He may not have represented Phoenix in last Friday’s Rising Stars Challenge. But by all accounts, it’s hard to be mad with Cameron Johnson’s performance as a rookie.
The 11th overall pick thus far ranks 17th in his class in points per game. He ranks 11th in Box Plus-Minus, and 7th in Value Over Replacement Player and win shares. He has proven to be a steady contributor off the bench, perhaps the only steady reserve currently available to Monty Williams with so many bodies unavailable.
Despite all that, what we’ve yet to see from Cam is any true guarantee of a higher ceiling beyond the steady role player that he already is. Luckily, there are fascinating glimpses into a player that could be much more valuable to the Suns than he is right now.
In almost every game now, Cam Johnson surprises us with a new trick.
Against the Lakers, it was this devastating dunk on the heads of both Anthony Davis and JaVale McGee.
This was just Cam’s seventh dunk of the season, and while it’s a rare sight, it also serves as an indictment of the idea that he is held back by lack of burst. Taking off from well outside of the restricted area to posterize not one but two of the NBA’s premier rim protectors takes a decent amount of athleticism, if you ask me.
“The dunk that he had was a huge marker for me because it gave me the confidence that he’s going to go to the basket with some purpose and he’s not afraid,” head coach Monty Williams said. “There was no intimidation at all.”
In fact, the stats paint Cam as a relatively effective finisher this season. He’s shooting 47 percent on all drives, ranking fourth on the Suns’ roster behind Devin Booker, Kelly Oubre Jr. and Frank Kaminsky.
But he only drives 0.9 times per game, and that number needs to increase drastically if he ever hopes to develop beyond the spot-up shooter role. For reference, even bigs like Kaminsky and Saric drive twice as often as that.
A couple days after the Lakers game, Johnson churned out another solid 9-point performance against Golden State. While he didn’t take over, it was this play that truly stood out.
Once again, a certain baseline of athleticism is needed to execute this. Johnson’s agility is on display as he generates the switch, fills the lane, and then pops back out to hit a step back 3 all in the span of a few seconds.
“Obviously, he can shoot the ball, but I’m starting to see a rhythm in his game, the kind of rhythm he had before he hurt himself in the New York game,” Williams said. “He was starting to play in different areas, not just shooting the ball but slashing, making plays off the dribble.”
This should come as no surprise to those who watched Cam at UNC, but he is no stand-still shooter. He can be lethal when moving off screens:
And yet, Cam’s off-ball movement has been underutilized as a rookie. These types of off-screen plays account for only 8.9 percent of his possessions, per NBA.com, whereas more simple spot-up plays without movement account for 41% of his possessions.
Such a vast disparity between shots with and without movement is not always this evident in great shooters. Just to throw out one example, Indiana’s sharpshooter Doug McDermott sees 28 percent of his possessions come off screens. That doesn’t mean he’s averse to standing in a corner and spotting up, as spot-up opportunities still contribute another 21 percent of his offense.
But what it does mean is that Pacers Coach Nate McMillan has prioritized McDermott as a go-to weapon in his sets. The same can’t be said for how Monty is treating Cam Johnson. And this makes it very difficult for Cam to get up more than a handful of shots in a night, even if he plays 20-plus minutes.
Right now, Cam Johnson’s career high in points is 18. I believe he has a 20-point outburst in him coming soon, and if he’s used properly, perhaps several more before the season ends.
But it has to be a team effort. On Cam’s end, he needs to continue taking steps to improve as a proper triple threat. That means driving when given the ball in a handoff, at least enough to keep the defense honest, and moving decisively without the ball.
On the coaching staff’s part, they could be doing much more to give Cam opportunities to score. With Saric, Kaminsky and Baynes all still out, the Suns need Cam to score. Being cognizant of his limitations as a self-creator, that means employing bigs like Cheick Diallo and newly-acquired Jonah Bolden to help out in setting screens and opening him up as much as possible.
In two weeks, Johnson will turn 24 years old. Does that mean his ceiling is already capped, and that this would be a futile exercise in trying to make him something that he’s not? We simply don’t have the evidence to answer that question.
And we won’t, until the rookie is properly unleashed.