It’s nice, for once, for the Suns to not have the development of their first-round draft picks be based on a quick prayer answered by Lady Luck.
By selecting players more NBA-ready and who fit more neatly into a box that they wanted filled, the Suns emerged from draft night with players more likely to succeed, if not the vaulted ceilings of the rawer players preferred by the last front office. The team also protected itself by creating depth that will allow the rookies to be true role players rather than ask them to be immediate contributors.
As we consider what a best- and worst-case scenario might look like for playing time for these rookies, more time on the court is not necessarily better. Ty Jerome is expected to have a steep adjustment curve when it comes to the athleticism and speed of the pro game, while Jalen Lecque figures to spend most if not all of his rookie season in the G League. Cam Johnson is the easiest to slide into an NBA rotation from day one because of his shooting and offensive intelligence, but questions linger about him as well.
Johnson can help the Suns right away
As a redshirt senior during the 2018-19 season, Johnson scored 1.3 points per possession in spot-up situations thanks in large part to an astounding 64.7 effective field goal percentage, according to Synergy Sports. Little will change for Johnson as a spot-up player with the Suns. The defense will devote more resources to Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton than someone like Johnson, leaving him open often. Though the defense may be a beat or two quicker closing out to the perimeter and the arms of the men defending him a bit longer, the 6-9 Johnson should have no issue getting his shot off.
All he needs to do is make them and figure out how to translate his scroungy transition game to the NBA in order to make a positive impact on the Suns’ offense. Transition situations were second only to spot-ups in Johnson’s scoring arsenal last season. His 1.236 points per possession (per Synergy) jump-started the Tar Heels’ annually tricky fast break expertise. Playing next to guys like Ricky Rubio, Kelly Oubre Jr. and Deandre Ayton will only make life easier on him when he’s operating in space.
The more difficult calculation for coach Monty Williams will be figuring out whom he can trust Johnson to guard defensively. The answer may be no one, at least at the start of the year. Johnson’s slow feet and occasional tendency to lose focus could punish him as he acclimates to the NBA.
That’s not to say Johnson is a lost cause on defense by any means. North Carolina head coach Roy Williams had no issue letting Johnson switch onto guards, and when he did, Johnson showed that his length and positioning help him keep up with small playmakers.
At the same time, Johnson flashed the ability to read the floor defensively at a high level even on a Tar Heel group that finished just 47th in the nation. In the halfcourt, Johnson was aggressive as a help defender and his length also helped him here, as he was able to make up for lost time by filling space more quickly than most players.
Yet Johnson’s focus on the ball hurt him as well. Smart teams that spaced the floor and moved the ball could punish Johnson for his lack of speed and mobility. On many occasions, Johnson over-helped and fell out of position, leaving good shooters open and allowing easy driving lanes for opponents. Because he guarded wings more often than not despite his power forward size, his man did major damage as a playmaker when left open.
In the first clip above, Johnson crowds a ball-handler at the free-throw line despite the game plan against Wofford undoubtedly being to prevent open threes. Wofford made the second-most threes in the NCAA last season and shot the third-highest percentage. Johnson leaves open Nathan Hoover, who shot 47 percent from deep last season -- it’s pure luck that the shot missed everything. In the last clip, Johnson reads the driving player’s eyes well but is overwhelmed by a nice pass to the corner, followed by a smart play by the corner shooter to adjust to Johnson’s aggressive closeout and get inside.
Worse yet still were the times when Johnson just lost focus:
He has to understand that in the NBA, he will be at an athleticism and quickness disadvantage against nearly everyone he faces. To combat that, Johnson has to be 100 percent dedicated and mentally engaged on each defensive possession in order to earn Williams’ trust and contribute to winning. We’re talking best-case scenario here, but if Johnson can pull that off, he’ll be in a prime position to earn big minutes across the 2, 3 and 4.
