The Denver Nuggets recent decision to part ways with troubled point guard Ty Lawson has resulted in a golden opportunity for former Arizona Wildcat star Nick Johnson.
On July 19, the Nuggets sent Lawson and a 2017 second-round draft pick to the Houston Rockets in exchange for Johnson, Kostas Papanikolaou, Joey Dorsey, Pablo Prigioni (whom the Nuggets subsequently waived), and a protected 2016 first rounder.
The trade moves Johnson, 22, out from being buried on the bench behind a crowded and talented backcourt in Houston to a situation where he has a legitimate chance to contribute in Denver in his second NBA season.
“We got a handful of players we have interest in, one of them is over there getting treatment in our ad hoc training room in Nick Johnson.” Nuggets general manager Tim Connelly said in a press conference. “We’re going to talk internally and figure out what’s the best approach as we get to training camp. I think there’s real value in some of the players we got.”
Houston’s backcourt next season will include established NBA players James Harden, Lawson, Pat Beverley, Corey Brewer, K.J. McDaniels, and Jason Terry (who is expected to resign with the Rockets). With all of that talent standing in his way, Johnson ‘s hopes of carving out a significant role would have been bleak.
In his rookie season with the Rockets, Johnson averaged 2.4 points and 1.4 rebounds in just 9.4 minutes per game while appearing in only 28 contests. He played 20 games in the NBA Developmental League and was likely facing a similar fate in his sophomore campaign.
In contrast, on a rebuilding Denver squad, the 2014 Pac-12 Player of the Year will compete with the likes of Emmanuel Mudiay, Jameer Nelson, Erick Green, Randy Foye, Will Barton, and Gary Harris for minutes at the guard positions. Denver is expecting big things out of Mudiay – who they drafted seventh overall in this year’s draft – but he is only 19 years old and averaged five turnovers per game while shooting 14.3 percent from three, 38.5 percent from the field, and 50 percent from the line in the recently concluded Vegas Summer League. Jameer Nelson, 33, is a shadow of what he was in the prime of his career. With Randy Foye being the only other guard on Denver’s roster with significant NBA experience, the door is clearly open for Johnson to carve out a spot in the rotation.
In his second season, the former Arizona guard will step into Denver as one of just as handful of players on the roster with playoff experience. Johnson saw action in nine playoff games as a rookie running the point for Houston.
Also of significance is that the Nuggets hired a new coach this offseason – the defensive minded Michael Malone. The freshly minted coach comes into the season with no previously established rotation or allegiances to draft picks or players from previous seasons.
Coach Malone is respected around the NBA for his great defensive style. He has even been known to sacrifice offense to get better defensive players on the floor. If Johnson can prove himself on the defensive end with his new coach, he may have a clear path to consistent minutes in the Nuggets’ rotation.
Johnson’s tenacious defense and supernatural athleticism will help him stand out to Malone. At 6-foot-3 and 200 pounds, he’s considered undersized to guard shooting guards in the association but Arizona fans will inform you that his 6-foot-7 wingspan and 47-inch vertical help to make up for what he lacks in height.
The fact that Mudiay – the Nuggets’ point guard of the future – is 6-foot-5 and could potentially switch onto two guards could allow Johnson to play off the ball on offense while covering the other teams point guard. For that scenario to work, however, Mudiay and/or Johnson still need to prove they can stroke from beyond the arc in the NBA.
Unfortunately for Johnson, he recently missed a chance to show he has improved his shooting stroke and point guard play, as he had to sit out of the Vegas Summer League with a calf issue.
“It’s nothing, just don’t want to turn it into a nagging injury,” Johnson said of the leg irritation.
In the end, Lawson’s misfortunes and the resulting blockbuster trade could very well end up being the best thing that could have happened to the former Wildcat fan favorite.