Tyler Johnson’s solid play doesn’t alleviate Suns’ long-term PG questions

Feb 6, 2019, 3:51 PM | Updated: 5:03 pm
Miami Heat's Tyler Johnson (8) drives past Cleveland Cavaliers' Collin Sexton (2) in the second hal...

Miami Heat's Tyler Johnson (8) drives past Cleveland Cavaliers' Collin Sexton (2) in the second half of an NBA basketball game, Friday, Jan. 25, 2019, in Cleveland. (AP Photo/Tony Dejak)

(AP Photo/Tony Dejak)

The Phoenix Suns acquired a ball-handler before the trade deadline. That, in and of itself, is a surprise given how long they didn’t address the need for another one after trading Brandon Knight on Aug. 31.

But they still need a point guard after getting Tyler Johnson from the Miami Heat in exchange for Ryan Anderson.

Johnson is a rock-solid NBA guard. He’s a fine third guard for a playoff team and a not-so-fine starting one on a bad team, thus where we land in Phoenix.

After the crafty and scrappy second-year guard emerged in Miami’s rotation in the 2015-16 season, Johnson was one of the many to benefit from the NBA’s spending spree during 2016 free agency. He signed a four-year, $50 million extension, back-ended with him making $19.2 million this year and a $19.2 million player option the year after he will surely accept.

In year one of that extension, Johnson was terrific, averaging 16.6 points, 4.8 rebounds, 3.9 assists and 1.4 steals per 36 minutes on 43.3 percent shooting from the field and 37.2 percent beyond the 3-point line.

Johnson, though, went from a Sixth Man of the Year candidate to regression last season. At 26 years old, it’s been a bit of a mystery in regards to how that has occurred.

Advanced statistics indicate a drop in performance beyond the eye test. His box plus-minus (1.5, -0.2 and -0.7), value over replacement player (1.9, 0.9 and 0.4) and win shares per 48 minutes (.128, .097 and .079) have dropped year-to-year during the contract.

But looking beyond that, Johnson is tough, athletic and shifty, as he becomes the Suns’ second-best ball-handler.

He’s shooting 65 percent at the rim this year, per Cleaning the Glass, and has been at or above 58 percent for the past four seasons. His efficiency at the rim this year is in the 85th percentile among combo guards, a terrific number.

As a lefty who shares characteristics with Kelly Oubre Jr., he will remind Suns fans of their favorite wing.

They both are not afraid of contact during drives and embrace it.

Johnson will mix in floaters when the space is there.

Where he doesn’t mess around much is beyond that range inside the three-point line.

Johnson only takes 7 percent of his shots from the long-mid-range zone, a very low mark for a combo.

That’s because Johnson has nearly half of his shots attempted from deep this year, 48 percent. That number rose dramatically last season from 28 percent to 43 percent and has taken another jump.

Johnson has been an above average to great shooter from 3-point range every season until this year. He’s shooting 35.3 percent this year as a career 36.7 percent shooter from that area.

He gets the ball out in a hurry, releasing quickly from his shooting pocket upon entry.

He’s not going to do it off the dribble. Only 0.2 of his 4.6 3-point attempts per game this year come on pull-ups, per NBA.com. When he does take pull-up jumpers, he’s shooting 29.8 percent on them this year, a terrifying number that indicates he should only be shooting at the rim or behind the 3-point line.

Bumping his 24 percent of field goal attempts at the rim this year into the 30s should be a priority.

Where Johnson struggles the most and why the trade has puzzled a lot of Suns fans is his playmaking and providing for others. His assist percentages have been poor across his entire career, with 14.9 percent this year ranking well below the average for combos, per Cleaning the Glass.

For his own scoring, too, Johnson is assisted on 76 percent of his makes, one of the worst numbers in terms of creation among combo guards in Cleaning the Glass’ database this year.

Defensively, Johnson is pesky enough to earn a two-way label.

He’s not going to change games on that end and once De’Anthony Melton gets more experience, Melton will likely be better.

To recap here, we’ve got a scoring combo guard who does well at the rim and from deep. He can’t run your offense on a consistent enough basis nor be a big-time impact defensively but he can be adequate in those areas.

Most importantly, he’s a reliable ball-handler to take some of that pressure off Melton, Devin Booker and Jamal Crawford.

Considering how Anderson was going to rot away on the end of the Suns’ bench until either his contract expired or he was waived, the deal is a win for Phoenix.

That, of course, is when you are able to zoom out and realize this isn’t the Suns’ short- or long-term answer at point guard.

Maybe Johnson figures it out in Phoenix, but even at his best level, he’s not what the Suns need. It’s unclear if starting him is even the best option at this point given the play and promise of Melton and Johnson’s past success off the bench.

What is clear is that he’s a ginormous upgrade over their current ball-handler options outside of Booker and Johnson’s natural position of a combo and shooting ability should help the offense flow more naturally when “Point Book” runs it.

Acquiring him does little to affect the Suns’ chances of acquiring that point guard. The Suns pay $3.6 million more next year for the price of a useful player and a huge expiring contract they can flip in bigger deals either this offseason or at this point next season.

It’s not the deal anyone wanted to see pop up on their phone Wednesday afternoon but that doesn’t mean it’s a bad one.

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