TUCSON, Ariz. — Arizona coach Sean Miller knew a day like this would come.
One, possibly two, three or maybe even four players jumping from the program to take their chances in the NBA.
Tuesday was that day — one that Miller described as "bittersweet." Junior guard Nick Johnson and freshman forward Aaron Gordon announced that they would continue their basketball careers in the NBA, but sophomore center Kaleb Tarczewski and freshman forward Rondae Hollis-Jefferson opted to stay in school for at least one more year.
April 15, 2015? That could be another chapter of the same story. But April 15, 2014, was a day for celebrating the recent past and looking ahead.
"The way we recruited a year ago and fall and this winter is that we wanted to make sure we were as comprehensively protected as possible, where one year could feed into the next and that we don’t get caught by any surprises," Miller said on Tuesday, shortly after Johnson and Gordon announced their decisions to leave UA.
Such is the modern world of college basketball, where out go two of a program’s shining stars and in comes one of Arizona’s best classes. Indeed, the past does impact the future.
"They will come in and help immediately next year," Miller said.
Clearly, Miller has created a monster — something Hall of Fame coach Lute Olson did — and now it must feed it. Gone are Gordon, a likely lottery pick, and Johnson, the team leader who is projected as a second rounder by many analysts, and in will come five-star recruits Stanley Johnson and Craig Victor and junior college player of the year Kadeem Allen.
Gordon and Johnson said it was tough deciding to leave, but it was the best decision for each of them. The lure of winning a national title weighed strongly in making it a difficult decision.
"That was huge. That was huge," Gordon said. "Arizona is going to be successful at the highest level next year. That’s just the nature of the program."
Said Johnson: "It was definitely a tough decision in (not) coming back and playing my senior year. It would have been a fun thing to do and obviously would have had those goals to (repeat) as the Pac-12 player of the year and be a first-team All-American. … I had to think about myself and see what’s best for me. It was a huge chance of being (on) a great team next year with the components coming back, but I had to make the choice for myself."
Miller said these difficult situations for all concerned.
"We have to embrace what we do to be successful," Miller said. "(But) what’s not talked about is that we have some really good players coming back next year that were part of this year’s team."
Three of those ”good players" who will be part of next year’s team spoke to the media on Tuesday, explaining their decisions to return. Sophomore forward Brandon Ashley said he had all but had no choice given the season-ending foot injury he suffered in February. He did say he had thought about leaving before the injury. Freshman forward Hollis-Jefferson wants to be a top 10 pick and sees the potential for that in the future, but not this year. Sophomore center Tarczewski said he returned to be part of a very good team and because there was "unfinished business" from the last season.
"No question we’ve all had a great career here, no matter how long it’s been," Tarczewski said. "Brandon and I can say we played for a Sweet 16 and an Elite Eight team. We played on a regular season No. 1 team and a No. 1 seed in the tournament (and) a Pac-12 regular season championship.
"The reason why we are coming back — I can say for myself — when we signed on, our goal was to make it to a Final Four, to be able to play for a national championship. Next year that’s our goal. Next year we have some unfinished business here. I’m grateful to say we have another year and are hopeful we can get it done."
Gordon, from San Jose, Calif., and Johnson, from Gilbert, Ariz., have had life-long dreams of the NBA. Gordon, a 6-foot-9 forward from San Jose, Calif., is viewed as a potential top-10 selection by many analysts, despite some holes in his offensive game. He averaged 12.4 points, 8.0 rebounds, and 1.0 blocks per game and shot 49.5 percent from the field but needs work on his mid-range game and outside shot, as reflected by his 42.2 free-throw percentage.
The projections are less clear for Johnson, a Boston Celtic fan because of his uncle, Dennis Johnson. But after receiving feedback from the NBA last week, he feels "confident about my decision." He averaged 16.3 points, 4.1 rebounds, 2.8 assists and 1.1 steals per game while shooting 43.2 percent from the field.
"I’m going to show what I bring to the table, so many things as far as my leadership and my ability to defend and knock down shots," said Johnson, the 2014 Pac-12 player of the year and a consensus All-American. "If you ask me, I’m a basketball player. Put me on the court and I’m going to defend, it doesn’t matter if the guy is shorter or taller than me. I’m going to get into it on defense and make plays on offense. That’s who I am as a player."
Earlier this year, Miller said he thought it unwise for a player to leave without assurances of being in the first round, altered those sentiments somewhat on Tuesday. He considers Johnson something of a special case, because he’s already physically matured, and he had little to prove with another season at the college level.
"Generally if someone leaves early you want them to be a first-round pick," Miller said. "Learning a lot from the feedback we got on Nick, looking at how physically developed he is … there’s a chance he comes back for that fourth year and maybe not be as coveted.
"Nick knows (his situation). He is not in La-La land."
Johnson will have pre-draft workouts to help determine that fate.
As for the Wildcats, they were likely a preseason No. 1 if both he and Gordon had returned. Even without them, they are still in the conversation.
All parties are excited about the future on both levels.
"We’re all happy for them," Ashley said. "To leave college and go to the NBA is a big step. I’m sitting here with butterflies like I’m the one leaving. I’m excited to see what they will do next year. I’m excited for them."