Nick Johnson is to Sean Miller what Sean Elliott was to Lute Olson — a catalyst who could bridge the program from the unknown to the unparalleled.
Johnson and Elliott, each Arizona bred and now conference players of the year with Johnson’s Pac-12 player of the year selection yesterday, are among storied Arizona players who in their junior season took the program to where it never was before. What sets Elliott and Johnson apart from this group is they emerged as difference makers at a point when the program was in search of an identity.
Elliott was part of Arizona’s first Final Four team as a junior in 1987-88. Before that run, the Wildcats had yet to win a first-round game in the NCAA tournament in two tries under Lute Olson.
Damon Stoudamire was the Wildcats’ undeniable leader as a junior when Arizona went to its second Final Four in 1993-94.
Miles Simon earned the Final Four MVP as a junior during Arizona’s championship run in 1996-97.
Richard Jefferson was on the All-Final Four Team as a junior when the Wildcats advanced to the national title game in 2000-01.
Great things come in three years. Final Four great.
Johnson has developed in his third year as the best player on an Arizona team that set a school record with a 24-0 start and eight consecutive weeks at No. 1.
If the standout junior season trend holds, Johnson and Arizona are destined for the Final Four. If the Wildcats do not make it that far, it does not diminish what Johnson means to Miller and the Arizona program. The Gilbert, Ariz., native has injected life into the program nonetheless.
His improvement year to year is symbolic of how Miller’s program has emerged as one of the nation’s best. His scoring total went from 323 as a freshman (Arizona was 23-12 and lost in the NIT), to 403 as a sophomore (Arizona went 27-8 and placed fourth in the Pac-12) to 500 today (Arizona is 28-3 and ranked No. 4 with a Pac-12 title).
Johnson is one of only 51 who have scored at least 500 points in a season for the Wildcats. The fact that Miller’s teams are designed to be balanced makes Johnson’s scoring total more impressive. He averages 30.5 minutes per game through 101 career games. Elliott played 100 games through his first three seasons at Arizona and averaged 33.7 minutes, a significant difference because almost four minutes could translate to at least five additional possessions a game.
Johnson’s scoring average of 16.1 is seventh-best in the Pac-12 and is the lowest among Arizona’s conference player of the year honorees, although it comes close to the 16.3 points a game Chris Mills posted in 1992-93.
Elliott averaged 19.6 and 22.3 points in the years he won the award in 1987-88 and 1988-89. Stoudamire averaged 18.4 in 1994-95. The rest: Mike Bibby (17.2 in 1997-98), Jason Terry (21.9 in 1998-99) and Derrick Williams (19.5 in 2010-11).
This group also excelled on defense and they were invaluable with their intangibles. I have covered Johnson since his sophomore season in high school through all the AAU tournaments and games at Findlay Prep in Henderson, Nev. Not one player I’ve seen can match his flair for the game and astounding leaping ability with how he plays intelligently and within a team concept.
Not one of the hundreds of players I’ve seen has the same aura about him with his teammates. In layman’s terms, Johnson is cool. He is the leader of the pack.
“There are a number of individually really talented players in our conference,” Miller said yesterday. “Statistically, they may even stand out more but Nick’s meaning to our team’s success is … I can’t put a value on it because it not only happens on the court but it also happens off the court.
“He’s our natural leader.”
Three of the juniors who rose to the occasion for Arizona — Elliott, Stoudamire and Simon — stayed through their senior season while Jefferson left early for the NBA in 2001. Jefferson was only the third player since Arizona joined the Pac-10 in 1978-79 who declared early for the NBA draft. Nine more have left early for the NBA since then, including Grant Jerrett last year.
If Johnson decides to leave early, his legacy at Arizona is still intact, although he could have a career at Arizona few others have enjoyed. He could match Elliott with two conference player of the year honors, earn national player of the year awards and become one of Arizona’s top 10 scorers in school history.
I'm honored to be able to win the PAC-12 POY award. Thank you to all zona fans, my family, and all my teammates and coaches. #teamaward
— Nick Johnson (@Air_Zona13) March 10, 2014
What matters most is Johnson made Arizona a better program rising from the depths of the struggles after Olson’s retirement and the NIT season in 2011-12. The Wildcats are poised for their second consecutive trip to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in Miller’s five years. They should be a No. 1 seed.
I recall after covering a game at Findlay when Johnson was a senior how invaluable he could be for his team. I was on the court interviewing him with my daughter, Mackenzie, by my side. Johnson asked “Who is this?” in the middle of the interview. I introduced her and he subsequently took her to some of the players, who offered a high five to her.
That kind of fun-loving demeanor is infectious. Johnson became my daughter’s first crush (she was only 6). When she sees him play on TV, she still yells, “There’s No. 3!”, which was Johnson’s number at Findlay.
Johnson’s coaches, teammates and fans all hold that kind of exuberance when they watch him play. It’s Sean Elliott revisited in more ways than one.