EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Suns done with potential in NBA Draft, reach on Johnson, acquire Jerome

Jun 20, 2019, 9:46 PM | Updated: Jun 21, 2019, 9:03 am
(AP Photo)(Getty Images)...
(AP Photo)(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Well, it looks like the Phoenix Suns are done talking about ceilings and whatnot!

The first true shocker of the 2019 NBA Draft was courtesy of the Suns, and usually when that happens in the draft, that’s a bad thing.

It sure was for Phoenix selecting 11th overall, reaching far and beyond for North Carolina forward Cameron Johnson.

The pick, of course, is there for the Suns and not sixth because they traded down five spots with the Minnesota Timberwolves for Jarrett Culver while picking up Dario Saric.

So, now and forever in eternity, the trade will be looked at as Culver for Saric and Johnson, and depending on Saric’s restricted free agency, potentially only one year of Saric.

That has an extremely high chance of being a disaster, and a lot of it has to do with who the Suns picked at No. 11.

Johnson is, in essence, a specialist.

His signature skill is his 3-point shot, and he offers little to nothing else as a plus-skill in the NBA.

At 6-foot-9, he weighs 205 pounds, so he’s really going to struggle on the glass and defending power forwards, and he’s not going to offer much resistance to small forwards, either.

Not much to tout off the dribble too, and his shiftiness as a defender doesn’t look good defending shooting guards, so the point here is I have no idea what position he plays.

Johnson shot over 45% from 3-point range on 5.8 attempts a night for the Tar Heels, a ridiculous level of efficiency on that quantity of attempts.

He’s letting that thing go on a moment’s notice.

Check out how Johnson, on the move, has to reach across his body to get this ball and he’s still able to effortlessly get into his shooting motion.

As you might expect for a 23-year-old, Johnson has enough floor sense and feel to make elementary passes and reads as a passer.

For more on Johnson’s pros and his potential as one of the steals in this class, read this excellent writeup from The Stepien’s Zach Milner on why Johnson is the best shooter in the class and how he can help in other parts of the floor.

But make no mistake, this is a reach.

ESPN was high on Johnson at No. 19 on their big board, The Athletic had Johnson ranked 27th and Sports Illustrated slotted him at 24.

If you need further evidence, Johnson was the first selection not among the 24 prospects invited to the green room.

The Suns had better prospects available in Brandon Clarke, P.J. Washington and Grant Williams as power forwards.

Beyond that, it’s a mystery as to where Johnson plays.

If the Suns really believe Johnson can provide value as a 2-3 combo, they’re going to have to be creative to even find him minutes as a small forward behind Mikal Bridges and the likely return of Kelly Oubre Jr., along with Devin Booker’s at shooting guard.

Yes, you need players like Johnson to space the floor for the likes of Deandre Ayton and Booker, but are you really using a lottery pick on a glorified Jon Leuer or Mirza Teletovic?

And to be clear, the Suns BETTER hope Johnson is at least as good as those guys because of where they picked him. If Johnson isn’t a great 3-point shooter from the jump, the majority of his value has tanked.

It’s strange, considering the clear value Clarke, Washington and Williams could provide as day-one minutes with upside to potentially replace Saric in their second season.

There’s a lot of reasons to be skeptical about Johnson doing that, because, well, he’s not even a power forward! They don’t have a spot to play him!

Suns general manager James Jones wasn’t done there, though, trading the protected first-round pick from the Eric Bledsoe trade with Milwaukee in exchange for Boston’s 24th selection to acquire Virginia guard Ty Jerome and center Aron Baynes.

Bringing in Jerome essentially lifts De’Anthony Melton and Elie Okobo up with the toy crane machine out of the Suns’ present and future. Otherwise, why bring in Jerome?

The soon-to-be 22-year-old gives the Suns what they could not get from Melton and Okobo: a ball-handler you trust to execute the offense.

Watch the first couple of clips in here from his March Madness highlights and you’ll see a guard who plays at his own speed and sees just about everything on the floor. I adore that kick-out to the shooter on the wing in the second clip.

For what all the point guards at the top of this class lacked, Jerome’s a far better passer in pick-and-roll situations than the likes of Darius Garland and Coby White.

Jerome can score and shoot too, with range on the jumper, and was a pesky defender for the Cavaliers to boot.

No doubt the dude can hoop, but he’s going to have to overcome the major hurdle of the NBA athleticism wall. Length, strength and speed from perimeter defenders are going to be a problem for him creating space, as it will be for him to contain on the other end.

The Suns are betting on him to climb over that wall, and I don’t mind it as a gamble on a low-ceiling prospect. If he does, you’ve got a heady, skilled combo guard who can play minutes with Booker or your future starting point guard because Jerome has size at 6-foot-6.

Phoenix wanted that over the high upside available in Nassir Little, Kevin Porter Jr. and Bol Bol, repeating a theme from the selection of Johnson.

The Suns clearly wanted proven, developed players in this draft that could shoot.

That’s what they got in Jerome and Johnson. But what they also got is two guys where a satisfactory outcome would be positive bench pieces playing 14-25 minutes a game.

Yes, there’s a chance either guy is a diamond in the rough as a future All-Star, but the Suns opted against the far higher potential that other names at those sports in the draft had and instead went conservative.

With what they have as a roster overall, that’s acceptable. Part of that matters, but so too does the value they punted on specifically with Johnson in the back-end of the lottery.

And now this puts a whole lot of pressure on Jerome and Johnson to positively contribute for the Suns sooner rather than later.

When the Suns are pursuing the playoffs in 2-3 years with Booker and Ayton leading the charge, they better have Jerome and Johnson alongside them filling in the gaps after doing so already as rookies, or the 2019 NBA Draft will be just as much of a failure like the potential grabs of 2016 and 2013.

Regardless of the success those two players have, though, Jones clearly entered the draft with the goal of penciling in a few spots on his depth chart and got that done.

His center rotation is now set, with Baynes backing up Ayton and providing some much-needed toughness that will surely test Ayton in practice as a respected veteran to the locker room.

Saric fills out most of the minutes at power forward, Johnson adds some on the wing and Jerome is now filling in minutes off the bench at guard.

Whether or not Jones got proper value on the night, he showed an ability to make moves and get things done when he needed to while adding the types of players he clearly covets.

But that shouldn’t shine over the fact that Jones sorely misvalued the selection of Johnson, traded one of the team’s few remaining real assets for a young backup guard and one year of a backup center and had to attach another one of those few assets to T.J. Warren to get rid of his contract.

Outside of getting Saric for a five-spot drop, it was a poor showing by Jones in his first draft as Suns GM.

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