Ask five different people who they think the most valuable player for third-ranked Arizona has been for the first half of the season and you are bound to get a mixed bag of answers.
Mark Lyons has been the team’s go-to player, as evidenced by his drives to the basket in the closing seconds of the wins over Florida and San Diego State. Kevin Parrom has been invaluable off the bench, giving head coach Sean Miller an option to throw in at the top of the key when teams decide to play zone. Solomon Hill, the unquestioned leader, played his best game of the season against the Aztecs and earned MVP honors at the Diamond Head Classic in Hawaii.
While all three seniors mentioned have been important, no player has been more consistent as sophomore Nick Johnson.
The 6-foot, 3-inch guard came into the season with a fair share of pressure but not quite the burden of a star. Many wondered whether his disappearing act for most of the second half of last season would carry over into 2012-13.
On top of that was the number of similar players waiting in the wings for a bigger role in the playing rotation. So far, Miller has found it difficult to find minutes for Jordin Mayes and Gabe York.
Johnson’s 29.3 minutes per game is second on the team only to Hill’s 30.3.
Not only has he silenced any doubters, but Johnson has arguably been the best player in the entire Pac-12 Conference. Through 12 games, the Gilbert, Ariz., native is averaging 12.7 points (tied for second on the team) while shooting 49.5 percent from the field to go with a team-high 28 steals.
There have been better scorers, higher assist totals and more accurate shooters. But not many have put it all together and been as much of an X-factor in overall team success.
What may hurt him when people think about the best players in the league is the depth on his own team. Not a single Wildcat has been tabbed the conference player of the week, to this point. But Johnson said coming into the season that the players alongside him would make enough of a difference in how much easier the game comes to him this year.
With Lyons handling the ball most of the time, Johnson has been able to spend his energy elsewhere. Both Miller and Johnson said last season that something as simple as bringing the ball up the floor against a press can take its toll.
Now, Johnson has emerged as the team’s lockdown defender, which also has helped earn easier opportunities in transition.
The difference this year is Johnson has that year of experience and struggles to learn from and improve upon.
Again, however, this is only the first half of the season. Now, Johnson finds himself at the same spot he was in last year. While his play was not as impactful to this degree, the same positive feelings are there.