Of all the college prospects weighing whether or not to enter the NBA draft this spring, Nick Johnson had one of the most difficult decisions.
No matter what he chose, the Arizona star had to make a sacrifice.
If he stayed for his senior season at Arizona, there was a very good chance Johnson's stock would level off or even diminish. Not only would it be tough for Johnson to duplicate his All-American-caliber junior season with Stanley Johnson and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson sharing playing time at wing, he also would have little chance to prove to NBA scouts he could play point guard with T.J. McConnell returning.
At the same time, leaving Arizona meant missing out on a season that had the potential to be special. Were the Wildcats to have McConnell at point guard, him, Johnson and Hollis-Jefferson at wing and Brandon Ashley and Kaleb Tarczewski anchoring the frontcourt, they probably would enter the season no worse than the co-favorites to win the national championship.
Ultimately, Johnson pondered the pros and cons for two weeks before his decision crystallized in his mind the past few days. He and freshman forward Aaron Gordon jointly announced on Tuesday afternoon that they're both forgoing their remaining college eligibility and entering the NBA draft.
"I had to sit down and think about myself and see what's best for me," Johnson told reporters in Tucson on Tuesday. "Although there's a huge chance of being a great team next year with the components we would have had coming back, I just had to make the best choice for myself."
It's a testament to the recruiting efforts of Sean Miller and his staff that Arizona can survive the loss of Johnson and Gordon and not miss a beat. With six of last season's top eight players expected back and a top recruiting class headlined by Stanley Johnson and Craig Victor arriving, Arizona should begin next year no worse than third or fourth in most preseason polls.
Whereas Gordon's decision was clear-cut since he's a near-certain lottery pick, Johnson isn't certain to get the guaranteed contract that comes with being a first-round pick. Most mock drafts project the 6-foot-3 junior to be taken in the second round because he's undersized for an NBA shooting guard yet has played mostly off ball and has yet to prove he can distribute well enough to play point guard.
An elite defender, explosive athlete, high-character leader and accomplished scorer, Johnson averaged 16.1 points, 4.1 rebounds and 2.8 assists this past season in leading Arizona to the Pac-12 title and an Elite Eight. Johnson earned Pac-12 player of the year honors and made some All-American teams, but his season ended on a down note in the Elite Eight when he failed to get off a shot before the buzzer with Arizona trailing Wisconsin by one in the final seconds of overtime.
To bolster his NBA stock before the draft, Johnson will have to show scouts that he can create for others off the dribble and that he can consistently knock down open shots from behind the arc.
That won't be easy, but Johnson is realistic about where he stands after hearing feedback from NBA scouts.
"I'm not saying I'm a surefire lottery pick. I know that," Johnson said. "But the one thing that really stood out to me was that you're going to have to work for it. It's not going to be easy to get drafted where you want to be. You're going to have to put in the work and show teams you can do what they think you can and answer the questions they have."
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