It was never going to happen overnight, but even before Jae Crowder’s trade request, Cam Johnson was meant for the starting job. He was always poised to thrive in that role on the offensive end, and although it’s taken him a few games to find his footing, the early returns look promising.
Tuesday’s win over the Minnesota Timberwolves put all of that leaping potential on full display, calling back to something coach Monty Williams predicted a few weeks back.
“Starting games every night, that’s going to be something that is different, but I think he welcomes that,” Williams said. “I think he’s wanted this for a long time. I’m sure there’s going to be an adjustment, but it’s not like Cam Johnson is not scouted by other teams, he’s one of the best shooters in the league. I think we’re gonna see more of his game with an expanded role.”
After dropping a season-high 29 points against Minnesota on 10-of-17 shooting, including 7-for-11 from beyond the arc, Johnson echoed his coach’s words.
“Getting more used to that on a night-in, night-out basis, and also finishing the game, man, that’s something that I love doing,” he said. “Being in there and being part of that critical thinking on top of high-level basketball portion of the game, it’s a lot of fun.”
The Suns aren’t even 10 percent of the way through the new season, but Cam Johnson is already proving he’s ready for the job. Here’s a look at his growth on offense, defense and the advantage he provides as a starter.
Cam Johnson’s offensive growth
Through seven games, Johnson is averaging 14.9 points and 3.9 rebounds in 28.2 minutes per game on 45.7 percent shooting. He’s been a +65 overall in 197 minutes of action.
Against the Wolves’ supersized frontcourt of Karl-Anthony Towns and Rudy Gobert, the Suns knew they’d have opportunities to get Johnson open looks. After missing his first two shots, he passed up one coming off a handoff, at which point his coach and his teammates made their message clear: “Dude…GO.”
“They looked at me like I was stupid,” Johnson laughed. “I was like, ‘All right, guys, I get the memo.’ But it’s really helpful as a shooter when you have coaches and people that encourage you to take the next shot, even if you’re 0-for-10.”
As someone who finished fourth in the NBA in 3-point percentage last year, Johnson has the ultimate green light on a team with a “let it fly” mentality. Now that he’s getting comfortable with his bearings, that rocky start is quickly smoothing into more promising results:
Mikal Bridges said he needed a game like that for his confidence during the adjustment process.
“Every time he shoots, I feel like it’s going to go in every single time, so I’m happy he saw the ball go through the net a thousand times today,” Bridges said. “That’s definitely gonna be good for him and for our team.”
Most of Johnson’s buckets so far have come from spot-up 3s that, on the surface, don’t really convey much growth. Of course, that shouldn’t take anything away from a guy shooting 44 percent from downtown on a career-high 7.1 attempts per game.
“It’s so good just to see him letting it fly,” Chris Paul said. “We got to drill at practice called ‘let it fly,’ and when you shoot it like Cam, make or miss, when I kick it to him and he shoot it, that’s great for us — not just in that game, but consistently all season long.”
Even better, the Suns seem to be making concerted efforts to leverage his sneaky drifting on the perimeter, quick release and long-range efficiency by getting him more corner 3s:
Per NBA.com, 12 of his 37 made field goals (22 made 3s) have come from the corners, constituting 32.4 percent of his made shots and 54.5 percent of his made triples. Last year, only 24.7 percent of his made shots and 41.6 percent of his made 3s came from the corners.
It could be small sample size theater, but Johnson is adding other wrinkles to his game as well.
“I keep saying this about him: He’s more than a shooter,” Williams said Tuesday. “He has the ability on offense to make plays at the rim, in the midrange, he’s a really good passer. We just want him to play free, and that’s what we saw tonight.”
Phoenix has made it a point of emphasis to play CP3 off the ball more this season, allowing the Twins to initiate the offense. That increased responsibility has made it easier to get in the flow.
“It just gets you comfortable within the game,” Johnson said. “Any time you can have the ball in your hands a little bit extra longer, that’s straight settling into the game, feeling the ball. It gets you in rhythm, shooting rhythm, scoring rhythm.”
Johnson has been efficient around the basket his whole NBA career, but he’s slightly increased his activity there, taking a career-high 25 percent of his shots at the rim, per Cleaning The Glass. He hasn’t finished as efficiently, but those marks should progress to the mean.
“He’s doing great, just taking advantage of the opportunity and taking shots, but driving and also getting all the way to the rim and passing,” Bridges said. “Like, literally doing everything.”
Williams said it gives the Suns “balance” when Johnson and Bridges slash and space the floor as naturally as they did against Minnesota. On a night where Paul and Devin Booker shot a combined 11-for-30, the Twins paced the Suns against a playoff-caliber team and ultimately led Phoenix in scoring.
Once again, Johnson flashed his confidence in putting the ball on the floor when defenders run him off the 3-point line, but also the basketball I.Q. to pull up when help defenders crowd the lane.
