When Nick Johnson made his draft workout stop in Phoenix a few weeks back, his approach to the process and his willingness to sell himself mirrored that of Solomon Hill in 2013 and Derrick Williams in 2011. But when the 2014 NBA Draft played out it became clear the word of his success wasn't just fluff.
Former Arizona Wildcats teammate Aaron Gordon was the first surprise of the draft. The fourth overall pick by the Orlando Magic went ahead of more highly-touted players, and a brief clip of general manager Rob Hennigan's post-draft press conference included the questions you'd expect.
"Why would you take Gordon over Noah Vonleh, Dante Exum or Marcus Smart?"
"Aaron Gordon all along really started to gain a lot of momentum within our office as we learned more and more about him, and we became pretty confident that he was the right selection for us at this particular time," Hennigan told media members following the draft.
The same happened with Johnson. While he had first-round hopes and saw Pac-12 players like offensively-limited Josh Huestis and the injured Spencer Dinwiddie go off the board before him, he was realistically never projected to go above the 40th pick. Johnson was picked 42nd by the Houston Rockets, a fine fit for him and on the higher end of any projections.
The former Wildcats sold themselves well in the draft process.
So how do they fit with their new teams?
A positional battle on a positionless team?
The Magic quite obviously weren't drafting by need when they selected Gordon. In examining best fits for Gordon, the Magic were at the high end of his projected selection but appeared an unlikely landing spot with similar hybrid forwards Mo Harkless and Tobias Harris on the roster. Gordon, however, is unlike either. Harkless can affect the game with his raw athleticism. Harris, the cousin of Channing Frye, is a strong rebounder and deadly scorer when healthy. It wouldn't be surprising for the Magic to trade one of Harkless and Harris, but assuming that doesn't happen, Gordon will have to fight for his minutes.
But irregardless of that, he fits into the long-term plans for an Orlando squad that's not shy about playing positionless basketball. The Magic made a draft-night trade to pick Louisiana-Lafayette point guard Elfrid Payton to pair with combo guard and last year's second overall pick Victor Oladipo. Orlando also has former USC big man Nikola Vucevic turning into quite a pro. This team will be scary on the defensive end in a few years, and Gordon gives them a third playmaker that could create major problems down the line.
Johnson part of Wildcat pipeline to H-town
The Rockets seemingly have an affinity for Arizona players. They've had Kevin Parrom and Kyle Fogg on their D-League squad, the Rio Grande Valley Vipers. Lute Olson's grandson, Matt Brase, is the director of player development in Houston, so it makes sense the Rockets have their eyes on Wildcats.
I projected Johnson to perhaps land in Houston with the 42nd pick, which is a bit of a higher range of where he could have gone. The Utah Jazz likewise needed guard depth but with their 35th pick went with Tennessee big man Jarnell Stokes because they surprisingly had guard Dante Exum fall to them at fifth. So in a process where dominoes must fall for certain players, you could in theory blame Gordon jumping Exum for affecting where Johnson landed. Maybe, maybe not.
Houston, hoping to make a run at Carmelo Anthony or another high-profile free agent, needs salary cap space. The next step after trading the contract of Omer Asik will require them to move point guard Jeremy Lin. That means there will perhaps be an opportunity for Johnson to earn playing time behind Patrick Beverley. He will be fighting for time with Isaiah Canaan in such a scenario.
If Lin is retained, it's more likely Johnson sees more time in the D-League than he would otherwise. He will probably have a fun time in a ridiculously fast-paced Vipers team that puts a major emphasis on threes and
layups dunks. So if you want to see Johnson in the NBA soon, root for 'Melo or LeBron landing in H-town.