When the Phoenix Suns sent the body of Ryan Anderson to Miami in exchange for combo guard Tyler Johnson, Suns fans collectively shrugged and turned back to their social media feeds for something bigger and better.
But after the deadline passed, we all realized that was the only move the Suns would make.
And we were underwhelmed.
Now let’s meet Johnson, who will immediately step into a starting guard role next to Devin Booker (when healthy).
Johnson is an undrafted kid who the Miami Heat found on the street, won a rotation position and played so well in two years that the Brooklyn Nets tried to steal him away with a huge restricted offer sheet ($50 million for 4 years, with a cap-required breakdown of 5/5/19/19 salaries). But the Heat matched, and have had Johnson as a solid part of their rotation since.
Johnson’s final year is a player option, giving him the security of playing the 2019-20 season making $19 million before hitting unrestricted free agency in 2020.
His impact on the Suns is financially negligible this season, and a net $3.6 million more next season over Ryan Anderson’s guaranteed salary. Either Anderson or Johnson could be waived and stretched, spreading their salaries across three years of dead money ($5-6 million hit per year). Most likely, the Suns keep Johnson for 2019-20, paying him a net $3.6 million over Anderson’s dead cap money.
Money aside, let’s take a look at the player. Since Ryan Anderson wasn’t even in the rotation, Johnson is a clear add without taking anything away.
Johnson likely eats up whatever minutes Troy Daniels was getting, whatever minutes any second rookie point guard was getting, and probably a lot of Jamal Crawford’s minutes.
Johnson will be a starter and play at least 25 minutes per game.
What he is not
Tyler Johnson is not that big name trade or free agent acquisition good enough to help share the alpha-dog role with Devin Booker. Nah, that’s still a pipe dream, and must be ignored for the next four to five months now that the trade deadline passed.
Johnson is not a playmaker good enough take pressure off Devin Booker and his band of rookies. He won’t get more than four assists per game this season, leaving most of the assist opportunities to Booker still. Among this season’s non-Booker playmakers, Johnson won’t get quite as many assists as Melton, Crawford or Okobo, though in the Suns offense the difference may be negligible.
And no, Johnson is not a score-first point guard either. He won’t be one of the Suns’ top scorers on most nights, but he will likely be their third or fourth-highest scorer.
Also, Johnson is not a street-level free agent looking for a job. Nor is he a rookie point guard playing his first year in the Americas. Johnson also isn’t a rookie who’s never been a point guard before and took an entire year off basketball just before coming to the team. Johnson isn’t a fast-declining player who almost never feels young again either.
What he is
Johnson is a 26 year old fifth-year combo guard who has played 24-plus minutes per game for the Miami Heat, including a pair of playoff runs. It’s quite understandable if you’re confused on what to think of this information.
The former Fresno State guard recognizes the value of three-point shots in an offense. Among this season’s non-Booker playmakers, Johnson has the best true shooting percentage (54 percent vs. 47 percent), three point attempt rate (51 percent vs. 38 percent), and three-point shooting percentage (35.2 percent vs 29 percent).
Johnson also turns the ball over less than his predecessors next to Booker, which is important on a team struggling to handle the ball. His turnover rate is 30 percent lower than the guys he’s competing against for ball handling minutes.
What he is replacing and/or sharing minutes with
Let’s take a walk down memory lane.
Point or combo guards who shared playmaking duties with Booker in 2017-18:
- Eric Bledsoe — 40 percent shooting, 3.0 assists — sent home, traded
- Mike James — 38 percent, 4.2 assists — journeyman, out of league
- Tyler Ulis — 38 percent, 4.8 assists — journeyman, out of league
- Isaiah Canaan — 20 percent, 3.0 assists — injury (ankle) — journeyman
- Elfrid Payton — 45 percent, 6.6 assists — released end of season
Note: That’s an average of 36 percent shooting (29 percent on 3s) with 3.4 assists per game from starters next to Booker.
The Suns had 35 different starting lineups in 82 games last year. Only two played together for more than 6 games, while there were an astonishing 21 different starting lineups who only played together once.
How about this season, where the Suns were supposed to turn the corner to start winning games?
- Isaiah Canaan — 39 percent shooting, 3.3 assists — journeyman
- Elie Okobo — 39 percent, 3.6 assists — rookie
- De’Anthony Melton — 35 percent, 3.8 assists — rookie
- Jamal Crawford — 36 percent, 3.5 assists
Note: That’s an average of 37 percent shooting (28 percent three pointers) with 3.5 assists per game from starters next to Booker.
The Suns have had 19 different starting lineups this season, and the only one that’s played more than six games together has had three rookies among them.
What to expect from Tyler Johnson
First of all, the bar is low for Johnson to be worth his minutes on this team.
For Johnson to be an improvement over Crawford, Melton and Okobo, he simply needs to exceed 8 points, 3.5 assists, better than 1:1 assist to turnover ratio and exceed better than 29 percent on 3s in 25 minutes per game.
Johnson’s career numbers: 11 points, 2.5 assists, 2:1 assists-to-turnover ratio and 35% three point shooting in 25 minutes per game.
Not great, but collectively better than anything the Suns have trotted out at Booker’s sidekick lately.
If and when Okobo or Melton improve enough to consistently provide more than Johnson, or if the Suns bring in someone else who’s better, then it’s easy to slide the fifth-year veteran back into that combo role off the bench.
All in all, Johnson will improve the Suns’ competence level on the court, and that’s worth an extra $3.5 million on the books for the 2019-20 season (even more than Ryan Anderson’s dead cap number) and large expiring contract for trade inclusion next year (ex: DeAndre Jordan and Wesley Matthews from the Kristaps Porzingis trade).