Aaron Gordon’s decision was expected. Part of a heralded class of freshmen last season, anything but one and done would have been a surprise.
Nick Johnson had to build toward his move to the NBA.
Always a steady player, he boosted his draft status with a superb junior season, earning numerous All-America honors while leading Arizona to within a few seconds of the Final Four for the second time in three years.
Now he and Gordon are headed to the NBA.
“I’m going to show what I bring to the table, so many things as far as my leadership and my ability to defend and knock down shots,” Johnson said during a news conference Tuesday at Arizona’s McKale Center. “If you ask me, I’m a basketball player.”
So is Gordon. A pretty good one.
He arrived at Arizona as one of the top incoming freshmen in a class that included Duke’s Jabari Parker, Kansas’ Andrew Wiggins and Kentucky’s latest cast of potential one-and-doners, including Julius Randle and twins Aaron and Andrew Harrison.
Exceptionally athletic, particularly for a solid-framed 6-foot-8 forward, Gordon had a strong lone season in college basketball, averaging 12.4 points and 8 rebounds per game to earn Pac-12 freshman of the year honors. He broke a 40-year-old school freshman record with 303 rebounds and shot 49 percent from the floor, though he struggled from the free throw line, finishing at 42 percent.
“Aaron has so many gifts as a player,” Arizona coach Sean Miller said. “His high energy level, love for the game, competitive fire and ability to blend into a team and become a great teammate are a few of these. Aaron is 18, I can certainly see why the NBA thinks so highly of him.”
Gordon could flourish in the NBA.
An eager learner and selfless teammate, he often geared back to fit into the team game at Arizona, to the point Miller and his staff told him to be more aggressive early in the season.
With an above-the-rim game, high energy and versatility, he will be a likely lottery pick in the June 26 NBA draft, possibly in the top 5.
“I know what I’m capable of and know my potential is limitless,” Gordon said. “So I’m going to be Aaron Gordon and I’m going to do what the coaches have told me to do: be Aaron Gordon and do what I did all year long. I’m going to flourish and my game is going to expand.”
No one outside of Tucson thought that much about Johnson before this season.
The nephew of late Hall of Fame guard Dennis Johnson, he came out of high school with jump-out-of-the-gym athleticism, yet was never considered a top player during his first two seasons in the desert. When Miller tried to get him invited to elite summer camps before last season, he couldn’t even get a call back.
Johnson changed the perceptions with breakout junior season.
Taking the team reins from the start, he helped lead Arizona to the best start in school history, a 16-0 run that had the Wildcats atop The Associated Press poll for two months straight. Whenever the Wildcats needed a big play or basket, they turned to Johnson and most times he came through.
A good defender when he arrived in Tucson, Johnson developed into one of the nation’s best on the perimeter, combining with point guard T.J. McConnell to often shut down the opposing team’s best player.
Johnson added a teardrop to his shooting repertoire this season and shot a respectable 36 percent from 3-point range. He led Arizona with 16.3 points, grabbed 4.1 rebounds and had nearly 3 assists per game while taking Arizona within a point of the Final Four.
“Without us doing the things we did this year, then I wouldn’t be near where I am right now,” Johnson said. “I took a few weeks, we looked at the facts ... and the last few days was when I started looking at everything and really started being confident in my decision.”
Arizona’s cupboard won’t be left bare with Gordon and Johnson leaving.
Sophomore center Kaleb Tarczewski and freshman swingman Rondae Hollis-Jefferson announced they will be returning to Tucson for another season and Miller has another highly touted recruiting class waiting in the wings.