TUCSON, Ariz. — At this time last season, Nick Johnson was wowing the crowds with soaring dunks and playing beyond his years.
He moved with poise and assurance. He was a factor early, flying high and living large as a freshman on a team in search of answers. He was one of the answers.
And then he hit the proverbial wall.
Fast forward to this season and Johnson, Arizona’s resident pogo stick in sneakers, has added depth to his game and has been Arizona’s crème de la rim.
“He’s a guy who is really fun to play with,” Arizona coach Sean Miller said. “He’s engaged in every phase of the game.”
What better praise can you get from a coach? Oh, yes: “He’s egoless.”
That hasn’t changed; it’s just more apparent now. But so much else has, and that wall that got in his way last year should be easier to climb come February. Confidence and experience help conquer that.
“Nick Johnson, a year ago, would never have been able to fight through, because he was a freshman,” Miller said. “But he’s so much more mature.”
There are some things you can’t teach; among them, maturity and confidence. Johnson has both. And don’t forget tremendous athletic ability (another thing you cannot teach).
In his second year, he’s a much better, more complete basketball player. Smarter, more savvy, more sure of himself on the court. And he’s better suited for what Arizona needs this season.
Teammate Kevin Parrom called him: “a super sophomore.”
“Nick is a great example of all the hard work he did in the spring, summer and fall,” Miller said. “All his hard work is paying off.”
Johnson leads the team in points per game (13.6), assists per game (3.7) and steals per game (2.7).
Though not a pure shooter, everyone knew he could score. What they didn’t know was what else he could do with the ball as a facilitator.
“I’m a playmaker,” he said matter-of-factly. “I just make plays. My teammates are knocking down shots and giving me the assists.”
He’s been an ideal complement to senior backcourt mate Mark Lyons, who has struggled at times as the designated point guard.
“We can both do both,” Johnson said. “It’s an interchangeable relationship.”
Johnson said his improvement isn’t so much about confidence as complements — as in the parts around him.
“I’d like to think it’s the guys around me,” he said. “We have so many guys who can do everything.”
Eighth-ranked Arizona (7-0) returns home to face No. 6 Florida next Saturday in what will be THE game of its nonconference schedule. “It won’t be our defining moment in our season, but we will be ready,” Miller said.