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Suns swingman Cameron Johnson was a top-10 NBA rookie by many measures

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Johnson was a surprise pick at No. 11 overall by the Suns, but proved as a rookie he can perform at a high level.

Toronto Raptors v Phoenix Suns Photo by Barry Gossage/NBAE via Getty Images

Remember when the Suns got terrible grades for taking a 23-year-old with the 11th pick in the 2019 NBA Draft — the oldest player taken that high since James Naismith was alive, or something to that effect?

Me too.

Suns general manager James Jones shocked the basketball world by taking Cameron Johnson out of North Carolina at No. 11, ahead of many other prospects that the collective preferred instead. On some of those prospects, the collective was absolutely right, and on some, they were way off.

But after about 65 games for the 2019-20 rookie class, it looks like the Suns got pretty good value with the 11th pick.

We probably should have guessed that a 6’9” pure shooter with a lightning quick yet consistent catch-and-release trigger, a player who is smart and agile enough to contribute to good team defense and long enough to spot time at power forward would be good in the league.

Check out that beautiful stroke in these highlights.

And Cameron Johnson was good as a rookie, though he still showed a penchant for nagging injuries (thigh, ankle, mononucleosis).

Here are Cam’s ranks among his rookie peers:

  • 3rd in three-point percentage (of those with 100+ minutes played)
  • 5th in three pointers made per game (7th in attempts)
  • 6th in VORP (Value Above Replacement Player)
  • 7th in Win Shares per 48 minutes (100+ minutes played)
  • 9th in total Win Shares for the season
  • 9th in BPM (Box Plus-Minus)
  • 16th in total minutes played

If Cam makes an All-Rookie team, it’s because of those statistics.

If he doesn’t make an All-Rookie team, it’s partly due to talent ahead of him on the depth chart keeping him at only 20 minutes per game, and partly due to nagging injuries causing him to miss 16 of the Suns’ 65 games.

His raw numbers are not eye-popping (8.1 points, 2.9 rebounds, 1.1 assists in 20.3 minutes per game), another factor likely to keep him off the All-Rookie teams just like he was left off the Rising Stars Challenge on All-Star weekend.

But at least we know now that Cameron Johnson was a legitimate pick in the late lottery.

This week, one ESPN podcast did a 2019 re-draft with Mike Schmitz and Kevin Pelton taking turns through the lottery. As you remember, the Suns traded down from the sixth pick to the 11th, then took a player in Cameron Johnson that appeared to be a major overdraft. Johnson had been ranked and mock-drafted more in the late teens to early 20s (and some teams reportedly red-flagged his hips).

Pelton and Schmitz still think Minnesota made a good move to jump to No. 6 from 11 at the cost of a year of Dario Saric, but they wouldn’t take anyone at No. 6 who was mocked in that range on draft day. Instead, they reached into their well-informed bag of hindsight for Tyler Herro.

By the time they got to the 11th pick, at least four of the actual draft’s top 10 were still on the board at 11.

De’Andre Hunter (4th), Jarrett Culver (6th), Jaxson Hayes (8th) and Rui Hachimura (9th) were still on the board at 11 of the redraft. For Pelton, even Darius Garland (5th) would still be waiting in the green room.

In their places, Pelton and Schmitz took the likes of Tyler Herro (originally 13th), Sekou Duombouya (15th), Matisse Thybulle (20th) and Brandon Clarke (21) among the top 10.

At 11, Schmitz took Kevin Porter Jr. at 11 for the Suns (he went 30th in the real draft).

But ESPN’s Kevin Pelton had this to say about Cam: “I have Cameron Johnson like 10th, not factoring in need at all. The Suns may have the last laugh here.”

As you can see above, Johnson ranks in the top 10 of the draft class in many shooting and advanced metrics. He has even passable on defense as well.

“I still feel like they could have traded down a few spots and still gotten [Cam],” Pelton continued. “But that pick is looking much more reasonable with his shooting ability in a class that is so devoid of it.”

The Suns (rightly!) took a lot of flack for their relatively lackluster scouting efforts last year ahead of the draft, settling on a pair of players from teams that had taken deep runs in the widely publicized NCAA tournament.

Jones and company eschewed the potential of getting caught up in measurables and upside from 18-year-olds, instead focusing on players more physically and emotionally mature who didn’t need a lot of grainy video review to prove their worth on a basketball court.

Did the Suns take the absolute right player at 11? Probably not. Brandon Clarke, who also is older and had a deep tourney run, would have fit a great need as well and could have a higher NBA upside than Cam. Tyler Herro could have been the long term answer as Booker’s backup or back court partner.

But they did take a player in the late lottery who likely will have a 10-15 year NBA career in the mold of James Jones himself as a guy who can shoot no matter what. Guys like Jones, and Kyle Korver and JJ Redick can play as long as they want to play.

Ironically, Jones and company may have to give pointers to all the other NBA execs who now have to do the virtual scouting the Suns adopted a year ago.

“This may be the most studied draft via video of all time,” Brian Windhorst says of the 2020 Draft process amid the coronavirus concerns.

Teams are not allowed to see players in person this summer, instead having to focus on film and Zoom interviews to decide which players to give millions of dollars next year.

Jones and co. are already veterans of that scouting model.