TUCSON, Ariz. — It’s difficult to have a basketball conversation with Nick Johnson without the word “defense” popping up in Johnson’s vocabulary.
It’s that essential to his game and the University of Arizona’s success this season.
Johnson gets it, and he should. After all, he’s now the cagey veteran who it almost seems has been part of the program since Sean Miller arrived more than five years ago … even though he’s still just a junior.
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Clearly, he’s become so much more than Arizona’s resident jack-in-the-box, popping up every now and again for a sensational slam or a last second swat.
He doesn’t want to be known just for the occasional highlight-reel plays.
“I want to get better on defense,” he said. “Last year, I didn’t work as hard as I could have.”
And yet he was named to the Pac-12 honorable mention all-defensive team.
It wasn’t good enough.
So, he’s worked and worked. Last year, it was about putting up thousands of shots. This year, the concentration was defense.
“The evolution of Nick Johnson as a basketball player is twofold — both offensively and defensively,” Miller said. “If you watched him closely a year ago, he showed glimpses, taking that next step from his freshman year. He’s a better defender. Now I hope he can take that next step.”
Johnson’s continued evoluation could make the Wildcats even more dangerous. With transfer T.J. McConnell at the point guard spot, Johnson can settle in at shooting guard or occasionally move to small forward spot if Miller wants to play smallball — provided senior Jordin Mayes or sophomore Gabe York can step in at shooting guard.
Miller has plenty of options, but many of them are predicated on Johnson, who is versatile enough to guard small forwards and quick enough to handle point guards. He’s done it his entire career at Arizona.
“Part of depth is not in numbers but in the versatility of the players that we have,” Miller said.
Johnson, at 6-3 and 200 pounds, is Arizona’s Swiss Army Knife. He’ll get some motivation from McConnell, who is said to be a pit bull on defense.
“I can’t wait to play with T.J. … he’s blue collar,” Johnson said.
Johnson’s preparation for the season included extra effort in the weight room to become stronger.
“Nick embodies all of the qualities that we really try to live by in our program,” Miller said at the recent Pac-12 Conference media day. “He’s going to have a lot to do with our success this year, because to me, he’s the natural leader of our team. He’s certainly one of the most talented players in the Pac-12 and somebody who is on track to have a great season.”
The Wildcats seems to have the parts necessary for that to happen. Up front, they have the big man in 7-footer Kaleb Tarczweski, a more confident and more assertive Brandon Ashley, and a potential superstart in freshman Aaron Gordon, who Johnson calls the “Little Kid” because he plays with so much energy and he works hard.
But it’s the addition of McConnell that excites Johnson most.
Because McConnell was able to practice last year while sitting out as a transfer, the two started to develop a chemistry that will be on display this season.
“I kind of got a sense of where I need to be when he has the ball and stuff like that,” Johnson said. “And we are starting to gain a little connection for knowing what each other are thinking.” Follow Steve Rivera on Twitter