high-level high school player even before he went to Findlay,” Brase said. “I loved watching his brother (Chris, a UA walk-on) too. It’s kind of neat because I know the whole family.”
Johnson has his own family tie to the Rockets. Not only has he known Brase for years, but he’ll also be coached by Kevin McHale, who played with his uncle, Dennis Johnson, with the Celtics in the 1980s.
“Coach McHale is a legend in basketball, playing with my uncle,” Johnson said. “Now I get to talk to him and learn from him, and Matt Brase’s there. So I’m excited. I’m just really excited.”
But all this is not to suggest Houston’s personnel move was personal. Brase said the team’s scouts “have been on (Johnson) the whole time,” and Rockets GM Daryl Morey said Johnson has the potential to add much-needed perimeter defense.
“We think he was the most productive player on the best team in the country, Arizona,” Morey said during his post-draft news conference. “He’s a multi-position defender, can defend the one and the two. He’s a big-time athlete, Pac-12 Player of the Year. He’s a great, high character, tough guy and really has driven Arizona’s success the last couple years.”
Morey said Patrick Beverley was the best of a challenged group of Houston perimeter defenders last season, and Johnson said he can’t wait to learn alongside the hard-working, intense defensive specialist who played college ball at Arkansas.
“He’s probably the best player I can learn under,” Johnson said.
Still, there’s hardly any guarantee Johnson gets on the floor right away as a rookie. The Rockets did win 54 games last season, after all, and they could further strengthen their roster via free agency next month.
“It will be tough for any of these guys (rookies) to be able to crack our rotation,” Morey said. “But both Nick and (No. 53 pick Alessandro) Gentile will have a chance to do that.”
Johnson will start his bid by playing NBA summer-league ball for the Rockets next month and, of course, by working out with a familiar face throughout the offseason.
“I’ll be working with him every day once he gets here,” Brase said. “I expect big things out of him. He’s such a complete basketball player. There’s so many things he does well.”