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In Review: Cameron Johnson’s Evolution

Phoenix Suns forward Cam Johnson has been one of the most consistent Suns of late. How much can he still grow?

Phoenix Suns v Charlotte Hornets Photo by Jacob Kupferman/Getty Images

I’ve been feeling extra thankful for Cam Johnson amidst his recent hot stretch.

This gratitude has me in a reflective mood, going as far back as his draft night, when I had my heart set on Jarrett Culver, combo guard from then-national championship participant Texas Tech, at #6 for the Phoenix Suns.

Culver was there for the taking at #6 once the Suns were on the board, and they took him! …And then proceeded to trade him to the Minnesota Timberwolves for Dario Saric and pick #11, which would then be used to take Johnson, prompting this viral reaction from his North Carolina teammate Coby White, who was taken at #7 by the Chicago Bulls:

While White knew Johnson was the right pick even then, it seemed like every talking head or opinionated Twitter account was quick to judge and doubt James Jones, who was drafting on his own for the first time.

I was disappointed the Suns didn’t pick my guy, but I recognized the value that Jones saw in bringing both Saric and Johnson, who would eventually grow very close together, especially during the bubble.

It feels so sudden, then, that Johnson is blossoming into one of the best shooters in the NBA. Here’s some context to tell the full story behind how awesome his recent stretch has been (as of the morning of Jan. 11, since Johnson was ruled out for the game that night with an ankle injury):

  • 19 games in a row of double-digit points – longer than Jayson Tatum (16), Deandre Ayton (16), and Rudy Gobert (14).
  • Longest active streak of 2+ made three-pointers (22) – 2nd: Fred VanVleet (13), 3rd: Seth Curry (9)

As sudden as it feels, in all actuality, it happened in baby steps. So I’ve gone back to look at his season-high point total from each season so far to see how his production has been changing as he grows and develops.

Year 1: Mar. 3, 2020 vs Toronto Raptors (114-123 loss):

21 points (2-3 2P, 5-13 3P, 2-2 FT), 4 rebounds, 2 assists, 1 steal, 3 blocks in 33 min (+3 in 9-point loss)

This game represents a part of our lives I’m sure many of us would like to go back to, having taken place mere days before the NBA’s initial Covid stoppage. It was way, way back in time, even before the 8-0 bubble run and before the Chris Paul era in Phoenix began.

As such, Johnson had much less free reign in the offense than he does now, and that’s evidenced in the three total dribbles he took over his seven total made baskets. Here’s the drive that saw two of those dribbles:

Each one of his five three-pointers came after stationary catches, something defenses won’t allow him to do very often at the current point in Johnson’s career:

But, even back then, he showed his high upside on the defensive end, sticking with guys on drives and contesting the shot at the highest point:

Year 2: Dec. 27, 2020 @ Sacramento Kings (116-100 win):

21 points (4-5 2P, 3-4 3P, 4-4 FT), 1 rebound, 1 assist, 1 steal in 21 min (+25 in a 16-point win)

In this game we start to see more of the independent actions from Johnson that give a lot of hope for where his ceiling can end up. That takes the form of side-steps off the catch:

…as well as attacking close-outs with mid-range pull-up’s:

…and even a (mostly) live-dribble assist:

…and finally, an and-one drive to the rim through contact:

He still showed improvements in the ancillary scoring as well, like a cut to the rim out of a high give-and-go with an assist from Paul:

Year 3: Jan. 6, 2022 vs LA Clippers (106-89 win):

24 points (5-7 2P, 4-7 3P, 2-2 FT), 7 rebounds, 1 assist, 1 steal, 2 blocks in 35 min (+2 in 17-point win)

Kickin’ this one off with a bang, here’s Johnson operating as a pick-and-roll ball handler, something I’d love to see more of from both Johnson and fellow wing — and, affectionately his “twin” — Mikal Bridges. This possession ends with a beautiful stop-and-pop from the free throw line:

We also get to see some “Johnson off movement” here with a beautiful high pick-and-pop from Paul:

Movement shooting is critical for these sniping wings because it opens up so many more ways to get Johnson open as well as gives him inherent momentum to be able to attack close-outs more aggressively when he chooses. That can be seen further with this curl play to get him open in the corner:

He’s also able to use some on-ball craftiness to catch near the elbow and get to the rim from there:

The added confidence over the years was also on display in this game, opening up a better finishing game. I don’t believe rookie year Johnson would’ve finished this play off as cleanly as he does here:

Initial scouts as Johnson was coming out of North Carolina may be shocked that his growth curve has been as steep as it is, but that’s a critical flaw in tracking those curves. Here’s the way I like to think of it:

Rather than coming out into the draft as a fifth-year senior who’s already 23 years old by draft night, I like to think of him as a sophomore who’s 20. This growth curve for a 20-year old wouldn’t be so shocking.

The reason I think of it that way is that he spent his first three collegiate seasons at Pittsburgh, which is not a good development context for NBA hopefuls; Lamar Patterson (48th) was the last drafted Pittsburgh player in 2014.

So I start Johnson’s development track once he got to North Carolina, an obviously much better context, and that makes the steep curve he’s had at Phoenix make more sense – it’s also noteworthy for me, a draft analyst as well, to remember going forward with similar “older” prospects.

Keeping that newly decided curve in mind helps us be imaginative when trying to project Johnson’s prime, as the talks around a potential contract extension are heating up.

This summer, Johnson will be in the same contractual position as Ayton and Bridges both were a summer ago, where the Suns can extend him beyond his rookie deal if they so choose.

Odds are a new deal right now would look something like the deal Bridges got – four fully guaranteed years, totaling $90 million; an average of $22.5 million per year. Johnson would probably slot in a notch or two below to be closer to four years worth $75~$80 million, but if this production continues to be this high and this consistent, he could creep that number up higher.

Ideally for Phoenix, they’d want him to become a more frequent on-ball creator once they reach that extension, especially by the time Paul (under contract through summer 2025) is gone. The poise that Johnson shows in pick-and-roll handling situations as well as his general shot versatility give me plenty reason to believe he’ll be worth every penny and even more of a potential extension.

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