LAS VEGAS — Summer League is a place in transition, where you see players with shoes that don’t match their uniform, where coaching staff members can outnumber active rosters, where players have to flip their uniform waistbands over to keep their oversize shorts from falling down during play. After one game, I saw a player exit the locker room shirtless with only a backpack, because the trainer had accidentally packed away the shirts before he was finished dressing.
That player was Rockets rookie Nick Johnson. While the Rockets quickly issued Johnson a long-sleeve T-shirt to solve that problem, his path to getting an NBA jersey of his own has been a bit less direct.
“The last few months have been pretty long, pretty wild,” Johnson says. “But it’s been good.”
Last season, as a junior at Arizona, the 6-foot-3 Johnson averaged 16.3 points, earning him consensus first-team All-American honors as well as a Pac-12 Player of the Year nod. Feeling he’d proven his worth, Johnson entered the 2014 NBA Draft. Leading up the Draft, Johnson had fifteen different workouts for NBA teams. “It was a grind. I was going from city to city, going for two weeks at a time.”
Then, on the evening of the Draft, Johnson sat to wait for his name to be called. The first round — with the accompanying guaranteed contract — came and went. Eventually, the Rockets drafted Johnson in the second round, 42nd overall, and the eighth player from the Pac-12 selected.
“It was a long night,” Johnson admits. “I’ll tell you, there’s not 41 players better than me in this year’s draft. And I don’t know anywhere the player of the year has seven players in his same conference get picked before him.
“But overall, it was a good process for me,” he continues, “because I went to a good organization, right now they’re going to the playoffs every year, and I think we have a lot of potential to go pretty far. I’ve always been a winner, always been about winning. So I’m happy I went to an organization that wins.”
Johnson — who is, coincidentally, the nephew of Hall of Famer Dennis Johnson — may be considered undersized at the two, but in Houston’s system he projects at either the one or the two. During Summer League, his athleticism has been a prominent asset in Johnson’s game, and he flashed it Monday during a loss in the Summer League final with a reverse alley-oop dunk en route to a team-leading 17 points. At least initially, that athletic ability should go a long way toward helping him find a place in the NBA.
“I think my game fits really well,” Johnson says. “In the NBA, I have the ability to use my athleticism a lot more than I did in college. I believe that the floor, the spacing is a lot wider with so many shooters around. I saw that a little bit in both of these summer leagues. And with my ability to make plays and get after it on the defensive end, I feel it will translate pretty well.”
“His athleticism is at an elite level, so it’s always going to allow him to compete and he’s a competitor,” says Houston’s summer league coach Chris Finch. “I think he’s right, I think he’ll find more space on the floor provided he gets out and runs, learns to play real quick off the catch where he can beat his man. His athleticism will help near the rim as long as he gets there quickly.”
Besides athleticism, Johnson excels at many of the things that don’t show up on draft previews, such as toughness and leadership. And it’s exactly that kind of hard-minded approach that will help him go from 42 into the upper echelon.
“It’s not where you start it’s where you finish,” Johnson says. “I’m going to make sure to work my hardest, to do my best, to finish at the top.”