Nick Johnson is one of the leading figures in the 2020-21 version of Turk Telekom Ankara.
Alas, the Turkish side that has (re)-united several former members of the Houston Rockets, himself included, is going through a lot of hardship in their Basketball Champions League group. For an ensemble featuring Johnson, Sam Dekker, Kyle Wiltjer and more recently Johnny O’Bryant and Marcus Foster, failure is not an option. However, success needs several leaps to be made to ensure that last year’s quarter-finalists will at least reach the bare minimum.
With a poor 1-3 record, Turk has slim chances of making the next round and in order to do so, they must win their next game against Greek title contenders AEK Athens. Nick Johnson, a 6-3 guard, who averaged 2.6 points and 1.4 rebounds in 9.4 minutes per game in 28 games for the Houston Rockets during his rookie campaign in 2014-15, has grown into a different player in Europe.
Not only because of his numbers (14.4 points, 4.4 rebounds and 5.3 assists), but also for the emphasis he has placed on defense. Despite his small frame, the Arizona product is one of the league’s best post-up defenders, giving up just 0.4 points per play on the block and efficiently guarding the ball in pick-and-roll or spot-up situations. Those are some of the main reasons why the 42nd pick in the 2014 NBA Draft is considered by the BCL as a strong candidate for the BCL Defensive Player of the Year Award.
The 28-year-old guard has already won his first major personal accolade: the G League Finals MVP Award in 2018, in addition to lifting the trophy for the Austin Spurs, along with other players currently in Europe, like Olivier Hanlan and Darrun Hilliard. Nick Johnson also played in Bayern Munich during the 2016-17 season and had a brief stint with French outlet Nanterre 92 two years later.
As for the present campaign? It’s hard to make predictions, but so far his second year with Turk Telekom Ankara tops everything he has ever shown while in Europe. One of his best performances came against SIG Strasbourg, where Turk secured the win in the first BCL game of the round of 16.
Nick Johnson sat with TalkBasket.net for an extensive reflection on his feats on both sides of the ocean. The former Rockets player referred to past and present teammates and career decisions that led him to Europe for another season.
Q: How has this season been for you?
A: It’s been good. I came to the team a bit late and didn’t get to go to Athens the first time. We’re in the midst of it right now. We got a few new editions with Marcus Foster and Johnny O’Bryant. We are trying to get them adjusted and come together as a team.
Q: Is it hard for this team to find chemistry?
A: No, no. When you have a good group of guys that are good of the court makes things easier. We did lose our center for the whole season with Michael Eric leaving and now we have to get adjusted as quickly as possible.
Q: You did not get to play in the Athens Final 8 last September, but you did re-sign with Turk Telekom. What led you to that decision?
A: I definitely felt that we had a good year that we didn’t get to finish out, especially in the BCL. I wanted to come back earlier, but cards didn’t play out that way. As soon as we came to an agreement, I was happy to get back. Coach allows us to play the way we want and we are a good team.
Q: Do you believe that the BCL competition does justice to the teams that hold the best record in the regular season and the playoffs? After that, a Final 8 will decide the winner and each game will be “do or die”.
A: We just play and know the games we have to win. We are confident with our team going forward. The best thing about basketball is that we play two games a week.
From Ankara to Houston and back
Q: This year, you, Wiltjer, Dekker, even the injured Tyler Ennis, play on the same team. Turk Telekom has been dubbed as the “Ankara Rockets”. Is it so?
A: It seems that way: Tyler, me, Sam and Kyle. It’s crazy to see that because we have all been together in different years: me and Kyle played in high school together, I played with Sam later on… Daryl Morey definitely has to come watch us. He actually came to one of our games last year, when there was me, Kyle and RJ Hunter. We were all on the Rockets.
Q; Are you on good terms with Daryl Morey?
A: Yes, for sure. That’s the guy that drafted me. It was a special moment for me and I will always have love for him.
Q: At Houston, you were teammates with Kostas Papanikolaou, Joey Dorsey, Pablo Prigioni. In fact, all four of you got traded to the Nuggets. Did they tell you any interesting stories from playing in Europe?
A: Those are my guys. “Pap” was big for me; we were both rookies coming in, but he was like the older rookie.
So, he got to show me what it was and he talked to me about Olympiacos and Greece all the time. He would show me some of the riots during the Olympiacos-Panathinaikos games. Every kid wants to play those kind of games. It’s like nothing you can ever imagine as a competitor and as a kid who grew up in his front yard saying “3-2-1” and hitting a shot. You imagine people around you with flares and 20.000 fans of your rival cursing at you. That’s amazing!
I got to really get on with Papanikolaou and have a good friendship. Joey was the vet; we called him “The Mini Dwight”. He had a great career in Europe. Those two talked all the time about winning the Euroleague together.
Obviously, Pablo is a legend; someone who helped me. I was blessed to be on a team with a lot of vets. Jason Terry was one of them.
Q: Do you think Prigioni came in too late to leave his mark in the NBA?
A: No, I mean he still had a good career. He was a legend in Europe, but I definitely think if he had come younger, he would have had more of an impact. Just his savviness… I don’t know how a guy was that old and that in shape and could run so much.
Q: Are you adamant in terms of where you would like to establish yourself in? I mean, is it in the NBA or in Europe? For instance, your ex-teammate at the Austin Spurs, Darrun Hilliard, said that he would consider returning to the league only on a guaranteed contract.
A: I’m in Europe right now and honestly I like playing over here. It’s an amazing experience to be here, travel the world. Obviously, without fans this year, it’s kind of tough. At the end of the day, you get to play a game for a living. That’s special- and all the team knows that. Basketball can take you to many places.
