On the day they bade farewell to college basketball, Aaron Gordon and Nick Johnson wore matching Arizona gear but were as different as Penn and Teller.
Gordon was almost giddy. “I know my potential is limitless,” he said. “I’m really going to flourish.”
Johnson was subdued, bordering on apologetic. At times, his voice was barely audible. Johnson’s body language suggested he, not Gordon, had recently spent time in the oral surgeon’s chair.
In short order, Gordon will be America’s newest teenage millionaire; do you realize he won’t turn 19 until September?
He’s a walking exclamation point. Whoopee!
Johnson is going to have to pack a lunch, and he knows it. His future is far more complicated than wondering if he’ll be living in, say, Atlanta or Detroit, finding the right personal chef and working on his foul shot.
If you subtract the 30 dunks Johnson made in his final Arizona basketball season, he shot .394 from the field. In his attempt to find employment in the NBA, Johnson won’t be dunking over out-manned Oregon State Beavers and Cal Bears any more.
Yet UA coach Sean Miller said, “In both cases, it made sense for them to leave.”
We get it. Ready or not, Arizona has assembly-lined 13 early-entry players to pro basketball this century. Robertas Javtokas and Jordan Hill. Kyryl Natyazhko and Jerryd Bayless.
They wanted the money. Wouldn’t you?
What stings about watching Johnson leave is that he was family. He was a class act. Given his lack of size and point guard skills, you’re not sure he’ll be able to complete a journey to the NBA.
Unlike not-ready-for-prime-time Marcus Williams, who exited Arizona’s basketball scene in 2007, you will worry about Saint Nick.
Johnson arrived at Arizona in the fall of 2011, and if anyone had predicted Nick would become the Pac-12 Player of the Year they would have been given a sobriety test. The leading prospect in Miller’s Class of 2011 was point guard Josiah Turner. How about that?
Here’s the catch: Turner is still the top prospect from the UA Class of 2011.
Miller has taken considerable heat for selecting Turner over Phoenix superjet Jahii Carson, but now, in retrospect, you can see it. Carson, who played two seasons at ASU, made official his I’m-leaving-school edict Wednesday, and yet there were no teary goodbyes, no press conference, and no live streaming on Pac-12 Networks.
Johnson turned out to be the better college ballplayer. He left a lasting legacy.
Turner? After being jettisoned from Arizona’s program, done in by off-court immaturity issues, he reinvented himself this year for the Los Angeles D-Fenders of the NBA D-League.
I saw a programming note two weeks ago, alerting me to a Defenders vs. Santa Cruz Warriors game broadcast on the NBA TV network.
Turner was outstanding. He has the size (a legitimate 6 feet 3 inches) and ballhandling skills Johnson does not. I could not believe I watched all 48 minutes of a D-League game, but Turner was so good I couldn’t stop.
In Los Angeles’ final 10 games, Turner shot .625 afield, made 81.2 percent of his free throws and averaged 16.1 points per game. Those numbers are far superior to those of Turner’s Arizona freshman season, when he averaged 6.8 points and shot just .417 from the field.
Here’s my point: If Josiah Turner can find himself after being exiled to, of all places, Nova Scotia in 2012-13, if he can get his foot in the NBA door, so can Nick Johnson, who has intangibles and a winning persona that Turner does not.
Unless you are Aaron Gordon, blessed with NBA size and the athletic ability of an Olympic decathlete, it’s everybody-for-himself. Johnson will do well to follow the example of former Arizona combo guard Will Bynum.
After leaving Tucson in the winter of 2002-03, unable to dislodge Salim Stoudamire in the lineup, Bynum completed his career at Georgia Tech. He wasn’t drafted because he was said to be too short (6 feet) and wasn’t really a point guard.
After a half-season in the D-League and a quick 15 appearances for Golden State as a rookie free agent, Bynum played two seasons in Israel and has since found his place in Detroit. He has scored 2,899 points for the Pistons, earning $14.1 million as an off-the-bench point guard.
If Will Bynum can play seven seasons in the NBA, so can Nick Johnson.
On Tuesday, sitting between Gordon and Johnson, Miller was upbeat. He said all 30 NBA teams had sent representatives to Tucson at least three times each, all of them watching the Wildcats practice.
No one is being naive here. “Nick’s not in La-La Land,” said Miller.
Johnson isn’t anyone’s idea of a basketball secret. One way or another, he’ll make it to the big leagues.