Despite the endless trade rumors that have circulated around him for the past month, Cam Johnson is in a good mood. It’s his first CJ23 Invitational 3-on-3 tournament that he’s hosted in the Valley, and the Phoenix Suns wing is busy taking pictures with kids, smiling while talking to fans and watching simultaneous games unfold at the Ability360 Sports and Fitness Center.
Johnson held a similar event near Pittsburgh last year, where he grew up in Moon Township, but spending most of his summer in Phoenix during a longer offseason opened the door to hold his event here for the first time.
“Huge help from the organization and from Suns Charities,” he said. “It takes a lot off my plate so that I can just sit back, interact, watch and talk to the kids, talk to the people that are playing. So it’s a lot of fun.”
Over the last three pandemic-affected seasons, Johnson’s opportunities to be out in the community have been fleeting. His lemonade stand in late February after losing a Super Bowl bet to Mikal Bridges further entrenched him in Phoenix, and now his 3-on-3 tournament will do the same. The winners of Sunday’s bracket play will each receive an autographed jersey from Johnson, as well as a suite ticket to a predetermined Suns game for the upcoming season. All proceeds from registration will go to Phoenix Suns Charities.
“The first couple years in the league, you’re just trying to figure everything out,” Johnson said. “You’re just thrown into the fire, figuring everything out, trying to get your life straight. So now I feel pretty comfortable here, and I know a lot more people, know a lot more about the area where I feel very comfortable having events like this and just being one of the people out here watching.”
Hosting this type of event in what he now calls his second home marks an impressive journey for the former No. 11 overall pick. Johnson was widely viewed as a reach by general manager James Jones after Phoenix traded down from the No. 6 pick, but three years later, Johnson is a fan favorite and one of the NBA’s best sharpshooters.
Of course, coming off a disappointing second-round exit, very few players on the roster of this contender are off-limits. There are more question marks surrounding Johnson than most, because in addition to trade rumors, he’s also eligible for a rookie contract extension before the start of the season.
At JaVale McGee’s charity softball event last month, Johnson was fully aware that his contract situation would likely have to wait until the Suns dealt with Deandre Ayton’s restricted free agency. Now that that’s been resolved, Johnson said he feels he’s in a good spot…despite all the uncertainty.
“What I’ve learned is that the business side will do what’s best for the business side, and the personal side will do what’s best for the personal side,” he said. “The team will do what’s best for them, and the players do what’s best for them. So I’m always highly aware of that, but at the same time, I do love being here, so if we can get something done, I’d love it.”
Johnson clearly takes pride in being a part of the Suns’ drastic turnaround in recent years, and the interest in keeping that group together is evident. His 3-on-3 tournament is taking place in a building funded by Devin Booker’s Starting Five initiative. When asked about Monty Williams’ contract extension, Johnson praised his coaching style, recalling that it was Monty who was a part of his very first pre-draft workout in Phoenix. As far as Deandre Ayton staying in Phoenix for the foreseeable future on his new deal, Johnson called him a “brother” and expressed his gratitude over getting to play with him.
Being able to witness that type of growth and contribute to it only makes it natural to want to continue building on it.
“I love it here,” Johnson said. “It’s been great for me, the city’s been great, the fans have been great. The progress that our organization has taken, that our team has taken in the past couple years has been really just fun to be a part of.”
Unfortunately, Cam Johnson’s long-term future in the Valley is out of his control. With Kevin Durant trade rumors constantly swirling over the last month, there’s no guarantee Johnson will be on the roster a month or two from now. If the Brooklyn Nets finally relent on their astronomical asking price and send Durant to his top trade destination in Phoenix, a package built around Johnson, Mikal Bridges and a plethora of first-round draft picks seems like the expected return.
Johnson doesn’t have a Twitter account, but that hasn’t prevented him from hearing all the trade buzz over the last month. When those rumors first started building steam, he was in the North Carolina locker room while visiting his little brother, Puff Johnson, at his alma mater.
