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Hollinger: James Jones was right, Cam Johnson was worth that 6th overall pick

The draft experts are starting to realize that Cam Johnson’s future is bigger than his fro.

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NBA: Charlotte Hornets at Phoenix Suns Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

My my my, what a world we live in that hot takes and exhaustively researched prediction models actually might not always (or often) be right.

Remember when Suns rookie GM James Jones was panned for doing very little college scouting? Remember how the whole Suns scouting department was laid off along with Ryan McDonough in the fall of 2018 and never replaced?

Remember how draft analysts, both professional and amateur, made fun of Jones’ comments that scouts don’t always have to sit year round in tiny, hot, remote gyms to find the best players, but that his small team’s scouting efforts would rely on a virtual scouting model of online research? How we laughed at Jones’ plan to watch the same YouTube highlight videos and NCAA tourney coverage on CBS (he wasn’t)?

And then — /scratching our heads/ — he trades down from the perfect No. 6 overall draft slot that could have netted combo guard future star Jarrett Culver.

And then, OMG THEN — /clutching our pearls/ — at No. 11 he doesn’t even take the next best available prospect in Brandon Clarke!!!

Instead that rookie no-nothing GM takes some dude no one even heard of, or thought about taking in the lottery, at No. 11 overall.

When Adam Silver announced to the world’s dismay that the Suns had picked Cameron Johnson, a fifth-year senior 23 year old from North Carolina, with the 11th overall pick in the 2019 Draft, the internet melted.

“Woooowwwww!” indeed, in young teammate Coby White’s own words when he found out the news in real-time during his own press conference.

Suns Twitter imploded. National media snickered. James Jones was the butt of jokes for months.

Fast forward 12 months, just before the Bubble last May 2020. National draft experts sought to fill the content void with a re-hash of the 2019 Draft. At that point, there was some grudging respect for the Cam pick. ESPN’s Kevin Pelton and Zach Lowe debated whether Johnson really was worth the 11th pick overall after all, and soft-agreed that he probably was worth it but was still just outside the range of the 10-man All-Rookie team.

Even still, Lowe and Pelton and others from around the globe still made sure to inject jokes for not taking anyone better at 11 or all the way back at 6. At the same time they mocked him for thinking Dario Saric was worth the 5-pick trade down.

Fast forward another 10 months and... well well well.

John Hollinger, currently with The Athletic and formerly with the Memphis Grizzlies for seven years and before that the ESPN NBA insider guru, now has some crow on his plate.

He posted an article today re-drafting the 2019 Draft and guess who he actually has at No. 6 overall?

6. Cameron Johnson, Phoenix (actual pick: 11th): Well, isn’t that ironic. Phoenix originally had the sixth pick in this draft but traded back to 11 and selected Johnson, a pick that was hugely panned at the time due to his advanced age for a lottery pick. (Johnson turns 25 this week. He played against Yogi Ferrell, Malcolm Brogdon and Brice Johnson in college. He’s two years older than Jayson Tatum. He owns and uses a land-line phone, writes hand-written letters and does all his banking in-person.)

Historically, drafting older players usually hasn’t ended well, but the 2019 draft is turning out to be an anomaly: It’s already clear this was an amazing draft for old guys, starting with Hunter above and continuing to several undrafted players. Johnson is a sweet shooter at both forward spots who moves well on D and figures to be long-term piece as a fourth or fifth starter, while the medical questions about him entering the draft haven’t cropped up as a problem.

The only guys ahead of Cam on Hollinger’s board are the actual, original top four (Zion, Ja, R.J. Barrett and De’Andre Hunter) and another post-draft surprise in Keldon Johnson, who was taken 29th by the Spurs.

Guess who’s behind our own Cam Johnson?

7. Brandon Clarke, Memphis (actual pick: 23rd): More old guys! An undersized, non-shooting 23-year-old big normally isn’t going to make an impact upon NBA arrival, but little about Clarke is normal. His Shawn Marion-esque athletic pop and unusually proficient floater game have enabled him to thrive despite lacking the traditional tools of a modern big. Clarke could arguably rank higher, actually. He was clearly the third-best player in this draft as a rookie but hasn’t been quite as electric this season and has a lower positional value than the two Johnsons.

Note the last sentence in the Clarke write-up. Clarke this year is hitting 32% on 1.7 three-point attempts per game as the Grizzlies 5th-leading scorer (12.2 points per game). He’s definitely a good player and the Suns would be thrilled with him right now. But even Hollinger admits that Cam Johnson is just a little better.

Coby White, Cam’s former teammate, comes in ironically at 11th in the re-draft and Jarrett Culver did not make the Top 23, where Hollinger stopped.

Not making the cut

OK, if those are the players who would go in the top 20 (OK, top 23) in a redraft, what about the top-20 picks who didn’t make the cut? Where did we miss on them? Or better yet, what can they do to restore our previous faith in their ability? Let’s take a look:

Jarrett Culver (sixth pick) plays hard and is a solid defender with a good frame, but his inability to shoot straight is threatening to swallow up his career. Right now, he’s struggling to earn minutes for the league’s worst team. The Timberwolves weren’t alone on Culver; a lot of draft boards had him valued highly. The key evaluation takeaway was that Culver wasn’t such an overwhelming athlete that he could get minutes while struggling to make perimeter shots, and that should have slotted him lower on draft boards.

Maybe James Jones was right all along. He got panned for most of his deals in his first year, sometimes in uncomfortably weird ways, and yet those deals almost universally have worked to turn the 2nd worst team in a 30-team league to the 2nd-best in JUST EIGHTEEN MONTHS.

Maybe James Jones know how to build a team, and did all the right things to put that team together.

For that 6th overall pick, earned from suffering another bottom-feeding season of loss after loss after loss, he actually came away with the Cameron Johnson AND the 2021 league leader in net-plus-minus in Dario Saric.

The Solar Panel podcast team caught up with ESPN’s Bobby Marks this morning to discuss the dramatic change in perception of James Jones over these last two years. Bobby noted that this week-long break has given him and others a chance to sit back and digest the Suns fast start, and in Bobby’s case to give James Jones even MORE credit for building a really deep team that should be considered a contender. Watch for that pod later today on your podcast feeds and in the Solar Panel section on our home Bright Side page.

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