The worst-case looks a lot worse. Johnson still faces questions about the health of his hips, which were operated on multiple times in college, as well as whether he does enough besides shooting to help a team at the NBA level. If he can’t help this team, we might see players like Jerome and David Kramer get more opportunities than expected.
Jerome will be brought along slowly
The hyper-skilled young guard is going to be able to manipulate NBA defenses and make shots the minute he begins his rookie season. Jerome has nearly every pick-and-roll pass you could want from a lead guard in the NBA: A drop pass to a rolling big man, a cross-court bullet to a shooter, a lob to a big man on the short roll, and a quick chest pass to get rid of the ball early if the defense breaks down.
Yet with a 6-4 wingspan and a lack of foot speed that occasionally burned him even in college, it’s difficult to imagine Jerome making a major impact as a rookie. The roster just isn’t set up to give him many opportunities to play, and it probably makes the most sense to let him read and adjust to the pros from the bench at first. It wouldn’t be a surprise Jerome spent some time here and there with the Suns’ G League affiliate as well.
In the past two drafts, the majority of healthy top-10 picks have played major minutes, while players taken in the 20s are far less consistent rotation pieces. The 2017 class saw Markelle Fultz, Lonzo Ball, Jonathan Isaac and others hampered by injury, while the majority of the other top picks played meaningful roles right away. Players drafted near the end of the first round, however, such as Caleb Swanigan, Tony Bradley and Tyler Lydon, failed to catch on and still haven’t made an impact. The 2018 class followed suit, as except for the injured Wendell Carter Jr. and Mo Bamba, the top picks played while the likes of Grayson Allen, Anfernee Simons and Jacob Evans waited in the wings.
The problem for later picks is that they are typically not handed minutes on a platter, which insulates them from painful mistakes they aren’t ready for but also holds them back from improving through consistent repetition. Jerome won’t have to play right away, but the key to earning playing time as a rookie may be whether Tyler Johnson is traded. The veteran guard will make $19.2 million in this final season of his contract, making him a nice, big salary trade chip this year. The Suns will likely be looking for ways to turn Johnson’s salary and an asset or two into another young option at the wing or forward spot. That would clear the way for Jerome to step into the rotation near the end of the year and get some valuable playing time before his rookie season expires.
If that’s how Jerome’s rookie year plays out, it’s a success. If injuries force him to contribute early and he can’t, that could damage his confidence or growth. It would also hurt the team to put Jerome in a situation he’s not ready for at the expense of Johnson or Ricky Rubio. As training camp progresses, Williams will keep his finger on the pulse of the guard rotation and figure out how Jerome fits.
Lecque will be a one-man show in Prescott Valley
The five-year high school standout will be the main attraction for fans to travel to see the Northern Arizona Suns this season. A best-case scenario for him is simple: Dominate the G League, learn the ropes of being a professional athlete and a good teammate, and develop as a point guard.
Thinking about the worst-case scenario for Lecque made me think of a recent quote from Walker Buehler of the Los Angeles Dodgers regarding Minor League Baseball and the problem of using affiliates for the sole purpose of developing one young star:
“At any affiliate, there are three players who have a chance to play in the majors. The rest of the players are there so they so they can play. I don’t think that’s fair,” Buehler told Travis Sawchick of FiveThirtyEight. “You are preying on their dreams.”
Preying on their dreams. Yikes. The NBA has been fortunate to avoid such issues because its top picks come directly to the main roster right away and usually contribute at a high level. It’s far too soon to say Lecque will be some sort of wunderkind, but that dynamic has to be awkward. The NBA G League is a dog-eat-dog environment and a large part of those coaches’ role is breeding a culture of positivity and support for whoever gets the next call.
The worst-case scenario for Lecque is the investment the Suns put in him leading to problems in the NAZ locker room or within the team as people leer at the young sensation some fans are already calling Baby Westbrook. I’m not saying this will happen, but at some point, as the G League grows, this dynamic will emerge even more strongly.