The NBA may be placing more of an emphasis on small ball, but don’t think for a second that means length has become any less valuable. In fact, while traditional lineups have slowly begun to dissipate, teams such as the world champion Golden State Warriors and the upstart Milwaukee Bucks, have placed an overwhelming amount of emphasis on the wingspan of the players up and down their rosters.
If anything, length has become an even more embedded part of their strategy, and we are now seeing other teams begin to emulate their successes resulting from their ability to put together such versatile lineups. Their cumulative team length overwhelms their opponents in so many facets of the game.
The Denver Nuggets are no different in terms of their desire to build towards this goal. Newly drafted Emmanuel Mudiay stands 6’5” with a 6’9” wingspan. Wilson Chandler, who will likely see the majority of his minutes at shooting guard this season, stands 6’8”. Danilo Gallinari, who will likely split his time between small forward and power forward, stands 6’10. They have long and versatile players up and down their starting lineup.
But not every player on their roster fits that mold. Newly acquired Nick Johnson is many things, but nobody has ever accused him of being physically remarkable.
In fact, one of the biggest knocks on him coming out of college, and one that follows him to this day, is the fact that he is substantially undersized (6’3” with thick-soled shoes on) for someone who lacks a natural point guard skill set. He is definitely more of a combo guard, who can take on ball-handling duties in a pinch but is much better in off-ball situations and in transition.
So what is he good/bad at?
Johnson sort of fits into the category of “jack of all trades, master of none”. He is a very good athlete whose leaping ability and speed helps to compensate for some of his physical deficiencies. He’s not an elite, or particularly creative ball-handler, but is dependable enough to handle short periods of ball-handling duties.
He was an extremely smart player in college, turning the ball over fewer than two times per game, despite having a 26% usage rate his final season at Arizona. There’s no reason to think he can’t translate those smarts to the NBA game once he becomes more acclimated and earns more playing time.
He will definitely excel in transition for a Nuggets team that wants to get out and run as much as possible, but he also has the potential to turn into a really good shooter. He has a very compact shooting motion, and his excellent mechanics bode well for him eventually becoming a 38-40% shooter from long range. This is something he will need to focus heavily on in order to establish himself as a valuable member of the rotation. The Nuggets really really need shooters.
His athleticism really stands out in this video — taken from a D-League assignment last season — but he also shows potential to become someone who can drive to the rim with some regularity and get to the line. Also pay attention to the solid mechanics on his jump shot.
On the defensive side of the ball, he always gives great energy. He is someone who takes great pride in giving effort on both ends, and his willingness and active hands should be enough to disrupt the flow of opposing offenses.
That said, his size is again problematic. He will likely be going up against bigger players on a nightly basis, and that will ultimately become an overly-daunting task and expectations should tempered accordingly. He will be at a physical disadvantage every time he is on the court, and there are very few players who have successfully overcome this impediment without at least one overwhelming skill, something that Johnson lacks.
How good can he be?
Johnson’s ceiling probably lies somewhere between Avery Bradley and Monta Ellis, and this is assuming he becomes more adept at a particular skill, i.e shooting or ball-handling. If he fails to make significant advances there, he could very well find himself out of the league once his rookie deal expires.
All in all, I am a fan of what Johnson brings to the table, and he is exactly the type of player I’m good with the Nuggets taking a flyer on. He will still be on his rookie-scale deal through 2018, and has enough upside to make an immediate impact on a team that will focus heavily on getting their youngsters minutes.
And, he’s already repping Colorado (see Instagram post below), so it seems to be another situation where the Nuggets brought in a player who’s actually happy to be playing there, which is always important when trying to attract bigger names down the road.
If nothing else, I’ll enjoy Johnson throwing down a few more of these throughout this season.
Size is increasingly becoming a more important part of the NBA game, but then again, size isn’t always measured by the length of one’s arms. Johnson brings an incredible amount of determination and energy to the table, and sometimes it’s the size of one’s heart that matters more in the end.