A two-plus month grind for former Arizona Wildcats guard Nick Johnson has ended. On Monday, he was on the losing end of the Las Vegas Summer League championship game. It was the Houston Rockets guard's 13th game in 17 days on two sides of the country, and it was the next step of a growing process that began with an intense workout and travel schedule leading into the NBA Draft.
The Summer League proved what Johnson has said. Were there really seven Pac-12 players better than the league player of the year? And are 41 total players are better than Johnson? At this moment, no way.
It helped that Johnson got a heavy dose of handling the point guard duties in five Orlando Summer League games. His 15-point, 10-rebound, 10-assist triple double on July 11 said it all about his versatility. Johnson slid to the shooting guard slot for most of the Rockets' Vegas run as point guard Isaiah Canaan joined a different roster, but he was equally counted upon and often impactful.
The national college basketball media was late to jump on the Johnson bandwagon last season, but a few highlight dunks in Vegas and Orlando turned the NBA media onto the 42nd overall pick quite quickly.
After throwing down this reverse alley-oop dunk, Johnson was back on the other end of the court, forcing his man into a double-dribble by getting a hand on the ball. It was your typical, do-it-all performance. Johnson finished eight games in Las Vegas with averages of 12.5 points, 4.4 rebounds and 2.3 assists.
If NBA coaches and not general managers had a little more pull in the draft process, there wouldn't be 41 players taken before Johnson in the draft. So many, including Aaron Gordon, are picked on potential. There were surprises, too. Stanford swingman Josh Huestis went stunningly in the first round, where the Oklahoma City Thunder are known to take interesting reaches on utility players with unique skillsets (see Jerrett, Grant.) Another group of picks were draft-and-stash selections.
Johnson is very NBA-ready at this point, and his value lies in him being a smart player coaches won't have to worry about. They know he'll pick up things quickly, rotate at the right time on defense and defend when he's isolated.
Johnson is more than likely going to have a spot on the Rockets' roster next season, and he certainly is going to have a chance to earn playing time immediately. Houston needs depth at point guard after trading Jeremy Lin to the Los Angeles Lakers. While starter Patrick Beverley returns, Johnson could be seen as a long-term successor with higher upside than the Beverley, who is similarly a bulldog of a defender. Ish Smith joins Houston as a free agent with the ability to act as a change-up speedster, and Johnson will also compete with young D-League vet Canaan. Behind James Harden and shooter Troy Daniels, Johnson could be a backup shooting guard as well.
Worst case, he spends next season in the D-League earning heavy minutes and refining a jumper that might be marketed a little more positively than it should be.
Johnson was solid for an entire college career, and he'll continue to be sturdy if Houston needs him. The difference is that a few dunks this summer caught the eyes of NBA folks. Johnson may have fallen in the draft, but he's already being appreciated.