TUCSON - To say Nick Johnson has been the University of Arizonas most positive surprise of the basketball season would be an understatement.
People knew he was good, but not this good.
Hes a freshman who balances being aggressive and being steady.
Sound and solid.
Affable and quotable.
And, a backcourt leader on a team thirsting for someone to step up on the perimeter.
If theres a word for him, its "unfreshmanlike." Is that even a word? But thats him.
Hes a freshman who is playing like a junior, said his mom, Michelle Moyland, in early December. But hes just 18. Hes still a baby.
Tell that to the opponents. And Johnson is now 19, having turned a year older on Dec. 22.
Hes played beyond his years through Arizonas first two months. He is yet another Phoenix-area player who has been able to shine in Tucson.
Channing Frye, Jerryd Bayless, Richard Jefferson and Mike Bibby did it. All started as freshmen and had a major impact. Johnson appears headed in that direction.
And its not about the numbers, although they are gaudy enough.
Hes averaging 10.1 points, 1.5 rebounds and 2.8 assists per game. And hes the clear leader in highlight dunks. They come out of nowhere left-handed, right-handed or both. Hes allowed Arizona to bring back the alley oop, reminding fans of the Bennett DavisonMichael Dickerson days of the late 1990s. There was some of that when Jefferson and Chase Budinger were here, but it didnt come as often as it does these days. His near 40-inch vertical leap has been put to eye-popping use.
And his shot? Its not impeccable, but it's already saved UA a time or two. He had 19 against New Mexico State, hitting 8 of 14 shots. In all, hes hitting 43.6 percent from the field.
Yet, theres plenty of room for improvement. Johnson says so, recently giving himself a B-minus or a C for his collective performance to this point for the 9-4 Wildcats, who open up Pac-12 Conference play on Saturday against Arizona State.
I always expect more from myself, he said. Everybody will tell me I had a great game (from time to time), and I look at the things I didnt do. I always want to improve.
Its music to a coach Sean Miller's ear, who has spoken highly of Johnson from Day One. Nothing has changed his opinion.
Nick Johnson is a winner, Miller said. He shows up every day to work hard and has a tremendous attitude. He couples that talent with a burning desire to be a good player. Those are characteristics you want to see in every player.
Sure, Miller said, Johnson has been blessed with God-given talent but its combined with a savvy and a sureness that have helped shaped him. It comes from his family and from within. And playing away from home at Nevada-based Findlay Prep, where Johnson says he matured plenty. His mom encouraged him to go there, leaving the comfort zone of Gilbert High where he was already a star player and the well-known son of former Arizona State player Jumpin Joey Johnson.
Hes always been mature, (so) Im not sure if it helped him grow up, because he would have done that on his own, Moyland said.
It worked. Or at least, Johnson adjusted. Most good players do, Miller said. Whether it comes in the form of a position change (as it did for Johnson when he was asked to move from shooting guard to the point guard spot for a game) or an environment change, good ones adjust.
Johnson did, playing with and against some of the nation's elite high school players while at Findlay. There he was part of the mythical national championship team. He traveled across the country, on a smaller scale. And he was immersed in a college-like structure where preparation to the details was always important.
Its helped with a smooth transition.
"Even though hes a freshman, he can really set the tone for us in games and every day in practice, Miller said. His relationship with Josiah (Turner, another freshman) is a healthy one. Josiah is moving in the right direction. Nick has been his advocate the entire time. That says a lot of who Nick is as a person.
Thats what is most pleasing to Moyland. Sure the rapid rise for a freshman has been great, but its the kind words of Miller that makes mom proud.
Im always proud of him, she said. He gets all A's and is a good kid. But when coach Miller tells me he is, its always good to hear.