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While watching the accompanying recent Sports Illustrated video about Arizona Wildcats junior guard Nick Johnson I immediately for the first time noticed the facial similarities between and his Hall of Fame uncle, the late great Dennis Johnson.
The similarities go beyond their appearance (the younger Johnson also bears some freckles, similar to his uncle). Nick Johnson is a more gifted athlete than his uncle with a 47-inch vertical leap, but their moxie and basketball intelligence is one and the same.
Damon Stoudamire is appropriately interviewed by Sports Illustrated about Nick Johnson in the video. An Arizona legend and assistant coach, Stoudamire has a deep appreciation of the program and how Nick Johnson is keeping the winning values alive.
After Dennis Johnson passed away in 2007 at age 52 from a heart attack, legendary Seattle center Jack Sikma mentioned to ESPN.com that his former teammate “was a great competitor. … He wouldn’t let things pass. He would cause some friction if he felt strongly about something, but with our team that was a good thing.”
That comment brought to mind something Nick Johnson said last week at the Pac-12 tournament in Las Vegas when he was asked about the maturity level of his star-studded freshman teammates Aaron Gordon and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson.
“They don’t get mad when I come up to them and say, ‘Hey, look, I don’t care about your offense, you need to buckle down on defense,'” Nick Johnson said. “They trust me as a leader and trust what coach preaches everyday that we’re a defensive team. When we get stops and get rebounds, do the little things, that’s when we’re at our best.”
Dennis Johnson (or “DJ” as he was called) won every where he played, similar to his nephew’s success at Findlay Prep in Henderson, Nev., and now Arizona, which is a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. The elder Johnson won NBA titles with Seattle and Boston. He took the Suns to the Western Conference semifinals in two of his three years in Phoenix.
Dennis Johnson was also much more substance than style, earning a spot on the NBA All-Defensive team six times in his 14-year career.
Nick Johnson has a flair for the spectacular with all of those highlight-reel slam dunks, but he prides himself on his defense. The Pac-12 Player of the Year was not among the league’s top scorers, but he was a member of the conference’s all-defensive team.
Before he arrived in Tucson in 2011, Nick Johnson was interviewed about his uncle by MassLive.com. The younger Johnson was only 18 at the time (he turned 21 in December), but he spoke in the same earnest manner as he does today.
“He just told me to never believe the hype, stay humble, and always work hard,” Johnson said of his uncle, whose No. 3 is retired by the Boston Celtics.
Nick Johnson wore the No. 3 at Findlay in his uncle’s honor. Kevin Parrom wore that number upon the younger Johnson’s arrival in Tucson. Nick Johnson kept his No. 13 after Parrom exhausted his eligibility. The No. 13 fits with his array of numbers that he’s used in his career (1, 11, 13 and 3). His father “Jumping” Joey Johnson, he of the 52-inch vertical leap and Dennis’ brother, wore No. 13 for ASU.
Dennis Johnson’s induction into basketball’s Hall of Fame occurred unfortunately posthumously in 2010. His nephew had the opportunity to see his place among the elite when Findlay played at Springfield, Mass., cite of the Hall of Fame, in that same year.
“Knowing he finally got in is definitely an honor for my family,” Nick Johnson said.
His uncle was on the verge of a NBA coaching career at the time of his death. He was coaching the Austin Toros of the NBA’s Developmental League at that time. Dennis Johnson’s leadership skills and basketball intelligence would have undoubtedly landed him a coaching job at the highest level.
His nephew is on track to also become an NBA player either this year or next (after he exhausts his eligibility). In the Sports Illustrated video, Nick Johnson talks about wanting to be a coach after his playing days are over. That’s only a matter of time because of the same characteristics he has as his legendary uncle.
“He’s just a very unselfish kid,” Sean Miller said Tuesday in an interview with Sirius/XM. “He has a great personality. He’s the true leader of our team. You know, early in the summer and last spring, he made it his job to make sure that our team grew closer not just on the court, but off of it.
“Eight of our players live together. That really started with his mindset of making sure that we were invested in being together and it’s a reminder for me as a coach that it’s not just the practice planning or how much you do on the court. His process of winning started a long time ago for us. The fact that we’re a No. 1 seed I would say happened almost the day after we lost last year in the Sweet 16 and Nick had a lot to do with that.”