Player: Nick Johnson
Age: 21 (Turns 22 in December)
Acquired: 42nd pick of 2014 Draft
Contract Situation: Signed three-year rookie contract this offseason
Fun Fact that will get old very quickly: Nephew of Dennis Johnson
Nick Johnson enters the 2014/15 season with more hype and expectations surrounding him than most second round picks. Some of this is due to Houston's recent history with the second round. (The Parsons Effect or The Morey Principle? Discuss.) Some of this is due to his elite athleticism, displayed here in Summer League:
Some of that is due to his having signed a guaranteed three-year contract. More of it is due to his stellar college career, culminating in him winning Pac-12 Player of the Year last season for Arizona as well as second-team AP All-American honors. Here's his sizzle reel:
And, as you may hear just a couple of times on Rockets broadcasts this year, he's the nephew of Hall-of-Famer Dennis Johnson and the son of NBA player "Jumpin' Joey" Johnson, whose vertical leap was the stuff of legend. But none of these give us a clear picture of what to expect from Nick this season.
Fans who have been following TDS in the preseason so far know that the backcourt rotation is crowded, and with lots of similar players. Johnson profiles as a classic tweener guard right now at 6'3", having been a primary scoring option in college. Though his skill set differs from those of Jason Terry, Troy Daniels and Isaiah Canaan, they are all undersized, score-first guards who are best suited in small-ball lineups. And if having four of those guys on your team -- none of whom will start -- sounds like a lot, that's because it is. The competition has been fierce so far, and it will be fascinating to see who makes the team (not Nick Johnson's worry, aside from a D-League assignment), and how the rotation shakes out early in the year.
Johnson doesn't have the shooting prowess of Jet or Daniels (both of whom we'll preview later this week), and so far hasn't proved quite as dynamic a playmaker as Canaan, but he does have a real jumper, he showed good cutting off the ball in college, and his athleticism (and 6'7" wingspan) means he could become a plus defender for his size. If an injury simplifies this situation, he has the chance to take a defined role and run with it.
As with most players his size, there will be pressure for Johnson to try to become a "true" point guard. I've heard a couple of Westbrook comparisons, which shows you how rabid an athlete like Johnson can make a fan base. I don't think he has that level of speed (I can count on one hand those who do), and it is a long shot that he will have that kind of Napoleonic mindset -- would that even be a good thing? -- but Russ is incredibly ball-dominant and plays with a superstar who doesn't require the ball in his hands to make an impact.
I would argue that Harden will always be the most ball-dominant player on the Rockets as long as he is on the team. So if Nick were to become a starting point guard, he would need to be an off-guard and distribute as a third (at best) scoring option. That is not remotely his game right now, but anything could happen in the future.
Like fellow rookie Clint Capela, Nick Johnson's main contribution to the Rockets this year could wind up being little more than some garbage-time, highlight-reel dunks. But unlike Capela, Johnson has been very visible in the run-up to the season. He's given die-hards plenty of reasons to salivate.