Point guard or not? Either way, Tyler Johnson will start at PG for Suns
PHOENIX — Let’s apply the duck test to new Suns guard Tyler Johnson: If he looks like a point guard, walks like a point guard and sounds like a point guard, he’s probably a point guard.
Johnson is smaller than De’Anthony Melton, who at 6-foot-4 started 25 games as point guard for the Suns before a recent ankle injury.
By skill, Johnson is immediately the second-best ball-handler after Devin Booker, a player Phoenix might want to have the ball late in a shot-clock.
And he sure sounded like a point guard following his first light practice as a Sun on Thursday, even if he didn’t want to call himself one.
“I don’t really give myself a position,” Johnson said, who was traded from the Miami Heat to Phoenix along with Wayne Ellington’s contract in exchange for Ryan Anderson. “I can play either (guard spot) and I’m comfortable with it.”
Johnson is starting as the point guard Friday when Phoenix hosts the Golden State Warriors, co-interim GM James Jones told Burns & Gambo on 98.7 FM Arizona’s Sports Station.
“That’s the goal, that’s the plan,” Jones said Thursday.
But does Johnson do point guard things? He averages just more than three assists per 36 minutes this year and has an assist percentage (the rate of assists by him out of the total while he’s on the floor) of just 15 percent, less than half the rate of Booker’s 34 percent.
Being a point guard is also about tempo and pace, getting teammates in the right spots. That, Johnson said, is where he hopes to grow while taking on a different role with the Suns.
“Just continue to be who I am,” he added. “But also maybe a little bit more from a leadership standpoint, trying to accelerate some of the younger guys and teach them things I’ve been able to pick up.”
The 26-year-old enters Phoenix as the team’s most well-paid player, who will make $19.2 million this year and next, the latter of which is the final year of a $50 million contract signed in 2016.
An “unorthodox lefty,” in the words of Suns head coach Igor Kokoskov, Johnson can impact the game as a scorer off catch-and-shoot threes but also can attack the rim off the bounce.
But an underlying piece in the Suns’ interest in pursuing a trade for Johnson was his status as a “blue collar” professional, especially on the defensive end, Kokoskov said.
“He can definitely guard point guards, so, you are who you’re guarding. He can contain. He can really, really do a good job on any elite, offensively elite point guard in this league,” Kokoskov said before adding, “He is a point guard.
“He’s a two-way player. Being in Miami’s culture … you can’t survive if you’re not that kind of player.”
Johnson spoke to former Heat teammate Dwyane Wade following news of the trade that went down Wednesday. The future Hall of Famer told him that communication was key as he joins a young Suns team still searching for its point guard of the future.
For the time being, Johnson believes he can bring what the Suns need most. He wants to play defense and be a voice in his young teammates’ ears, a steadying force. He also wants to be himself.
“Just be confident. Get a lot of these guys talking and in the right places,” Johnson said.
Those sound like point guard things to say, even if by player profile Johnson is not one.
“Primarily, he’s a guy in his prime that fits a position of need for us and he’s had an opportunity to play some meaningful basketball. He’s played in the playoffs, he’s carried the load,” Jones told Burns & Gambo, calling Johnson a “combo guard.”
“He gives us an identity on the perimeter. Another ball-handler that can compete on both ends of the floor.”
After a non-contact practice Thursday, Kokoskov ran Johnson through simplified sets to get him comfortable running the offense from the point. His familiarity in the offense could take some time, but the Suns coach believes Johnson will make an immediate impact defensively.
“Winning DNA. We know he’s very well-known throughout the league. The way he built his name in this league, really starting from scratch,” Kokoskov said of the undrafted player who earned his big pay-day after a breakout 2015-16 season. “We’re thrilled to have him.”
Who joins him on the court Friday remains to be seen. Booker (hamstring) is questionable while Melton (ankle) and forward T.J. Warren (ankle) are out. All three participated in the light practice.