Nick Johnson another Arizona Wildcats star with strong NBA Summer League appearance trying to prove self

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Nick Johnson

Nick Johnson

Nick Johnson let Arizona Republic reporter Paul Coro know he is not in agreement with NBA front-office personnel who deemed him no better than the 42nd pick of the draft last month.

“I just don’t think there are seven Pac-12 players better than the Pac-12 Player of the Year, and not (41) players better than me in that draft class,” Johnson told Coro. “That’s what we have the whole career for. It’s not where you start. It’s where you finish.”

Many critics believe the summer league is not a proving ground, although in reality, that’s exactly its design. Over the last three weeks, Johnson was paired against other rookies and second- and third-year NBA players who are also trying to show scouts and critics they belong. He held his own against his peers, averaging 13.8 points a game.

Johnson did not play against NBA all-stars and was not forced to primarily play the point-guard position with the Houston Rockets’ summer league teams in Orlando and Las Vegas. He was not exposed to the pressure of playing on national TV in front of a capacity crowd in an NBA arena. Instead of playing against Chris Paul, Deron Williams or Rajon Rondo, Johnson faced the likes of Ray McCallum, Ben McLemore, P.J. Hairston and Mickey McConnell.

He was not forced to adjust to playing off the bench, which will likely be the case when Houston’s season starts in October.




In many ways, Johnson’s experience in Orlando and Las Vegas was similar to his Wildcat days because he started every game, played extensively (29.9 minutes a game) at both guard positions and was afforded the opportunity to be a human highlight reel.

The real test comes in October, but to downplay the significance of his performance this month is ludicrous. If his name was Andrew Wiggins or Jabari Parker, maybe. A lottery pick or first-round choice is expected to emerge as one of the best in the summer leagues, not a 6’3″ guard who is considered a cross between a point guard and shooting guard and was selected in the second round.

The summer league meant something to another second-round pick from Arizona: Chase Budinger, an athlete extraordinaire like Johnson who tried to prove himself with Houston. Budinger averaged 17.8 points per game in his first NBA Summer League in 2009. He averaged 15 points and 4 rebounds in the 2010 summer league in Las Vegas. He showed he belonged.


Budinger is preparing for his sixth NBA season in 2014-15. Although his career to this point is riddled with knee injuries, he said earlier this month that he feels his best since before his injuries. Minnesota has Budinger figured heavily in its plans.

Jerryd Bayless, like Johnson, was considered a tweener coming out of Arizona. He played shooting guard with the Wildcats in his lone season of 2007-08, but his height (also 6’3″) was more of an NBA point guard.


Bayless was named the NBA Summer League Top Rookie after averaging 29.8 points and 4.8 rebounds in four games in Las Vegas in 2008. He will play his seventh season in the NBA in 2014-15, potentially with a sixth different team, Milwaukee.

The cynics will say Budinger and Bayless are not good examples to use with Johnson’s case of proving he belongs in the NBA after a strong summer league. They will suggest Budinger and Bayless have not enjoyed successful NBA careers. They are not all-stars. They have not won an NBA title. They are not leaders of their respective teams. And so on.

I couldn’t disagree more. Budinger and Bayless combine for 11 NBA seasons. They have earned roughly a combined $23.5 million: Bayless $15.6 million and Budinger $7.9 million. They will likely earn a lot more before they play their last game. They have surpassed the NBA’s average career length of 4.8 years.


Their careers still have a strong pulse after they endured all the questions and doubts entering the NBA, similar to what Johnson is facing now.

To those who believe the NBA Summer League does not mean a thing to forecasting a player’s development, try telling that to Johnson, a winner wherever he’s gone despite the odds.

“It’s just motivation,” Johnson told the Houston Chronicle earlier this month. “Going into high school, I wasn’t highly ranked. I felt like I had a decent career in high school – won a national championship but wasn’t a McDonald’s All-American.

“I felt like that was kind of a disrespect. But I worked and worked and worked. … I’m just going to stay with my mindset and use it all as motivation.”

NICK JOHNSON FINAL SUMMER LEAGUE STATS
Source: NBA.com. o-Orlando. lv-Las Vegas.

Date Opp MIN FGM-A 3PM-A FTM-A OFF DEF REB AST STL BLK TO PF PTS
lv-7/21 SAC 34 6-16 0-1 5-7 2 4 6 1 3 0 3 2 17
lv-7/20 CHA 29 3-12 0-3 6-7 2 3 5 3 2 1 1 0 12
lv-7/19 ATL 34 4-11 0-2 2-5 1 6 7 1 1 0 0 2 10
lv-7/17 CLE 32 3-11 2-3 6-8 2 3 5 5 1 0 3 2 14
lv-7/16 TOR 28 4-7 0-2 4-4 0 5 5 0 2 0 4 2 12
lv-7/15 LAC 20 2-5 1-2 3-4 0 1 1 2 3 0 3 4 8
lv-7/13 POR 32 6-13 1-5 3-3 0 3 3 0 0 0 3 3 16
lv-7/12 MIA 33 5-11 1-6 0-0 0 3 3 6 2 1 2 1 11
o-7/11 BKN 27 6-11 1-3 2-2 3 7 10 10 2 0 3 3 15
o-7/10 MEM 30 9-14 2-5 2-2 3 3 6 6 1 1 3 2 22
o-7/8 PHI 30 4-14 1-6 2-2 4 1 5 4 1 1 4 3 11
o-7/7 ORL 30 3-12 1-4 6-6 3 2 5 2 0 1 2 7 13
o-7/5 DET 30 7-14 2-6 2-4 3 2 5 3 0 1 3 1 18
TOT 389 62-151 12-48 43-54 23 43 66 43 18 6 34 32 179
AVG/ PCT 29.9 .411 .250 .796 1.8 3.3 5.1 3.3 1.4 0.5 2.6 2.5 13.8

ALLSPORTSTUCSON.com publisher, writer and editor Javier Morales is a former Arizona Press Club award winner. He also writes articles for Bleacher Report and Lindy’s College Sports.

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