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NBA Draft 2014: Nick Johnson makes case as early-entry candidate

Junior Nick Johnson's stellar play in 2013-14 might make him think twice about leaving for the NBA early.

Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

The college basketball world isn't as scummy as you might think. Coaches don't scheme to keep players in school when they should leave for the NBA, and players generally don't make the leap unless they genuinely go through the process of thinking it over.

Arizona guard Nick Johnson will probably have to do so after this season, because if it ended today, he's already done enough damage to make Wildcats fans wonder if he'll follow Aaron Gordon out the door.

Gordon's mother told the San Francisco Gate this week that her son is, in all likelihood, going to head to the league after his freshman season. Even though Sean Miller's club has other NBA prospects on its roster in Kaleb Tarczewski, Brandon Ashley and even Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, it's the veteran Johnson who has the strongest case to leave school early.

Not only has his scoring ability blossomed, but so has his decision-making and defensive consistency.

"He's a keeper for sure," said Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak, who coached Johnson in an Adidas Nations event a few years back. "I hope this is the last year at Arizona. Any of these NBA folks call and talk about playing at the next level, he'll be my first vote to head in that direction. I think he's got what it takes."

Three days ago, well-regarded NBA Draft website Draft Express had Johnson unlisted in its 2014 mock draft but did have him going 40th overall (10th in the second round) in the 2015 draft. A day later, the website moved Johnson into the 2014 mock draft. They have the Arizona guard going 15th in the second round in next year's loaded class.

That change in perception makes you wonder.

Could Johnson move up the boards?

"I'm an economist by training. It just becomes a very economic decision in my eyes.  -Oregon State coach Craig Robinson on how he guides underclassmen who could jump to the NBA

He's shown growth as Arizona's leader within this season, and unless he hits a major bump in the road won't hurt his stock.

"I look to our game against Arizona in the Pac-12 tournament (in 2013), and I saw a defensive mindset," Colorado coach Tad Boyle said of Johnson. "I thought that game, he was a great defender. He took it personal, he didn't take plays off. Nick has made himself into a better ball handler, he finishes with contact now in the lane, he shoots the three-ball now."

If Johnson has a strong tournament and the Wildcats go deep into it, he'll be pushing first round status.

You know what happened last year. Solomon Hill, a senior, had a solid enough postseason and throughout the draft process was listed as high as the final pick in the first round and as low as, well, 90th overall -- Chad Ford of ESPN pretty much laughed at what happened next. Hill went 23rd overall to the Indiana Pacers, and what got him farther than any college statistic or any of his upwards of 17 workouts was Miller vouching for him as a winner to the Pacers front office.

Johnson, who like Hill can get somewhere on his character alone, could have that same marketing in the background.

So where does Johnson draw the line of going to the league or not? Probably at the first round marker.

During this past week's Pac-12 coaches teleconference, a number of coaches were asked by various members of the Tucson media how they handled underclassmen thinking about leaving to the NBA. Unanimously, they said that making the first-round guaranteed money is the biggest deal (second rounders aren't necessarily on guaranteed contracts).

"I'm an economist by training," said Oregon State coach Craig Robinson. "It just becomes a very economic decision in my eyes. (Former OSU guard) Jared Cunningham was going to be a proven first-round pick. (Current OSU forward) Eric Moreland wasn't a first-down pick. So my position is very clear. It's very cut and dry for me."

But Johnson's case isn't yet cut and dry. His season or that of the team as a whole could end bitterly. Even if it doesn't, Johnson will have to face the obvious but often overlooked part of being a college athlete.

Does he want to give up this life?