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Arizona basketball: Nick Johnson is finally earning respect

With a bit more exposure, analysts and fans are finally seeing that Arizona is Nick Johnson's team.

Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

He snuck in the back door smoothly, or maybe nobody noticed because he brought some impressive teammates with him. Nick Johnson hasn't gotten the attention, but national opinions have just begun to correctly recalibrate as the Arizona Wildcats earn more and more exposure.

It just took awhile.

T.J. McConnell was the biggest impact transfer, while Brandon Ashley and Kaleb Tarczewski have been targets of the hoopla because they give the Wildcats their well-documented, imposing size. Then there's Aaron Gordon and his status in a class of elite freshmen.

None of this is an indictment on Gordon ... Johnson separates himself on the offensive end, and his offensive improvements might even hint to why Gordon could use another year at Arizona

"Obviously, the players that are put in that category are immensely talented," UA coach Sean Miller said of the freshman basketball class during Tuesday's coaches teleconference. "Basketball is a great team game. Each of these talented freshman is at a place much bigger than the place they are going. At UCLA, I have a hard time believing there are too many sophomores better than Kyle Anderson. The notoriety he's getting pales in comparison (to the great freshmen)."

It's been the same story for Johnson.

His impact is now receiving attention, and deservedly, he's separating himself as the best player on the nation's best team. Perhaps, it's because he's the most important, the one without much of a hole.

Johnson has hit three three-pointers in the last three games, which is even more important on a team lacking more than two or three three-point shooters on the court at a time. He is leading the team by averaging 16.3 points and has improved his shooting percentage from 37.2 percent as a freshman to 49.7 percent as a junior. About the only flaw has been in his ball handling, which once per game is bound to lead to a turnover.

SB Nation's Rodger Sherman's wrote a column attempting to pin down whether any team will go undefeated this season, and to me, his throwaway paragraph quickly describing Arizona as a team is spot on. You may think it's clever because Rodger is a great writer -- he is. And in the piece, it's really just necessary context to describe UA to those who don't know.

Arizona is better than every team in its conference. They're stacked! Aaron Gordon's a damn stud, and he's the least of it. Nick Johnson's the actual star, Brandon Ashley is actually more effective than Gordon right now, T.J. McConnell is your point guard ideal, and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson is a dunk murderer.

It is quite accurate but not particularly earth-shattering.

But having read around the internet just a month ago, it would seem off-base compared to the national opinion of Arizona. That would have read something like so:

Arizona is better than every team in its conference. They're stacked! Aaron Gordon's a damn stud. Nick Johnson dunks but not as well as Aaron Gordon, Brandon Ashley usually gets bailed out by Aaron Gordon, T.J. McConnell is nice because he throws lobs to Aaron Gordon, and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson is a not as good as Aaron Gordon.

With all due respect to Gordon, it's big exaggeration, but this is where I'm going.

Rob Dauster of NBC's College Basketball Talk wrote an entire article on Aaron Gordon's defense on Duke's Jabari Parker, even though Ashley started on Parker and did a good deal of damage when he wasn't in foul trouble. In fact, Ashley isn't mentioned in the entire article(!!). ESPN blogger Eamonn Brennan's Week 5 Wooden Watch tossed Gordon into the national equation after the forward locked down Glenn Robinson III during Arizona's big win against the Michigan Wolverines.

Fixation on Gordon's effort and his dunking and his great defense is fine but, heck, Gordon himself probably thinks it's crazy to call him the rock of this team.

Brennan has admittedly changed his tune, tabbing Johnson in his Week 8 post.

Last week, we subbed Johnson in for Aaron Gordon. Why? Gordon, for all of the things he brings to the table -- some of which, like the way his athleticism helps translate into so few good interior shots for Arizona's opponents, can be invisible on paper -- really isn't as important to his team. The most important and productive player on the nation's best team is their guard Johnson, who boasts a 121.7 percent offensive rating, shoots 25.8 percent of his team's available shots, and is the perimeter linchpin in what could otherwise be a one-dimensional Arizona attack.

CBS Sports' Jon Rothstein has also tabbed Johnson as a Pac-12 Player of the Year leader to this point, Sporting News is putting him as a First-Team All-American (Gordon is on the Third Team, for what it's worth) and Rush the Court's Andrew Murawa is calling him a Player of the Year candidate.

Since Sean Miller moved in to McKale Center, he's preached that having that aggressive perimeter defender is a necessity, not a cherry on top.

Starting with a less-athletic Kyle Fogg, who played big brother to Johnson, you could even go as far as arguing Arizona's roster makeup was tailor-made for Johnson -- if not around him. The recruitment of big men like Ashley and Tarczewski has allowed Johnson to play with just enough ball pressure to bother opponents -- Arizona is best at forcing bad shots late in the shot-clock, not with overaggressive pressure -- but without the worry they can score if they get into the paint.

None of this is an indictment on Gordon but only to say he's fit in brilliantly with his teammates. Johnson separates himself on the offensive end, and his offensive improvements might even hint to why Gordon could use another year at Arizona, as some people have examined.

"I think in college, the trick is, if you have one-and-dones ... you got to have some veterans around those guys," Washington coach Lorenzo Romar said this week. "The guards tend to stay around a little longer."

While Aaron Gordon may push Arizona over the top, this team is built around the identity of the veteran Nick Johnson.