Cam Johnson’s progress with the Phoenix Suns deserves a closer look.
Entering the Orlando bubble, the Phoenix Suns joined the Washington Wizards as the two most dubious inclusions of the NBA restart. While they’ve started 2-0 in the bubble, they still need quite a bit of help to move up to ninth place and force a play-in scenario, and even if they go a perfect 8-0, that will still be the case.
And yet, the Suns have been a pleasant surprise so far in these seeding games, not only in the win-loss column and by being so enjoyable to watch, but also in terms of making every single contest count.
“I think the way we play is a fun style of basketball, but since I’ve been here, we haven’t proven that we can win like the really good teams in the league have, so that’s the goal for us,” head coach Monty Williams said. “We like our style, we love how hard we play, but we have to do even more, and that requires a lot of energy and a lot of sacrifice. There’s a lot of days where I feel like a heel when I go to my hotel room or go home because I’m pushing the guys so much. And that’s why I don’t take it for granted to have a team that allows me to coach them the way that I do.”
No one has embodied that sentiment of embracing every opportunity for growth quite like rookie Cameron Johnson.
Devin Booker is the franchise star everyone is understandably excited to watch in the first truly meaningful games of his career. Deandre Ayton is the No. 1 pick who will always be under the microscope, and Mikal Bridges is now the guy whose development into a two-way star demands monitoring in Phoenix.
But Cam Johnson’s progress should not be overlooked, and with Bridges finally earning some well-deserved recognition for his growth, the former North Carolina sharpshooter has stepped into those shoes of being widely overlooked despite tangible proof he’s going to be pretty damn good.
With Kelly Oubre Jr. sidelined and Dario Saric dealing with a minor ankle injury he sustained in Phoenix’s second scrimmage, Johnson stepped into the starting lineup for the team’s final scrimmage. He hasn’t looked back since.
In three games as a starter in Orlando (since the Suns have approached every contest in the bubble like it’s a serious matter, we’re fine with including scrimmage results here), Johnson has averaged 16.7 points and 6.3 rebounds in 29.7 minutes per game. He’s shot 17-for-31 (54.8 percent) from the field and 9-for-19 (47.4 percent) from downtown in that stretch.
“I think it certainly helps spacing, certainly helps versatility on defense, the ability to switch, but the most important thing is Cam is developing,” Williams said. “He’s growing. He’s getting experience. You can tell people what it’s like to go to Antarctica and how cold it is, but until they go, they really don’t know. Until they experience it, you just don’t know.”
Cam Johnson’s “trip to Antarctica” as a regular starter has gone swimmingly thus far. In fact, the rookie is coming off one of the finer performances of his young career, dropping 19 points and 12 rebounds in his first double-double on Sunday. Going 6-for-11 from the field and 4-for-8 from 3-point range, the threat of his floor-spacing really opens things up for Booker and Ricky Rubio to probe defenses, forcing them to choose between cutting off drivers, staying vigilant on the rim-running Deandre Ayton and covering perimeter snipers.
“Having Cam at the 4, him and Mikal being interchangeable at that position, it just gives us a lot of space out there,” Booker said. “When you have a rim threat like Deandre and a shooter in the corner like Cam, that’s what the NBA is — they have to make a decision. The way Cam’s shooting the ball, I think teams are gonna realize that’s a decision that they can’t make.”
Against the Dallas Mavericks, Johnson got the scoring started with two quick 3s off those exact kinds of feeds from Devin Booker:
The former Tar Heel claims that’s just doing what he’s supposed to do whenever Book or Rubio are on the floor.
“When you’re out there with them, that’s just what you’ve got to do: You’ve gotta be ready for them to make those passes and they’ll get it to you,” Johnson said. “They do a really good job of drawing a lot defense, and so my job is to just be ready for that.”
It wasn’t just with the starters where Johnson made an impact, however. Though the Suns trailed by 13 at halftime and watched Booker and Ayton rack up five fouls apiece by the third quarter, Cam Johnson (and Cameron Payne) ignited to turn a double-digit deficit into a four-point lead entering the final frame. Johnson drilled two triples in the quarter, both of which were assisted by Jevon Carter.
Through five games in Orlando, no matter who he’s been on the floor with, Cam has displayed impressive straight-line drives to the basket off the dribble and surprising stoutness on the defensive end. Still, Monty Williams is relishing the opportunity to get his rookie these minutes against NBA starters.
“He’s gotta go through this, he’s gotta play in these moments,” Williams said. “He’s got to go against the best players, he has to be scouted against with frontline guys for him to reach his potential. A number of things play into it, but at the top of my mind, is one, we want to win, and I believe he gives us a chance to win, but I also feel the need to develop his game and develop his mind in these moments and in these experiences.”
Every game is a playoff situation for the Suns, and Williams has emphasized that mindset in order to fuel his team’s high-level, high-focus approach. This opportunity for growth is exactly why Phoenix jumped at the league’s invite to Orlando and the chance to develop those young pieces and their chemistry together. Whether they complete their miracle run for a play-in spot, the Suns can take comfort in developments like Ayton’s 3-point stroke, Bridges’ offensive confidence and Johnson’s burgeoning game.
Because even though he’s still technically a rookie, those four-and-a-half months away from the NBA served Cam Johnson well, and with all that time off to hone his craft, the results are serving him well now.
“The roster says I’m still a rookie, so I can’t ignore that, but I feel like that break that we had gave me a lot of time to reflect on the season and a lot of time to grow in areas I thought I needed to grow in,” Johnson said. “I took that seriously and tried to get better in those areas, and then to come out and show that improvement here. And that’s what I’m gonna continue to do, whether I’m a rookie or not.”