Nick Johnson waited in the wings for one year. Sort of. As a freshman, the undersized but athletic guard proved to be valuable in a number of ways.
The 6-foot-3, 200 pounder became the guy that Sean Miller could call upon for any reason. Need an emergency point guard when the starter was suspended or the backup was injured? Call him up. Need a reliable perimeter defender? He'll be there.
Reliability appeared to be the name of Johnson's game in his freshman season. While there were inconsistent pieces to Arizona's roster, Johnson quietly went about his business.
Miller even seemed surprised when Johnson was open about wanting to try his hand at point guard. That's because Johnson was maybe asking for too much. At shooting guard, he was inconsistent in numbers, shooting 37.2 percent from the field and just 33.1 percent from three-point range. But learning the point didn't appear to rock Johnson mentally, and it's arguable he was more steady than the erratic Josiah Turner.
Despite his inconsistencies, Johnson averaged nine points, 3.2 rebounds and 2.4 assists per game. He proved that as a combo-guard, he could maybe project to the NBA. His point guard skills surely give him an advantage next to a comparable athlete like Shannon Brown.
It's Johnson's sophomore season now. What's to be expected?
It's hard to say.
Under the wings of Kyle Fogg, Johnson became the little brother, a witness to Fogg's defensive identity that Miller helped to develop upon his arrival. Now, Fogg is set to work his way into the NBA through the D-League after going through training camp with the Houston Rockets. Johnson projects differently as a professional, but at Arizona his role could be similar.
The talent across the 2012-13 roster doesn't require Johnson to be anything more than Fogg at his peak -- a spot-up shooter and a main perimeter defender.
Johnson is capable of that. His athleticism gives him a chance to be an All-Pac-12 defender, and it appears that his shooting stroke is much improved after a summer of work. Johnson was lights out in the Red-Blue game from long range, and his ability to spread the floor will help Arizona's bigs operate and its guards penetrate.
But unlike Fogg, Johnson has the potential to be more.
When and if that occurs is a matter of if when his talent will be unleashed, for sure. That may be contingent on necessity. With Solomon Hill and Mark Lyons on the shortlist of players who could potentially take over when the Wildcats need a big game this season, Johnson surely won't have the pressure upon him to be, at times, The Man. However, Johnson is arguably the player with the most potential to be just that.
At that point, then it becomes a matter of how he can be more than a bulldog of a perimeter defender and spot-up shooter.
Energy, after all, is limited. Playing extended minutes as a in-your-face defender requires more energy than any other role outside of main scorer. So how can Johnson potentially do both?
In the NBA, look to players like Tony Allen who play in the mold of Fogg -- vice versa, really -- where the offensive production is the cherry on top of their defensive sturdiness. Thabo Sefolosha of the Oklahoma City Thunder is another example of that, a player with the athletic tools and mentality alone pegging him into a starting spot rather than the recently traded James Harden.
It's the same deal in college. On talented, NCAA tournament teams, perimeter defenders are usually just (and only) that. Ohio State's Aaron Craft was an integral part to the Buckeyes' run to the Final Four in 2012, but it was those surrounding Craft that allowed him to produce consistently and efficiently in his master, uh, craft. Jared Sullinger and William Buford, to name a few, allowed him to focus on his defense.
Likewise, Johnson will have that support provided for him in 2012-13. The Solomon Hills, Kevin Parroms, Mark Lyons and all of the big men having his back will sharpen Johnson's focus on defense, allowing him few opportunities to worry about scoring throughout the game or playing too close to his man during each play -- if they get by him, good luck scoring against the lengthy UA front line.
In a way, Craft's role this season with OSU is perhaps a deep gaze into the crystal ball for Johnson's career at Arizona, either toward next year or the year after that. Talent aside, can a player be the defensive stalwart and the go-to guy?
Johnson has a ball tee'd up to land on this list of best defenders next season.
But will he be that and more?