Marching to Vegas: In Praise of Nick Johnson

Posted by Adam Butler on January 17th, 2014

Adam Butler (@pachoopsab) of Pachoops again will be joining us all year, providing us with his weekly take on our favorite conference, as we begin the March to Las Vegas.

I want to submit, if that’s possible, Nick Johnson’s name for National Player of the Year. It’s strange for me to say that – clearly not because I’m an Arizona fan – but because as someone who watches the game at a socially unacceptable level, I did not believe he would have the opportunity for such. Arizona’s system is such that I sincerely did not believe he’d have the touches or scoring veracity to garner such attention. I’ve long felt Derrick Williams’ season was an anomaly within Sean Miller’s style but a necessary “evil” for the success of the 2011 Wildcats. This season, however, Miller had constructed his perfect beast. A defense-oriented group that meshed together in such a way that it didn’t matter who scored but rather who stopped. And that would be predicated on a team effort. Thus, I was quick to believe that no one on Arizona’s roster would win any [honor] of the Year award. But we now find ourselves 18 games deep and Nick Johnson is – well – the best player on the best team in the country. Mark Titus agrees with Bill Walton on this front, and Sean Miller agrees with both of them. As do I.

Nick Johnson's Surprising Candidacy For National Player Of The Year Earns Another Supporter

Nick Johnson’s Surprising Candidacy For National Player Of The Year Earns Another Supporter

First, a little bit on Nick. Here’s a young man who arrived at Arizona as Miller’s most prized – or at least highly rated – recruit. At current pace, prized would indeed seem to be the right word in that the parallels to Sean Elliott seem obvious: local talent, first and greatest success under a new regime at Arizona, the face of the program, etc. I’m well ahead of myself but Johnson came to Tucson with his sights on big things. He was joining a Top 25 team as a part of the fourth-best recruiting class in the nation. Nick Johnson was meant for big things. But an elongated slump from Johnson and a generally underwhelming team chemistry kept his first Wildcats squad from amounting to much (which, when translated into Wildcat means: home loss to Bucknell in the first round of the NIT). Similarly, or at least to some extent, another late slump during his sophomore season would coincide with a 5-5 close to the season in which his field goal percentage dipped nearly 10 percentage points below his season average. Nick Johnson was good, but not there yet.

But perhaps he’s here now. He’s improved – once again – in nearly every offensive category, leading his team in scoring, eFG%, TS%, FT%, usage, and I could go on. He’s doing all of this for the number one team in the nation that is destroying people on the defensive end of the floor and that, my friends, is why I believe – and agree with Sean Miller – that Johnson belongs in the National POY conversation. The aforementioned and easily quantifiable offensive stats suggest he belongs in the debate on some level. But the anecdotal components, the mano-a-mano stuffs of a driving Jordan Adams (4-of-15) or Jahii Carson (7-of-19), are what set the bouncy two-guard apart. Yet there’s more. Because the use of two-guard should be – for use of the perfect word – guarded. Johnson plays three positions for the Wildcats: he starts at the two, relieves at the one, and fills in at the three. Nick Johnson not only does everything for the Wildcats but he does everything for the Wildcats. Toss all of that in with the fact that his team is playing the most consistently great basketball in the nation and I think it’s nearly impossible to keep him out of the POY conversation.

Of course this sort of talk conjures discussion of what constitutes a Player of the Year; but that’s the subjective nature of the beast. I appreciate Ken Pomeroy’s efforts to quantify it and you’ll hear almost no argument from me with regards to his quantified list. And there is no “but” coming. That’s just a good list. The caveat comes in the subjective assignment of “of the Year” because the only known component is that the award will be given to a “player.”

But enough semantics. Through 18 games, Johnson has earned his way – no matter whether it means anything to him or anyone else – into the discussion. And the aforementioned slump; the haunting one from season’s past? That thing has typically reared its ugly head starting about now. At least it did in his inaugural season and then just a touch later last year. And so here we are. Will that slump rear its ugly head again? Perhaps coinciding with Arizona’s first loss? Or has Nick Johnson turned the proverbial corner? Piecing together the kind of season that gets talked about in Tucson for years to come?

That’s a lot of questions, but such is a column discussing year-end prospects at midseason. But if it’s answers you’re looking for, know that Nick Johnson is in the POY conversation. And with good reason.

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