Before new Suns GM James Jones was hired originally as the Vice President of Basketball Operations back in July 2017, little did everyone know the two previous draft classes would stunt the growth of their team’s development. Phoenix selected seven players: Dragan Bender, Marquese Chriss, Tyler Ulis, Josh Jackson, Davon Reed, and Alec Peters. Only one remains in Jackson, and it might only be for a few more weeks before he’s shipped out as well.
Fast-forward to the 2019 draft under a new regime spearheaded by James Jones. The two selections made were the polar opposite to the likes of Bender, Chriss and Jackson. Cameron Johnson at No. 11 overall, who was ranked No. 23 on my own board, was shocking to see. Then, Phoenix traded their 2020 first-round pick via the Eric Bledsoe trade to Boston for acquire the rights to Ty Jerome plus add backup center Aron Baynes.
What do Johnson and Jerome have in common? Upperclassmen. High IQ players who rarely make mistakes. Well above-average shooters from three-point range. Pristine character.
And it’s obvious what Jones and Williams want on their basketball team what I outlined above with these two rookie additions, sans signing 19-year-old undrafted guard Jalen Lecque who is a pure upside play.
Trying to wipe out the number where each was selected is tough, but, if you only envision their roles within Monty Williams’ system, it makes some sense.
Johnson was a lights-out shooter throughout his career at Pittsburgh and North Carolina registering a 41.3 three-point percentage on 536 career attempts. If utilized more in a jumbo JJ Redick role as a 2-3 type having outside actions run for him, Johnson has all the intangibles to thrive within that role.
Monty Williams is going to love scheming up plays for Cam Johnson. Whether it's elevator sets, flare screens or setting up multiple screens for catch-and-shoot opportunities, Johnson is prolific in all of these situations. pic.twitter.com/eS507LKfPx— Evan Sidery (@esidery) June 21, 2019
However, unless Devin Booker eventually becomes the pseudo point guard down the line, Johnson probably was drafted in the lottery as a high-end role player. Phoenix could’ve moved down again from No. 11, but they must’ve fallen head over heels for Johnson during his private workout in Phoenix after the NBA Draft Combine.
The 23-year-old North Carolina wing, who is also 7.5 months older than Devin Booker, is an average athlete and struggles consistently on defense. He sometimes reads the play before it’s happening and winds up with steals or deflections, but a mixture of slight frame and limited fluidity make him more of a liability in that area.
In the inverse, Johnson’s sharpshooting was obviously coveted by this Suns roster in desperate need of a boost. The 6’9” wing shot 48 percent from the corner and 46.3 percent on NBA-range three-pointers, per The Stepien’s shot charts. That’s an absurd clip. An even crazier statistic revolves around how Johnson shot 57.4 percent on the road during ACC conference play. So, case in point, Johnson is an absolute marksman.
An underrated aspect of Johnson’s game when diving back into more film on him the past few days has been how smart of a passer he is. It’s an area that saw some potential growth in Mikal Bridges’ profile while at Villanova, always making the right reads time after time. That’s also in Johnson’s repertoire, too. In the nine outings Johnson logged at least four assists, zero saw him make more than two turnovers. It’s not on the same level as Bridges, but it’s at least functionally there where as we witnessed throughout Trevor Ariza’s short tenure.
Johnson fits the profile of a low-usage player alongside Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton, just like Bridges was last season. Expect to not see much from Johnson outside of running around the perimeter keeping defenses honest or cutting to the basket, opening up more room for the Suns’ dynamic inside-out duo.
Odds are high Johnson won’t average more than 20-25 minutes per game next season, depending on how the roster balance shakes out, but his role is crystal clear already. That’s not a bad thing either.
Is it possible the Suns feel the North Carolina product can be a bigger version of the Redick’s and Buddy Hield’s of the world? Diving into their shooting numbers from college, there’s an argument to be made here. Hield could do way more off the dribble than Johnson, but the three-point percentages their senior seasons are identical.
Only two prospects drafted in the lottery since 2000 have shot at least five three-pointers per game while converting +45%:— Evan Sidery (@esidery) June 21, 2019
• Buddy Hield - 45.7% on 8.7 3PA
• Cam Johnson - 45.7% on 5.8 3PA
Jones went bold, maybe too bold, but kudos to him and the rest of the Suns’ front office for sticking to their board with Johnson. We’ll have to find out quickly about Johnson and his adjustment on the NBA level, because his rookie contract ends when he’s going to be 28 years old.
The other move Phoenix pulled off on draft night in the first round was trading back into it entirely to secure Jerome. The 6’5” ball handler is another high-end shooter, but his effectiveness as a passer stands out more. Whether it’s out of pick-and-roll or even in the mid-post surveying the floor, Jerome can carve up defenses with simple manipulation.
Ty Jerome is another +40% shooter from deep, but his passing stands out the most. Last season, Jerome carried a +3.3 AST/TO ratio. Plenty of savvy passes that led to easy buckets for his teammates at Virginia. pic.twitter.com/PMx1ynuLF8— Evan Sidery (@esidery) June 23, 2019
Right away, Jerome will be one of the Suns’ best passers on the roster. It’s also a very bright sign that the 21-year-old improved his assists while also lowering his turnovers per 40 minutes. Similar in a way to Tyler Johnson, Jerome fits the scrappy profile Jones and Co. seem to enjoy next to Booker in he backcourt.
Even if Jerome never is more than a backup, there’s a good chance he turns into one of the best backups. Even though there is concerns about his athleticism against NBA-caliber guards, Jerome has the intangibles to maneuver around that obstacle.
One player comparison I keep coming back to with Jerome is Tomas Satoransky. Even though Satoransky is two inches taller and 15 pounds heavier right now, there’s no reason to believe Jerome can’t overcome his deficiencies like Satoransky while turning into a steady third guard off the bench.
Jerome does the little thing so well, too. Boxing out. Fighting for loose balls. Drawing charges. He also wears his emotions on his sleeve always getting fired up for his teammates whenever they make a bucket.
If you want to watch Jerome at his best, fire up the Virginia-Syracuse game. Jerome torched the Orange to the tune of 16 points and 14 assists, scoring or facilitating on 63.3 percent of their points.
Ty Jerome put on an absolute clinic against Syracuse with 16 points and 14 assists, which contributed to 50 of Virginia's 79 points: pic.twitter.com/zfoKijpINq— Evan Sidery (@esidery) June 23, 2019
James Jones reeled-in two quality prospects with Johnson and Jerome, but the allocation of resources to get there in the first place was questionable. Recapping the Suns’ moves on Thursday, which included three trades, saw more addition rather than subtraction:
IN - Cameron Johnson, Ty Jerome, Dario Saric, Aron Baynes
OUT - T.J. Warren, No. 6 pick (Jarrett Culver), No. 32 pick (Indiana later flipped for three additional second-rounders), 2020 Bucks pick
If you want to be a member of this new rebooted version of the Suns, you better be a shooter or at least a major positive in one area of the game. No more net-negatives are allowed. No more waiting on potential. The selections of Johnson and Jerome strengthen that stance even further.
In due time, we’ll know whether the Suns were ahead of the curve or were rightly ridiculed by many national pundits on draft night. If Johnson and Jerome turn into new, slightly different versions of Hield and Satoransky, Phoenix is well on it’s way to helping maximize their long-term outlook around Booker and Ayton as a hopeful sustainable contender.