NICK

Johnson shows he's matured, improved

2012-11-29T00:00:00Z 2014-07-08T16:14:37Z Johnson shows he's matured, improvedPatrick Finley Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
November 29, 2012 12:00 am  • 

Entering Wednesday night's shellacking of Northern Arizona, Nick Johnson hadn't turned the ball over in 13 days.

During Wednesday night's seven-assist performance in a 93-50 blowout of Northern Arizona at McKale Center, it felt as if he wouldn't make a mistake, either.

But he turned the ball over.

"I had one," he said.

The sophomore from Phoenix has scored 29 points and has dished out 14 assists in his past three games.

He has committed only two turnovers - one 11 minutes into the UTEP game and another in the second half Wednesday against the Lumberjacks.

"Just tried to make smart decisions," he said after scoring 10 points against the Lumberjacks.

It's working.

After Wednesday, in which UA coach Sean Miller said he "just played a tremendous all-around game," Johnson leads the Wildcats with 20 assists.

Even better, he has turned the ball over only four times all season - leading every regular player on the UA but Kevin Parrom and Grant Jerrett, who play significantly fewer minutes than the Phoenix-born sophomore.

"He's really developed a great floor game," Miller said. "He's one of those guys that is really fun to play with, because he's engaged in almost every phase of the game."

Miller is not tempted to move Johnson to point guard, though he plays the position in practice every day.

"I like keeping him right where he's at," Miller said.

Alongside senior Mark Lyons, Miller said, it's easier to look like a good passer.

Johnson leads Lyons and Solomon Hill, who are tied for second on the team with 12 assists apiece.

"There's a big difference playing like a point guard when there's another guy out there in charge of running your team than if it's you running the team," Miller said "The burden of: What play do you want in the offense? And handling pressure and traps and are they in zone or man - that adds to your plate."

Miller said, "If the ball didn't go in the basket a year ago, he'd let that affect other parts of his game." This season, in part because of his offseason work and a year of game maturity, Johnson appears steadier on both ends of the floor.

"There's no question he's a much better player than he was a year ago," Miller said.

"He's also egoless when he plays."

On defense, Johnson held NAU leading scorer Gabe Rogers to seven points - almost 10 off his average - and a scoreless second half.

Johnson led the UA with four steals - and now leads the team with eight on the season.

"By not losing my man," he said. "The last game, I lost my man a little bit and all hell broke lose."

Miller said Johnson has "really grown" on defense.

"If he had no steals, he was still playing a tremendous defensive game," the coach said.

Add that to Johnson's steady scoring - he's averaging 10.3 points on an amazing 50 percent shooting, one year after averaging 8.9 on 36.9 percent - and the shooting guard has become exactly that.

"Nick has improved tremendously as a shooter," NAU coach Jack Murphy said. "I'm gonna come down here next summer and pick the brain of their shooting coach."

Miller said Johnson "just plays his game - and whatever his defense gives him, he takes."

The Wildcats' motion offense - in which players screen, pass and cut rather than wait for the point guard to isolate at the top of the key - is another reason for Johnson's assist crown.

Johnson said his decision-making didn't necessarily improve because his shooting did.

"I think I'm a playmaker," he said. "When I get comfortable, I just make plays. And my teammates are knocking down shots and giving me that assist."

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