Suns building blocks: Cam Johnson filling in the gaps on both ends

Jul 24, 2019, 3:16 PM | Updated: 7:42 pm
Cameron Johnson #13 of the North Carolina Tar Heels works towards the basket in the first half agai...
Cameron Johnson #13 of the North Carolina Tar Heels works towards the basket in the first half against the Virginia Cavaliers during the championship game of the 2018 ACC Men's Basketball Tournament at Barclays Center on March 10, 2018 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City. (Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images)
(Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images)

The Phoenix Suns will exit the 2019 offseason with their young core clear. While some pieces are more proven than others, Deandre Ayton, Mikal Bridges, Devin Booker, Cameron Johnson and Kelly Oubre Jr. are all under the age of 24 and will shape how the next three years go for Phoenix as it leaves the rebuilding phase.

Empire of the Suns will take a look at key areas of improvement for each young piece, now analyzing the team’s top selection in the 2019 NBA Draft.

Cam Johnson arrives in the Valley with an NBA-ready skill from the jump.

Of his 210 three-point attempts last year, 162 were from NBA range and Johnson made 46.3% of them, per The Stepien. That is extremely impressive.

Somehow, it sticks out even more when you see him shoot. He’s got such high-level shooting mechanics that he can both get it off in a hurry on the fly or run off screens in more pre-orchestrated motions.

Both of those skills you can see in back-to-back makes below.

Yup, that’s going to translate. No need to dwell on it any further.

But to stay on the floor, the ultimate dilemma with Johnson will be who he guards.

The Suns see Johnson as a wing big enough to guard 4s, versatile enough to defend 3s and quick enough to check 2s. Others see someone too weak and slow for all three spots. The latter is why Johnson was widely regarded as a late first-round pick despite the shooting prowess.

It’s telling that against Duke, Johnson was not guarding R.J. Barrett or Zion Williamson, but instead the Blue Devils’ floor spacers. A lottery pick on the wing being hidden from matching up with either in college is a red flag.

Sometimes that had Johnson on Cam Reddish, and Reddish had success.

Johnson’s agility with the smaller ranges of motion defensively leave a lot to be desired.

It’s tough for him to get around the screen here for Kyle Guy and it’s also a weak reaction to contest a shot after the pass to De’Andre Hunter.

If you pause the video when Hunter catches the ball, Johnson is just planting his left foot to burst back toward the shooter and close out with both feet still in the key.

This is a much better job here sticking on Reddish but a second jab step ruins him.

This is going to present Monty Williams a challenge in finding the right matchups to use Johnson as a rookie if he chooses to do so.

And even in situations where Williams will want to “hide” Johnson on defense, there are alarms sounding with him off the ball.

Johnson has a tendency to over-help by virtue of getting locked in on the ball when it’s close by, and he isn’t quick enough to recover from the missteps.

Here, Johnson makes a judgment call to help cut off Ty Jerome’s space, but he’s too far away to really do anything. He comes too far for Jerome, thus leaving Guy open.

We go back to Jerome here, as Johnson goes for a quick swipe of the ball while Guy cuts backdoor on him.

Sometimes it’s not over-help and just falling asleep a bit.

Johnson doesn’t necessarily lose Reddish here but fails to see Marques Bolden, who himself suddenly realizes he’s going to be able to set a screen here because Johnson ran right into him.

And once again, Johnson on the bottom of the screen is sucked in on the ball too much and doesn’t keep the right amount of distance between himself and Reddish.

All of this isn’t to discount Johnson’s work ethic on that end. He tries and is engaged.

Building off that and eliminating the bad habits defensively is going to be what swings his playing time as a rookie and his overall effectiveness going forward.

There’s also the chance Johnson expands his overall offensive game. He was nothing much beyond a shooter and line-drive slasher for the Tar Heels but that second skill being something in the NBA would be huge.

To continue off where there’s optimism for defensive improvement, Johnson can get physical and showed it on the transition finish above and with this tough drive on a smaller guard below.

As you can see, once Johnson gets past his first and second step, dude has a bit of speed and he consistently shows that in transition too.

He loves to fill lanes and really digs in to get up the floor. He’s surprisingly good at finishing at odd angles with contact, as you can see.

Johnson shot 73.3% at the rim as a senior, per Hoop-Math. Where one sees darkness at those shots being just 21.5% of his total attempts, another sees light in only 43.9% of his makes at the rim being assisted.

No, Johnson won’t be creating his own offense anytime soon. The rookie, though, would help himself out plenty if there turned out to be some nice accents to his scoring.

Sure, maybe it’s only cuts to the basket, transition looks and attacking aggressive closeouts, but that combined with his high basketball IQ padding his 2.3 assists per game in his last two seasons add up to some offensive equity beyond strictly being “just a shooter.” That’s the hope for the 23-year-old.

His defense will swing his minutes in the NBA.

Even as a limited defender on-ball, Johnson cleaning up his off-the-ball mistakes would go a long way in keeping a certified sniper on the floor to have defenses stretched out for Booker and Ayton.

If enough of Johnson’s game is shaded in beyond the shooting, the Suns got the right guy at No. 11 and a unique weapon on the wing.

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Suns building blocks: Cam Johnson filling in the gaps on both ends