Tyler Johnson enters 1st full season in Phoenix back in his natural spot
FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. — Much has been made about the Phoenix Suns’ roster and how it better suits multiple players on it.
Devin Booker has the most help he’s had since elevating his game to a high level. Deandre Ayton has a pure point guard to work with. They both have an established NBA coach for the first time. There’s depth at multiple positions on the floor.
But one player that’s in a much better spot compared to last season, one that often gets forgotten because of how long he’s been in Phoenix and how he got here, is guard Tyler Johnson.
Johnson was acquired at the trade deadline in exchange for Ryan Anderson, a move that was made by the Suns primarily because Johnson’s $19.2 million expiring contract this season will be easier to move if they choose to.
The 27-year-old also gave them what they were sorely lacking as a competent ball-handler.
The issue is that Johnson has spent most of his NBA career playing both guard spots off the bench.
In Phoenix last season, he was inserted as the starting point guard for the Suns in 12 of his 13 games. Johnson was limited to 13 because he had knee surgery in April and missed the rest of the season.
Now, in comes Rubio, putting Johnson to the side in a lot of people’s heads when they think of the Suns.
But because Rubio is in, Johnson can get back to the default role he served for five seasons with the Miami Heat as a reserve combo guard.
“His comfort level is coming off the bench,” Suns head coach Monty Williams said Thursday of Johnson.
“That’s where he excelled.”
It’s difficult to realize from afar but there’s a certain nuance Johnson has to coming off the bench.
And it’s not exactly about when he comes in, it’s more about what he’s doing when he’s not playing, watching the first six or seven minutes of a game.
“Coming off the bench, it allows me to see how the defense was playing, feel the rhythm of the game (and) see where I could put my fingerprints on it,” he said Thursday.
Johnson got more specific about how that can help him.
“Pick-and-roll coverage, you can see what player is getting into what kind of rhythm,” he said. “So if you get into the game, what can you do to cut off this? We’re running a play and you see a read that we didn’t get to in that original five and you’re like, ‘OK, maybe now we read it a few times with that group (so) I can hit ’em with this.'”
And he’s coming off one of the seasons in his career where he learned the most being thrown into the starting point guard role.
“That time being a starter at the point really helped specifically,” Johnson said.
“It was tough, I won’t even lie to you. [Those] first couple of games [were] challenging.”
Again, it’s more complex than you’d first assume. It goes from where Johnson likes to be in transition to how he has to, all of a sudden, lead an entire team.
“One, I love to run the wing,” he said. “That’s one thing I’ve done since I’ve been a little kid.
“You had to come back into the ball. You gotta know where everybody is supposed to be at. Usually, when a play breaks down, they’re looking (at the point guard for help). It taught me a lot of accountability more than anything. Understanding not just my position, but multiple positions on the floor, multiple reads out of plays and doing it for a whole game.”
Johnson said he has a lot more respect for the position itself now, and that obviously gave him a new experience at being a leader.
Plus, the difference with Johnson is that he’s a different type of voice for the Suns.
He came off the bench in high school. He wasn’t drafted out of Fresno State. He had to grind through “The Jungle,” what his old Heat teammates referred to as the G League, before carving out a real role and earning a $50 million extension.
“He understands the work and the grind,” Williams said.
That can go a long way for a team that’s in need of extra pieces to step up off the bench, and reliable ones at that.
Williams doesn’t sound like a coach who thinks he’ll have to worry if he’s getting good minutes from Johnson.
“I like Tyler because he’s solid,” he said. “He doesn’t make a lot of mistakes. He does a lot of stuff well. He can shoot it, he can pass it, he can play off the dribble, he defends his position, he rebounds.
“I think he understands the team.”