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Arizona basketball: Nick Johnson becoming an elite defender

Nick Johnson

Nick Johnson helps out defensively and strips the ball from Washington center Aziz N’Diaye for one of his four steals. Photo by Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

Way back at Arizona basketball media day in October, sophomore Nick Johnson was talking about the biggest improvement in his game.

“I realize we lost our best defensive player last year in Kyle Fogg, so I’m working on that, be at least a little bit of what he was,” Johnson said.

After 20 games, Johnson is at least most of the way there.

Johnson helped hound Washington’s C.J. Wilcox — who was the Pac-12′s leading scorer in conference play at 20.0 points per game — to a 4-of-16 shooting night as Arizona beat the Huskies 57-53 on Thursday night.

“It’s his talent level and his will right now that are just making him an exceptional defender,” Arizona coach Sean Miller said on his postgame radio show on 1290-AM.

While Fogg, as a senior, might have been more technically sound on defense, Johnson’s combination of athleticism and want-to is making him a close facsimile. Johnson is handling most of the toughest assignments, such as Wilcox.

He leads the league with 2.3 steals per game.

“Nick Johnson is an elite defender,” Miller said Thursday night.

“When we start to feel that way, you get comments from the opposing coach or players that would admit that he’s very good on defense, and he is.”

Defense is, in large part, a function of effort — and former NBA player Rex Chapman had something to say this week about Johnson’s on-court effort when he was younger. A lot younger.

More than a decade ago, Chapman coached a Phoenix-area youth team that included his son, Johnson and Jahii Carson. Chapman wrote about his experience with a young Nick a few days ago at NCAA.com.

Wrote Chapman, in part:

“I kept up with all of the kids on the team through the years. Nick really began to work at becoming a basketball player during middle school. By the time he became a freshman in high school you could tell that he had a chance to be a very good ball player.

“The one question I had about Nick was that he rarely played as hard as he could. As most really gifted athletes do during high school, Nick took shortcuts — because he could. After his sophomore year at Gilbert Highlands High School in Arizona, he transferred to Findlay Prep in Henderson, Nev. This did Nick Johnson wonders.

“I spoke to (Sean) Miller last year after their second game of the season and asked Sean how Nick was adjusting to college. More directly I asked, “Is Nick working hard?” Sean looked me dead in the eye and said, “Rex, Nick has come early to practice and stayed late since Day 1. I couldn’t be more pleased. He can help us get this thing turned back around here very quickly.”

Johnson did help Arizona get things turned around in the second half at Washington. The Wildcats trailed 28-23 at the break, having committed 12 turnovers.

“We didn’t play well tonight,” Miller said. “I thought that was the worst first half we’ve had on offense all season long. … Everything on the stat sheet was just pathetic. When you consider how bad our offense was, our defense kept us in the game.”

Johnson helped spark the Cats offensively, too, in the second half. That’s when he scored 13 of his game-high 15 points. Miller called him the best player on the court in the second half.

Washington, meanwhile, missed its first 10 3-point shots and finished 1 of 12 from behind the arc.

Johnson’s final line in a night of defense: 15 points, six rebounds, four steals, three assists, three blocks.

“He did everything,” Miller said.

That everything helped Arizona get out of Seattle with a victory for the first time since 2007, feeling good despite often-ugly play.

“Sometimes on the road, man, when you can find a way and you can play great defense and learn, it means the world, because you’re not going to be perfect every game, especially in conference play,” Miller said. “To me, this is one of our hardest-earned victories of the season.”

Hard-earned. Echoes of Johnson from media day when he said about Fogg, “He would always bring it on defense.”

You can say that about Johnson now, earning his rep as an elite defender.

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