Sometimes after watching the Arizona Wildcats play basketball, Michelle Mayland will go down and ask guard Nick Johnson out to dinner.
Sometimes the answer is no.
And she’s his mom.
“There’s been times after games when we want to go out and he’s like, ‘Sorry, I gotta take a recruit out to dinner,’ ” Mayland said. “He’ll say, ‘I’ve got to build our team.’ ”
So he does. And mom understands.
Since Johnson was a kid, she said, he’s always been a magnet for other kids to play with, to hang out with, a leader who could organize a team or a game, a guy who made everybody feel comfortable.
That’s what’s made Johnson not only possibly the Arizona Wildcats’ top on-court leader this season but also the undisputed go-to guy on the roster for chasing down future talent.
“He’s the best recruiter on the campus, believe me when I tell you that,” UA coach Sean Miller said. “He’s had a hand in virtually every player who’s on our current team.”
Not just former Oakland Soldiers travel-ball teammates Josiah Turner, Brandon Ashley and Aaron Gordon (and maybe even current top UA target Stanley Johnson, another Soldiers alum).
Miller says Nick Johnson does it because he’s unselfish and wants to win, to be surrounded by other great players.
But there’s more to it than that.
Johnson, after all, is already a junior who has been at least a mild threat to leave for pro basketball after every season. There’s never been any guarantee that any of his “recruits” would become teammates before he was out the door.
And, besides, if he did become their teammate, not every player in Johnson’s situation might think that’s a good thing.
“Sometimes when a program is not going right, kids are insecure and when they’re hosting recruits, they almost sabotage the (recruiting) visit,” says Josh Gershon, a West Coast-based recruiting analyst for Scout.com. “That happens more than people think. They’re worried about their own playing time. But Nick has always been as charismatic and well-spoken as any recruit I’ve ever covered.”
So instead of jealously, this is the mentality Johnson brings: When Turner fizzed out after a year in the spring of 2012 and T.J. McConnell popped up on the transfer market, Johnson pushed hard to land the former Duquesne guard.
Even though as a true point guard, McConnell figures to significantly reduce any minutes Johnson might have gotten this season at the point, where he’ll likely have to prove to NBA scouts he can at least hold his own.
No matter. Johnson wanted McConnell. So he helped get him.
“I’ve probably been a part of every visit that’s happened since I’ve been here … and I’ve definitely been a part of T.J coming here,” Johnson said.
“That’s a guy I really wanted to play here and be my backcourt mate.”
But it’s more than that. Johnson says he was so welcomed by then-Wildcats MoMo Jones and Kevin Parrom during his recruiting visits to UA, hanging out with other teammates and visiting their homes, that he found it comfortable enough to make Tucson his future home.
Johnson said he hopes future recruits feel the same way when they visit Arizona.
“When we bring in a recruit, we respect the parents and we just try to talk to the kid,” Johnson said. “I’ve been there. On my visits, I’ve had players not talk to me, and it kind of rubs you the wrong way. So when a (current) player comes up to you and introduces himself to you and your parents, you realize, ‘OK, this is a family.’ That’s one of the big things I stressed to coach and he stressed to me this year. I want us to be a family.”
At first, Miller didn’t know if Johnson had that kind of personality in him. At first, he saw unbelievable quickness, jumping ability and mouth-watering upside. Plus, he sensed Johnson’s passion.
But Miller didn’t know how that would translate off the court until he came to know Johnson as a “big-picture guy,” somebody who wants everybody around him, not just himself, to get better.
It was then that Miller knew he could trust Johnson to spend time with recruiting targets.
“It’s the players at the end of the day that many times convince a younger player and his family to come to Arizona,” Miller said. “The time that they spend together is the strongest of all feelings. When we have players in the program who care like Nick does, it has a way of really leading to success.”
Then again, underneath it all, there are maybe a couple of selfish motives with Johnson.
For one, he wants a sense of pride in the Wildcats — and maybe bragging rights — to have wherever he lands in the future.
“I know when I move on from this school, I’m gonna want to look back and see how they’re doing and I’m gonna hope they’re doing really good — even better than when I left,” Johnson said. “I can play a part in that now. If I can talk to a guy who looks up to me or wants to be in my shoes and convince him a little bit to come here then I’m going to do that.
“I’m always been a talkative guy. I like to talk to people. So it’s been a plus.”
For another thing, all this salesmanship and personality is sort of practice for Johnson. Because after he’s done playing professionally, Johnson says he wants to come back and coach at the college level, eventually as a head coach.
Miller will be waiting with an offer to help him get there.
“When his days end as a player, we’re going to hire him as a coach,” Miller said, smiling, “because he’ll be one of the best ever.”