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Former Wildcat Nick Johnson ‘happy to be home,’ works out for Phoenix Suns

PHOENIX — Growing up in Gilbert, Nick Johnson followed the Phoenix Suns closely.

“I was here when we had the squad of Steve Nash, Joe Johnson, Quentin Richardson, Amare (Stoudemire), all of them,” he said. “It was definitely one of the most exciting arenas in the NBA, and this year they got it back, I think.”

The former Arizona Wildcat returned to the Valley on Thursday for a pre-draft workout with his hometown team.

“Happy to be home. I’ve been gone for a while so it’s good to come back,” said Johnson, who has also worked out for Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Oklahoma City, Orlando and Toronto. “I actually practiced in this gym (the practice court at US Airways Center) when I was about eight or nine with Rex Chapman, so it’s good to be back.”

Johnson was the Pac-12 Player of the Year and a finalist for several national player of the year awards after helping lead UA (33-5) to the Elite Eight and a conference championship his junior season.

The question teams face with the All-American is what position he plays. Is he a point guard? Is he a shooting guard?

Johnson, who measured 6’3″ and 198 pounds, sees himself as a combo guard.

“I think it was a benefit that I played the two in college. I have that experience. I believe I can guard both positions. I think it’s something that’s a plus in my game,” he said. “I think that Coach (Sean) Miller put me in the right situations to be a playmaker on my team even if I wasn’t bringing up the ball. That’s just a little transition that I have to make, but I think I’ve been in that playmaking role for a while.”

GM Ryan McDonough likes Johnson’s versatility, calling it an advantage.

“I think it’s a testament to him that there’s some questions about which one he plays because I think he could play some of both, with his shooting ability and his athletic ability,” he said. “Like most rookies he’d come off the bench at first, be able to shoot the ball and put some points on the board. Defensively, he’s got some pretty good strength. A little bit undersized, especially at the shooting guard position, but he is tough and he’s strong and athletic and well-conditioned. All of those things, I think, make up for maybe a guy who is a little bit undersized at the two. The point guard position, he’s fine. He’s got plenty of size there.”

Johnson’s tour of NBA teams will take him to L.A. for a workout with the Clippers next Monday.

The idea though of perhaps wearing a Suns uniform next season sounded very appealing.

“It’ll definitely be good to come home,” he said. “Like I said, they had a great year this year. I think I could be a piece to add to the puzzle.”

Johnson joined a workout that included Iowa State senior small forward Melvin Ejim, Middle Tennessee State small forward Shawn Jones, Louisiana-Lafayette junior point guard Elfrid Payton, UNLV junior power forward Roscoe Smith and North Carolina State small forward T.J. Warren.

While Johnson is considered to be a second-round prospect, Payton and Warren were the two guys in the group who are expected to hear their names called in round one of the June 26 NBA Draft.

The Suns hold three first-round picks, numbers 14, 18 and 27.

Payton can score — he averaged 19.2 points his final year in college — but what scouts really love is his defensive ability. He was named the 2013-14 Lefty Driesell National Defensive Player of the Year after leading the Sun Belt Conference in steals for a second consecutive year.

“He’s got good length. He’s thin, but he’s wiry strong,” McDonough said of the 6’4″, 185-pound Payton. “I think as he gets older he’ll fill out and get stronger. But he’s got pretty good instincts. He got his hand on a number of balls today.”

The Suns’ workout was Payton’s fifth after previous visits to Chicago, Houston, Sacramento and the L.A. Lakers.

“I think I have a good skill set, long arms, things like that,” he said. “I’m pretty quick, fast with my hands so I think it’ll be an easy adjustment.”

Warren, the ACC Player of the Year and Second Team AP All-American, was a proven scorer at N.C. State. At 6’8″ and 220 pounds, he ranked third in the nation scoring 24.9 points per game while also pulling down 7.1 rebounds.

“He’s got, I think, a unique skill of scoring,” head coach Jeff Hornacek said.

Warren has had workouts with Atlanta and Boston, but could see himself fitting in well in Phoenix.

“Their style fits my game pretty well,” he said. “Transition and fastbreak, that’s my game. I like to get up and down and run.”