After all the talk of bringing the rookies along slowly and not demanding that they produce at a high level right away, Cam Johnson has been a standout during the first month of the season for the Suns.
The Suns asked Johnson to work his way into a more prominent role rather than gifting him minutes because was a high pick. Despite the organization’s promise to not ask Johnson to step up right away, the rookie nevertheless has done so, scoring 8 points in 17 minutes per game on 44 percent shooting from the field for the 7-4 Suns.
Or maybe it was precisely because he didn’t have to step in right away.
Dealing with left calf soreness coming out of the preseason, it took Johnson a little while to get accustomed to the Suns’ system and how to impact the game at the NBA level. He said the support of veteran teammates and a coaching staff that is detailed and helpful has been huge for him, especially on defense.
“When you’re out there playing with Ricky, Devin, Dario, Frank, Aron, it helps tremendously because they’re talking, guys on the bench are talking, it really helps me get in the right spots,” Johnson said. “On top of that, just playing.”
The rookie’s debut didn’t come until the third game of the season against the Clippers. After an offseason in which Johnson frequently discussed proving he was more than a shooter, his first big NBA moment came when he nailed a three-pointer in that game, but he earned more playing time by affecting the game across the board.
Johnson said he’s most proud of the way he’s played defense and moved without the ball on offense. Those are two parts of the game coach Monty Williams has preached throughout the year, so it’s not a surprise the rookie has earned his coach’s trust.
Williams rewarded Johnson with the opportunity to close the game out against LeBron James and the Lakers this week.
“I like his savvy, he’s not afraid to take big shots,” Williams said. “I ran a play for him down the stretch and he had a pretty good look at it.”
But more than that, he is beginning to trust Johnson on the other end.
“He was fighting. He stays in front of his man, he typically is in the right spot,” Williams added.
Two nights later, Johnson was the first player off the bench for the Suns against Atlanta, another sign of growing trust from his coach as well as Johnson’s execution of the gameplan.
When it comes to offense, Williams’ system has helped Johnson prove the “more than a shooter” edict he’s discussed since being drafted. Johnson is 4-7 from the field after cuts this season, according to Synergy Sports, and drawing fouls consistently.
The whole team has embraced energy off-ball even when they don’t score out of it, Johnson said, and getting a few easy buckets that way helped his confidence as well.
“Our coaches when we watch film, we say cutting opportunity, cutting opportunity, do this, do that, and the thing is, we just do it,” he said. “A lot them, we cut and don’t get it, (but) we create a shot for somebody else. Maybe even nothing happens, but the more you do it, the more chance that one is going to hit and get an easy bucket.”
It may seem like Johnson is back to the type of role most Suns rookies have been in the past, but the difference is he earned it, and knows he has to play well to keep it. Unlike past rookies, he’s also contributing to winning. Johnson is a versatile lineup piece whom Williams has tried in a variety of units, especially when he goes small.
When players run into foul trouble or the coach wants to match an opponent’s lineup, Johnson’s defensive versatility and shooting are reliable, Williams said, though fitting him on the court with the other two wings is a work in progress.
“I like that lineup, though, because those guys can switch and they’re fast, so if we can get the rebound, we can play in transition,” Williams said, but noted, “when you play those small lineups and (the opponent is) throwing the ball up in the air and getting extra possessions, that lineup may be something we have to look at to stay away from against those bigger bigs.”
In fact, small lineups are precisely what teams last year knew they could exploit against the Suns.
“I went back and watched our two games last year, and one of the things we were able to do was punish the small lineups,” said Hawks coach Lloyd Pierce. “I know they (still) play small, but they’re different people.
Different, and better. With this roster, the Suns want size to be a strength. They want to be one of the bigger teams in the NBA.
Circling back to Bridges, who told Bob Young of The Athletic “messed myself up” during the offseason, the second-year player has been the weak link among the wings thus far. Seeing Williams go to Johnson over him against Atlanta wasn’t much of a surprise.
Williams has tried to simplify the game for Bridges this year and he is coming along, but Johnson seems to understand and excel in his role better than Bridges right now.
They also both sit firmly behind Kelly Oubre Jr., the starter coming off a big payday and proving his half-season in Phoenix last year was real. Oubre bounced back against the Hawks with 30 points after ceding crunch-time minutes to Johnson two nights earlier.
Having depth is a luxury. The wing spot, as Pierce alluded to, was a cavernous hole in the Suns’ rotation last year. The front office overhauled it by retaining Oubre and sending out relics of the past regime as well as drafting Johnson. Now, they have three players who complement one another well and can grow together.
Everyone in the Suns’ locker room understands they still must earn minutes. Many, including Oubre, Bridges and Johnson, have gotten a wake-up call in that regard already this year. It’s part of the difficult process of culture and system-building process Williams talks about daily, and it has proven to benefit Johnson in a big way as he acclimates to playing as a pro.
“We aren’t the best team we are going to be yet,” Johnson said. “I can see it and I can feel it, and it’s a good feeling to be on a team with a lot of guys who really bought in and care about each other and care about winning. It creates a pretty good culture.
“It’s somewhere you wanna show up every day, you wanna work hard every day, you kind of wanna make those plays that require a little extra effort.”