In his two years at Arizona Nick Johnson has become a crowd favorite, and for good reason. From high flying dunks to hosting recruits on their visits, Johnson is exactly what the fans want to see in a player.
Because we’ve seen Johnson play significant minutes since his freshman year, his game is pretty well understood by most astute observers. However, here is a deeper look into his statistics that gives us new insight into what Johnson will bring to the court next year.
As versatile as Johnson is, his defense has been, arguably, his greatest contribution as a Wildcat. Last year, Johnson was third in the PAC-12 in steals and fifth in Defensive Win Shares, earning him All Pac-12 Defensive Team honorable mention. However, I contend that Johnson was actually even better than some of these numbers suggest. To start, here are a few facts from last season to ponder:
Arizona held opponents to an average of 5.2 points below their season average.
The 2 leading guards of each opposing team averaged 0.5 points below their average.
The leading PG averaged 0.25 points above their season average.
The leading SG averaged 0.2 below their season average.
In any scenario where an opponent had a dominant guard between their two starting guards, that player averaged 3.4 points below their average.
In any scenario where an opponent had quality guards at both positions, that combo averaged 0.8 points above their average.
There is an interesting story that is being told here. As a pair, Johnson and Mark Lyons were only average on defense. They especially struggled against teams that utilized two guards with the ability to score.
However, in cases that one guard was a clear priority on defense, Johnson was assigned to that player. As the team’s defensive stopper, he did an incredible job of locking down his man and typically limited the player’s production.
This suggests that McConnell, a highly touted defender in his own right, will make life easier on Johnson. This is not the first and will not be the last time that Arizona’s backcourt defense will be discussed as the best in the nation. When you add in likely 6th man Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, the sky is the limit for Arizona’s perimeter defense next year.
The Winter Slump
For two years in a row Johnson has suffered from a major slump in production around the beginning of conference play. To give a visual, this graph shows Johnson’s average, max, and minimum points for each month in each of his two years at Arizona:
It takes three data points to consider this slump a trend. For now, we will assume that Johnson’s slump in his first two years has simply been a coincidence, a possible byproduct of logging heavy minutes early on. However, Johnson’s consistency next year will definitely be a story line to follow.
It’s pretty clear that Johnson’s yearly average is greatly affected by his annual slump. Aside from those lulls, Johnson has played 80% of his career games as a 13 point per game scorer. If Johnson plays at a consistent level throughout the year, his baseline expectation for next season should be about 13 ppg in roughly 32 minutes of action.
Typically, the sophomore to junior transition doesn’t involve a huge leap in production. There may be some intangibles associated with an additional year of experience, but for all intents and purposes, this does not directly correlate to an increase in scoring.
However, Johnson should expect more time with the ball in his hands. He saw a large increase between his freshman and sophomore seasons, and with 59% of the used possessions gone from last year, Johnson should be expected to have as much as a 20% increase from last season. The chart below shows the possession distribution from last year and the predicted redistribution for next year:
At 52% effective field goal percentage, this translates to an additional 1.4 ppg for Johnson. Adding this up, I predict Johnson to average 14.2ppg in his junior season.
In short, Johnson should have a big year on both sides of the ball. In his two year tenure at Arizona, he has proven to be a lockdown defender, a capable shooter, and a motivating team presence. As a junior, Johnson will have the opportunity to increase not just his scoring, but his overall impact on the game.
Aside from the numbers, though, Johnson could also take a step forward as a leader now that he’s an upperclassman. After following the lead of experienced players like Kyle Fogg, Solomon Hill, and Mark Lyons for two years, now Johnson is the experienced player that others will look to for leadership.