Posted Jun 5, 2014 8:58 AM
He dunked on a 10-foot rim for the first time at the age of 12, Nick Johnson quickly recalls as if the topic has come up one or two or a million times before. The first slam with a 360 chaser was in eighth grade. And by early in high school in Gilbert, Ariz.., he was scoring Air Jordans from teammates foolish enough to bet on some vertical exhibition, because there was always something new to clear.
"Fences," Johnson said. "People."
It became about trying to increase the degree of difficulty each year, in search of new tests and suckers handing over money on bad dares. A windmill dunk? A 360 in an Arizona game? One teammate, Max Wiepking, went there on Dec. 22, 2012, Johnson's 20th birthday at that, against East Tennessee State in the Diamond Head Classic in Honolulu. Sure enough. Steal. Transition. Slam with a full rotation On his way back to defense, Johnson pointed to the bench, right at Wiepking.
Which brings him to June 2014 and his attempt at the greatest leap of all. The NBA.
Not merely the NBA as a likely second-round pick needing to show he can go from 6-3 shooting guard at Arizona to point guard in the pros, a big enough throwdown. Try a likely second-round pick welcoming comparisons to a Hall of Famer.
Nick Johnson is the nephew of Dennis Johnson, the former SuperSonic, Sun and Celtic who won championships in Seattle and Boston, played in five All-Star games and was first- or second-team All-Defense every season from 1979 to 1987. Nick has the same freckles on the bridge of his nose and under his eyes, more pronounced as he grows older, and the same drive to build a career from back in the pack, just as his uncle did by going from not making the varsity until his senior year of high school to being the No. 29 pick in 1976 to enshrinement in Springfield, Mass.
"Definitely, I try to model myself after him," Nick said. "The route he took to the NBA was a lot different than probably the majority of people that go to the NBA. Not playing really in high school, going to a JC and to Pepperdine and really from there taking off in his career. It's definitely an inspiration."
Nick was 14 when his 52-year old uncle, the coach of the Austin Toros in the NBA Development League, suffered a fatal heart attack outside the arena after practice on Feb. 22, 2007. They were close, but that was before Nick was in high school and AAU and really got into basketball as a passion and certainly as a career path. There was never a chance to connect on that level.
That happened about five months later, as the Celtics played the Lakers in the 2008 Finals. Before that, the last time the teams had met in a championship setting was in June 1987, when DJ had 33 points in a losing Game 6 effort. So the Boston-L.A. reunion prompted Nick to search out memories.
"I want to make my own identity, but it's a great honor to be in my family and to have an uncle that was an NBA great, an NBA Hall of Famer," Nick said. "I love it because I look at his game and I try to model myself after that, being the hard-nosed defender that he was. He originally was playing the shooting guard position. And just being the great teammate that he was. Larry Bird called him the best teammate he's ever had."
The connections. Bird is now head of basketball operations for the Pacers and evaluating Johnson as a draft prospect, Kevin McHale is the coach of the Rockets. Not only is Danny Ainge in charge of the Celtics roster as president, his nephew and Nick Johnson were high school teammates in Gilbert.
"Had someone not told me, I would never have known that it was DJ's nephew," Ainge said, not seeing the resemblance others have noted. "But I've followed Nick's career. He's a good kid and a good player. He's an athlete like his father and his uncle."
Joe Johnson -- Jumping Joey Johnson when he won a junior-college championship at the College of Southern Idaho and later played at Arizona State -- exceeded Dennis as an athletic marvel. Joe was far beyond most anyone, actually. Thirteen years younger than Dennis, he was a legendary leaper, but made a point to have sons Nick and Chris work on their entire game and not rely solely on being able to touch the clouds.
The result was Nick winning Pacific 12 Conference Player of the Year last season as a junior, being named to the Pac-12 All-Defense team two years in a row, and ranking fifth in the conference in assist-to-turnover ratio.
"Nick's an animal," said Aaron Gordon, a teammate at Arizona heading to the lottery as a power forward. "He's so athletic. The rest of his game is starting to catch up with his athleticism. His shot is getting better, his ball handling is getting better, he passes the ball well. There's not a lot he can't do, and he wants to win over everything."
Win over everything. Jump over everything.
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