“Some of my old teammates were in there, some of their teammates, I’m like, ‘Come on guys,’ like, whoever’s on the team, ‘Come on, man, don’t even throw my name out there, just let me just chill with my little brother for a sec!’” Johnson laughed. “And then next thing you know, I’m tied up in all these trade rumors.”
Johnson understands the NBA is a business. He saw it firsthand as rookie, when the Suns waived Tyler Johnson. He saw it again when they traded a fellow 2019 draft selection, Ty Jerome, the following year.
“I’m like, ‘My friends can just leave, just like that,'” he said. “The business is the business. It’s part of the game, but that’s when you really start to see it is when you get relationships with people and they’re gone just the next day — locker cleaned up, nameplate gone and then somebody else is moving in.”
Even so, Johnson is thankful to be in that business, noting that he simply plays his part in it.
“I hear all the rumors, I know all the rumors,” he said. “The team will do what they think is best for them, and the players will do what they think is best for them. As much as you love a place or whatever, it’s just the reality of the business that you always have to be aware of. And I’m okay with that, I can handle that.”
One avenue to help drown out some of the noise is using his first real NBA offseason to improve his game. As a rookie, the COVID hiatus served as something of a midseason offseason, but the NBA bubble bled into a shortened summer. After a 2021 NBA Finals run, the Suns had to quickly regroup after the shortest offseason in league history.
This time around, Johnson is making the most of his time off. He’s taken trips to Cabo, Pittsburgh and his old stomping grounds at UNC, but Johnson is also thankful he’s had time to take a step back and really evaluate certain aspects of his game.
Once again, he’s not immune to hearing the outside chatter.
“I hear everything, guys, I’m not gonna act like I don’t hear everything,” Johnson said. “So like: ‘You’ve gotta work on being somebody that can be relied on late in games, somebody that can be relied on as an additional ball-dominant type player.’ Trust me, I was a ball-dominant player for the first 18, 19 years of my life, and then I was like, ‘Okay, become better at the other stuff.’ And now it’s like, ‘Okay, get back to what you were doing when you were in high school.’ So it’s working on that stuff.”
During his end-of-season exit interviews, coach Williams wondered if he had given guys like Johnson and Bridges enough opportunities during the regular season to create their own offense off the dribble. Johnson said it’s been a fun process getting back to some of the older elements in his game and working on things he wouldn’t have as much time for in-season.
“The thing is, every hooper knows this, if you don’t do something for a while, you’ll start to lose it,” Johnson said. “So when you start doing it again, it’s like, ‘Oh, I got this.’ So working on that stuff, it’s been a lot of fun.”
Aside from having more time to lift and actually utilize the necessary recovery days, Johnson cited his more consistent workouts as an opportunity to really fine-tune some of the more minute elements of his game.
“I don’t mind breaking my game down in workouts,” he said. “I’ve had some workouts with some people here, people back home, where I’ve spent like an hour working on one bit of footwork. It’s like, ‘Nah, help me get this down. I’m not gonna change drills until I start to understand what I’m doing coming off of that second between the —‘ you know, just stuff that I’m like, ‘Ahh.’”
Those “a-ha” moments stem from wanting to improve as a basketball player, but not just because of all the outside chatter about where his game needs to expand. At 26 years old, Johnson seems acutely aware of how to separate himself from everything he hears about himself.
“As a basketball player, I understand the game very well,” he explained. “So if somebody says something, I can get outside myself and see it from their point of view and say, ‘Okay, I see what you’re saying.” But I know what I’m capable of, and I don’t think everybody in the world knows what I’m capable of. There’s only a few people that do, and I’m just going to work on becoming the best player I can be. And wherever that puts me, at the end of the day, I’ll know that I did everything that I can to get there.”
That exact mindset certainly doesn’t hurt when it comes to being involved in trade rumors for Kevin Durant either.
“You step outside yourself, you kind of see the entertainment value,” Johnson said. “You get outside the fact that, like, moving cities is probably annoying, or this, that or the other thing — just random, human, life stuff. But the NBA is an entertaining league, and right now, it’s been an entertaining offseason. So grab your popcorn, I don’t know what’s gonna happen. It could be a lot of things.”