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NBA Draft 2014: Nick Johnson another example of Arizona basketball school

Sean Miller has built a winner, but he's also recreated an NBA player factory that Lute Olson started.

Jeff Gross

PHOENIX -- Nick Johnson was wincing but winning.

The former Arizona Wildcat guard was in the final minute of his Phoenix Suns workout, the final three of which were open to the media.

At the end of every workout in preparation for the NBA Draft, the Suns put their attendees through a three-minute stretch of running. The goal for each player is to finish as many laps as possible in those three minutes, and the goal for Phoenix's coaches is to see who is in shape -- and who might give up.

Johnson, despite it being his seventh workout in the last few weeks, finished ahead of the five other participants, though he was out-done by Suns guard Archie Goodwin, the bunny who himself had been pushing to hit a record 30 laps (that's 10 per minute, by the way). Johnson also impressed during the workout by playing point guard and going against an intriguing first round talent in Elfrid Payton of Louisiana Lafayette. Johnson's defense and strength stood out, and so did his shooting stroke.

If he can play some 1 or some 2, that's an advantage. Some guys that can only play one position I think are a little limited." -Suns GM Ryan McDonough

"The three-point shooting, he shoots it easy, I think because of his strength," Suns coach Jeff Hornacek said. "For us, we try to wear the guys out, see how they shoot when they're tired. He didn't even look like he got tired. That strength really helps him."

Whether the Suns decide to draft a hometown kid or not is less important. For Arizona's purposes, Johnson's performance and his similar attitude to last year's Arizona draftee, Solomon Hill, said a bit about the direction of Sean Miller's program.

Arizona has become an NBA training facility.

"Not a lot of guys are doing this or able to do this," said Johnson, who will continue his busy workout tour with visits to Houston, Dallas, Denver and the Los Angeles Clippers . "It's a good experience, getting to see every practice arena, stuff like that, all the facilities, all the staffs."

Johnson's weary travel legs didn't show in front of the Suns, and it's not surprising that Johnson spending three years with the Wildcats had him plenty prepared for the workout. It probably helped that he has so many resources to understand what to expect heading into draft workouts, all a phone-call away.

When Hill returned to Arizona to work out for the Suns last season, it was toward the end of an 18-stop NBA Draft workout tour. Hill, and Arizona State forward Carrick Felix, were unique. They wanted to line up as many team workouts as possible.

It paid off.


Some mock projections didn't include either to be selected through two rounds, but Hill, the 23rd pick by the Indiana Pacers, was perhaps the most shocking first round selection. Felix surprisingly went at the beginning of the second round to the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Johnson seems to be following the same path.

Mocked as a mid-second round pick, he just might work his way into a selection that's viewed as a reach. Putting his name out there and not shying away from competition, there's a better chance a team will reach to select a proven winner and competitor.

In Johnson's case, however, shaking the negative connotation of being a combo guard will be key.

Suns general manager Ryan McDonough, one who is quick not to plug players into the rigid positions of what's becoming a position-less league, said Johnson's off-the-ball experience at Arizona won't hurt his ability to play point guard.

"He's a guard," McDonough said. "We have two good guards in (Eric) Bledsoe and (Goran) Dragic. We really don't define them or label them, how they play. I think it's a testament to (Johnson) that there are some questions about what he plays because I think he can play both.

"Versatility makes it easier to evaluate players, in my opinion," McDonough added. "It gives you more flexibility with your current roster. If he can play some 1 or some 2, that's an advantage. Some guys that can only play one position I think are a little limited."

Johnson's visit to Phoenix came after workouts in Chicago, Orlando, Oklahoma City, Atlanta, Boston and Toronto. It was special for obvious reasons. He grew up in the Valley as the son of former ASU basketball player Jumping Joey Johnson. Nick Johnson spent two years at Gilbert's Highland High School before developing into a 4-star recruit at Findlay Prep in Nevada.

"I actually practiced in this gym when I was 8 or 9, with Rex Chapman," Johnson said.

"Really when I got to the hotel last night it started to kick in. I started remembering these practices, all the practices we had here. Jahii (Carson) was actually on my team. I think we were 8, 9, 10 years old."

Johnson said he'd love the opportunity to return home to play. He'd fit in well with the athletic guard rotation of Bledsoe, Dragic and Goodwin.

But no matter where Johnson lands, he -- and fellow draftee Aaron Gordon -- will mark what's about to become the regular for the Arizona basketball program.

It's going to be pumping out NBA players with success, just as it did during the Lute Olson days.