PHOENIX — The Phoenix Suns worked out an unique set of point guards on Thursday. Louisiana Lafayette talent Elfrid Payton and Arizona combo guard Nick Johnson went at it and could be two of the best backcourt defenders in the 2014 NBA Draft.
Arizona Wildcats point guard Nick Johnson is perhaps one of the most explosive leapers in in the 2014 NBA Draft and measured a 41.5 inch vertical at the draft combine. He played shooting guard at Arizona and developed a consistent enough jumper to make him NBA ready in that regard, but his real calling card is his defensive capabilities. Just under 6-foot-2 but with a 6-foot-7.25 wingspan, Johnson was often assigned to the best perimeter offensive threat and despite his height has the strength, will and experience to get NBA point guards off rhythm at the point of attack.
“The three-point shooting, he shoots it easy, I think because of his strength,” Suns coach Jeff Hornacek said of Johnson. “For us, we try to wear the guys out, see how they shoot when they’re tired. He didn’t even look like he got tired. That strength really helps him.”
Johnson will be hoping to shake the combo guard label. At Arizona, he played alongside a few point guards but since his freshman season had stints acting as the squad’s backup. Johnson shot a reasonable 36.7 percent from three-point range but could use more consistency on it. Perhaps the biggest worry is that he’s not experienced enough in the pick-and-roll. Johnson is an underwhelming ball handler and would be more of a system point guard than a player capable of breaking down defenses off the bounce.
“Defensively he’s got some pretty good strength,” Suns general manager Ryan McDonough said. “A little bit undersized especially at the shooting guard position, but he is tough, he’s strong and athletic and well-conditioned. All those things I think make up for maybe a guy who’s a little undersized. The point guard position is fine, he’s got plenty of size there.”
Where Johnson lands could make or break his success, at least in terms of the near future. Johnson did average 2.8 assists per game and was allowed to lead breaks like a point guard, but he is not a great offensive threat in the halfcourt aside from being a spot-up shooter. If he’s allowed to work in an offense that doesn’t put much pressure on the point guard to create themselves, he will be in a solid position to shine. Defensively, he will have to prove that his height isn’t as big of a deal as it would seem. His issues revolve around the same questions that were posed to the Suns with Eric Bledsoe playing essentially as an undersized 2-guard on defense.
“I think it’s a benefit I played the 2 in college,” Johnson said Thursday. “I have that experience. I believe I can guard both positions. I think it’s something that’s a plus. I think that Coach Miller put me in the right positions to be a playmaker on my team even if I wasn’t bringing up the ball. That’s just a little transition I have to make, but I think I’ve been in that playmaking role for a while.”
How would he fit on the Suns
Johnson, like Bledsoe, would thrive in an up-tempo system and with added strength could potentially play with either Bledsoe — if the Suns re-sign him — or Goran Dragic. The explosive leaper would be a threat to finish in transition a la Gerald Green and he would also be a pesky defender coming off the bench. At this point, however, it’s hard to see Phoenix picking Johnson in the NBA Draft at 27 or even 50 considering Archie Goodwin’s development and the likelihood the team picks up Ish Smith’s bargain of an option.