The perennial trip to the G League
Q; Nick, you signed with the Orlando Magic and the San Antonio Spurs, but you were later waved by both. Were you disappointed?
A: Of course! I felt like I had a good chance of making those teams both times, but ball doesn’t bounce your way sometimes. That’s how you get back up and keep persevering from those letdowns.
Q: Was it an ordeal for you being sent back to the G League, especially since you had played professionally in Europe?
A: That’s the way basketball works in the States right now. When I first got drafted, Houston was maybe the only team that were using their G League team. Now, you see that every year. I liked it because you got to play. Moving forward, it’s great to be in Europe because it’s a different type of basketball. It means more. You’re playing for something, in front of fans who are crazy about their teams. It’s like college.
Q: Does it change your perspective, in terms of not wanting to try the G League ever again?
A: You don’t look down on it, for sure. But I don’t want to go to the G League, make crumbs and be in the US, when I can be here. We’re travelling to places like Athens, Greece. That’s one of the most beautiful places in the world and I get to do that for a living. It’s pretty amazing. For me, it’s definitely something I want to do.
Q: Were there any periods in your professional life when you felt lonely while being overseas?
A: For sure. My first year in Germany, I was over there by myself. This year and last year, I have my girl here with me and it definitely makes it easier. If I didn’t have her, then I’d be going crazy. Me and Kyle live in the same building. This is my second year with the team and I’m more familiar with the city.
Q: When COVID broke out, your mother said that she was worried about your mindset.
A: (laughs) Nobody knew what it was at that time. It was something like a shock. You’d never think that you would live through a pandemic. I knew my parents were worried for me, but the team did a good job taking care of us. As soon as the Turkish League was cancelled, we got back home. It was an interesting summer, for sure.
Q: Is the no-look three now a signature move of yours, after you successfully tried it at the game against Strasbourg?
A: You know what? I felt good at that game and had a few threes before that. When you know it’s good, you put a little flash on it. It was something spontaneous that I did.
Building on family legacy and college habits
Q: Your uncle Dennis was a Hall of Famer. Did you manage to pick his brains a bit before he passed away?
A: I definitely was a bit young, but the last three years of his life I was starting to get into basketball. I remember when I saw the Lakers play the Celtics in the finals, they were replaying all the games and I got to watch a lot of those. At first, I didn’t realize what he was and challenged my uncle for money, like a shooting contest. Now, being older, I know the magnitude of the player he was. It’s amazing to be related to him.
Q; Your father tried to mold you into an all-around player and not just a leaper. To what extent do you believe that your athletic ability can be a decisive factor in Europe?
A: I definitely use it a lot. I feel like I am one of the stronger guards in the world. I use not only my jumping ability, but also my physical frame to play defense, to switch on bigs and stuff like that. But it doesn’t define me. I have become a complete player at Turk Telekom, playing the “1”, “2” and “3” basically for the last two years. I think I can do anything. That’s what I pride myself in.
Q: Being a “tweener” turned out to be good or bad in your career?
A: It used to be a bad thing. When I came out in the draft, they were like: “What are you? A “1” or a “2”? Size of a “1”, but plays the “2”?”. Now, I think it’s a bonus. When I came to this team, I told coach: “I don’t care what position you put me at, I want to be on the court because I think I can help our team win”. He’s really bought into that.
Q: I guess that the same goes for your development into an on-ball player as opposed to playing off-ball at Arizona.
A: For sure. My first time playing at point was when I came to Europe and I was with Bayern. It was a difficult transition. There’s so much more you got to do as a point guard. It definitely brings more responsibility, but with Tyler Ennis going down, I had to step up and do it. Myself and Can Korkmaz are the two point guards on this team and we try to get everybody organized.
Q: Do you feel vindicated for forgoing your last year at college and pursuing an NBA career instead?
A: It was an amazing experience to leave college early, get drafted and play in the league. But at the same time, I loved Arizona too. That was one of the best times in my life. Being a college player on one of the best teams in the country is amazing.
Q: Did you get your degree?
A: I haven’t yet. I get back every summer and do a class. I’m like four classes away.
Q: I reckon you’re going to need it, after telling your mother that you intend to coach after your playing career is over.
A: I have many more years in me, so if I knock out next four summers, I’ll get my degree. I’ll be good.
Q: So, do you fancy going back to the NBA?
A: Everybody wants to play in the NBA. There’s nothing like playing at home, in the US, and being on world stage.
Striving for the BCL top
Q: What has been the best experience in your career so far?
A: Being in Europe and playing well is something that’s cherished by me because I really believe that the Turkish League and the BCL are some of the best in the world. Not everybody understands that when they are over in the States because they don’t follow Europe, but when you’ve been here for a few years, being a part of it is pretty cool.
Q: Do you think European basketball is not highly regarded in the States?
A: They are starting to [hold it in high regard]. I don’t think it’s a fault of them; it’s not being able to watch it. Everyone is asking for a link to watch games. Sometimes, it’s hard even for our families to do that and the average fan are not going to go out of their way to watch a game. But you see guys coming from Europe that are “destroying” the league right now.
They’ve been doing Champions League in soccer, they should do Euroleague like that. Basketball is a huge market in Arizona and the USA. My best friend (Kaleb Tarzewski) plays for Milan and I would rather watch every one of his games than a lot of NBA games because the basketball they play is really cool.
Q: Were you close to becoming a Euroleague player again, after your presence with Bayern?
A: Obviously, that’s the goal. It’s the highest league over here, but right now I love where I am at. We have a good team and we got to win the BCL. If we’re just playing to get to the Final 8, then that’s not the way of thinking about it. We definitely want to win it.