“I don’t mind him taking that shot,” Williams said of Johnson’s pull-up jumpers off one or two dribbles. “When people run you off the line, you have to have something else to go to. You can’t always get to the rim, and that’s why we don’t mind when guys take the midrange shot.”
At practice a few weeks back, Williams compared these little developments in younger players’ games to learning to ride a bike. You’re taught to make small corrections, but turn the bike too quickly, and it’ll flip.
Some of those small developments are starting to show for a guy who’s been labeled as just another spot-up shooter.
“For most of the guys, when they’re that good, it’s just a wrinkle or two in their games every summer or during the year that can help them just keep growing,” Williams said. “I think if you try to add too much, you kind of forget who you are as a player. I just think it’s the small things.”
The defensive end
Speaking of defense, Cam Johnson’s viability as a starter lies on that end. Everyone knew the Suns’ offense would be dynamite with Johnson in the mix, but whether he could hold up against bigger, stronger 4s was another question.
The Timberwolves are only one team with a super-sized frontcourt, but the returns Tuesday night looked good — especially considering how much time Johnson spent on Towns. KAT finished with 24 points on 9-of-18 shooting, but he started 3-for-9 in the first half, and most of his production came later on against other defenders.
“I think the biggest thing from [Johnson] is his defense got so much better and he’s just taking a lot of pride,” Bridges said. “Just locking up and being tough and physical.”
In addition to helping contain KAT, Johnson also came up with three steals — not including the biggest momentum swing of the game, where he stripped Anthony Edwards in transition, ultimately leading to a transition 3 on the other end.
Johnson has 9 steals through seven games, and he’s made excellent reads both on and off the ball to turn defense into offense.
“Part of our game plan was to do a couple of things, and we were able to get some steals off of that,” Johnson said. “Just trying to make an impact on the defensive end is big and being in the right spots and taking possessions away from them is big, and I try to do that every game.”
Williams agrees the defensive end is where Johnson has shown the most improvement, especially in making tough, gritty plays without fouling.
“His ability to stay in front of the ball, his weak-side defense for sure has gotten better,” Williams said. “At the beginning of last year, that was a huge concern for us, watching him on the weak-side, as most young guys struggle.”
The Cam Johnson advantage
Add it all up and the Timberwolves game was an idyllic microcosm of the advantage the Suns hope to gain when opponents try to bully them with size. KAT is more of a skill player than an interior bruiser, but if Cam Johnson can just be solid defensively, Phoenix will have a huge advantage making more lumbering 4s defend him.
“Depending on the team, sometimes they have to guard you too, and can those bigs chase Cam Johnson?” Williams explained. “I wouldn’t say it’s a chess match, but it is a bit of some opposing ideas facing each other when you think about big versus small.”
Johnson hasn’t been used as much as Bridges as a screener, but this is just one of a few examples where only the most airtight defense can stop a lethal pick-and-pop action:
Even when the Timberwolves hung tough through the first action, or tried to hide KAT elsewhere, Phoenix pulled a page from the old pigeon playbook, turning Towns into the new Michael Porter Jr. — a unrelenting mark for the Suns to target in a barrage of actions meant to force him into bad decisions.
At least one of Johnson’s open corner 3s stemmed from this approach, and it made for a nightmarish time trying to guard the Suns, who attempted a season-high 43 3-pointers.
“They’re playing two bigs so they can have an advantage inside, advantage on the glass, post-ups, stuff like that,” Johnson said. “We want to make it hard on them to not get to what they want. If they think KAT is a little bigger than me and they try to post him up, we try to not let that be easy, and I think we did a good job of that tonight. And then offensively, just moving ’em, keeping ’em in actions, keeping the bigs occupied.”
Against a Wolves starting unit that committed 15 turnovers, Johnson also helped push the tempo. The Suns rank 24th in pace overall at 98.53, but with their preferred starting lineup of Paul, Booker, Bridges, Johnson and Deandre Ayton, that number leaps to 102.49.
Johnson has been instrumental in the Suns’ fast break attack. Whether it’s finishing strong at the basket:
Or finding gaps against scrambling defenses to drill backbreaking 3s:
Johnson has cleverly hunted openings on the break, sprinting downcourt to either pull defenders toward him with his gravity or make them pay for leaving him open. Heading into Tuesday, he ranked in the 86th percentile in transition scoring, per NBA.com, at 1.41 points per possession.
The Suns’ four-man lineup of Paul, Book, Bridges and Cam boasts an incredible 27.5 Net Rating. Throw Ayton in there for their preferred starting lineup, and it jumps to a 28.9 Net Rating, including a smothering 93.3 defensive rating.
It won’t take long for Cam Johnson to prove why it was a mistake not giving him a rookie-scale contract extension before the deadline: If he continues to stay healthy, his individual growth and impact on the starting five will merit quite a pay raise.
“Putting that business, closing that box, putting that to the side, I think that is relatively easy,” Johnson said. “Obviously, I do want to be here, I’ve loved my time here, but I’m here, is the main thing. I have a whole ‘nother year. To be honest, that’s what we’re all focused on right now is this season, this chance.”