Last March, new Suns rookies Cameron Johnson and Ty Jerome were each at the center of their team’s respective runs of the NCAA tournament. Johnson bowed out in the Sweet 16 while Jerome went on to win a national championship with Virginia, but each knows what it means to compete at a high level. They’ve been in elite basketball programs already. And still, they are proud to be in Phoenix as their NBA journeys begin.
“Coming into a new situation, you never know what to expect, but Cam and I were talking the other day, actually, about how fortunate we are to be a part of this organization,” Jerome told me at Media Day on Monday. “Just all the veteran guys, the guys who have been here for a while, just (welcoming) us in and helping us out in any way they can.”
Of course, any player in their position would be thrilled to be drafted in the first round and entrusted with a roster spot right away. But to hear players extoll the virtues of the depth and experience on the Suns’ roster this season compared to prior years, the truth behind that conversation between Jerome and Johnson is plain to see.
Unlike recent Suns rookies, neither Jerome nor Johnson will be counted on to contribute right away, and they may not even play much to start the season. This will truly allow them to soak in the leadership of veterans such as Ricky Rubio, Devin Booker and Aron Baynes as they transition to the NBA. Playing for elite college programs made them more NBA-ready, but it also gave them a taste of high-level competition and control they won’t necessarily get as rookies.
“Coming from being a junior in college, a leader on and off the court, coming into a new situation, you have to re-establish yourself,” Jerome said.
Johnson’s path in college was even rockier, originally committing to Pittsburgh before transferring to North Carolina and finishing out five amateur seasons. Though playing time is no more guaranteed for him than Jerome, Johnson believes his shooting ability will allow him to help the team right away.
“I bring shooting to the table off the bat, so no matter what the other areas of my game are, I’m always going to be confident in that shooting ability, so I can be a floor-spacer at minimum,” Johnson told gathered media Monday. “Get in there, draw some defense, put (teammates) in a position to make a shot.”
Still, it has to be seen as a positive that neither needs to play well for the Suns to win. That recipe turned into a stinking mess of slop the past several seasons, and the Suns have nothing to show for those development projects. Allowing Johnson and Jerome to come along slowly could pay dividends for their productivity and confidence down the road. They will still get better this season, even if more of their growth comes off the court.
“I just feel like I can expand,” Johnson said. “I can definitely become a better defender, a better rebounder, be able to play multiple positions and take some pressure off of other guys, and really contribute in any way possible.”
Don’t mistake this acceptance as complacency. Both rookies have a passion for the game and level of success that were key reasons the Suns drafted them.
“Our strength is going to be in our depth,” Suns general manager James Jones said. “All of these guys that are on our team have played for something, and that’s what you need when you need to turn things around like we have to.”
Jerome and Johnson may not be at the top of the pecking order in Phoenix, but they fit the mold of the types of players Jones targeted this summer. They fit into the culture for which the groundwork has been laid, and they will provide depth when the Suns need it.
Suns draft night came as a surprise to many, but it was exactly the plan Jones envisioned. Acquiring winners wasn’t only the goal in free agency or trade, but in the draft as well.
“Some teams bring a 19-year-old into the NBA and expect those guys to perform at a high level and lead your team,” Jones said. “It’s unrealistic. The results are pretty predictable. So we wanted to make sure we brought in guys that we thought could grow but at the same time, had the capacity to play if we needed them to, and we look at our draft class this year and those guys are that.”
Not exactly a shot at the guys who used to run the show in Phoenix, but not very subtle, either. This, more than anything, is the difference Jones has made running the Suns, and Johnson and Jerome fit into his grand plan of bringing winners to the Valley.
Added Jerome: “Really any time you come into a new situation, there’s really nothing else you can try to do but you just try to learn and just try to establish yourself.
“Earning your teammates’ trust is the first thing you really have to do, earn your coaches’ trust, and everything goes from there.”