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Cam Johnson adding new dynamic to Suns’ starting lineup in Orlando

Washington Wizards forward Rui Hachimura (8) battles for the ball with Phoenix Suns forward Cameron Johnson (23) during the second half of an NBA basketball game Friday, July 31, 2020, in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. (Kim Klement/Pool Photo via AP)

While it’s been out of necessity more than anything else, the Phoenix Suns have added something new and fresh to their starting lineup.

Kelly Oubre Jr. is still rehabbing his right knee so that’s got Mikal Bridges in his place already. And when Dario Saric missed the team’s final scrimmage due to an ankle injury, there wasn’t really any other way for head coach Monty Williams to go with the other forward spot than rookie Cam Johnson.

In a win over the Toronto Raptors for that scrimmage, Williams liked what he saw enough to stick with Johnson in the starting lineup, and it’s paying off through the Suns’ first two games.

Johnson had his first career double-double in Sunday’s win with 19 points and 12 rebounds, following 12 points in Friday’s victory.

There’s an obvious positive to the Suns adding their best three-point shooter to the lineup. Johnson on the year now is shooting 40.0% on 4.7 attempts per game, which jumps to 8.1 per 36 minutes.

“It certainly helps spacing,” Williams said.

The way All-Star shooting guard Devin Booker has always broken down the way defenses cover him is about the decisions they make.

Most of the time, the decision they have made with him and Deandre Ayton is to contain them as much as possible. If it’s helping off one of the other three guys, whatever. That’s fine.

But what about when it’s a shooter like Johnson?

“When you’re out there with them, that’s just what you got to do,” Johnson said of Booker and Ricky Rubio’s ability to find him. “You gotta be ready for them to make those passes and they’ll get it to you.

“They do a really good job of drawing a lot of (the) defense so my job is just to be ready for that.”

Booker has been making that specific type of pass for multiple seasons now, and it’s easier for him to create now with Dallas’ Dorian Finney-Smith feeling the need to go and tag Ayton.

That’s too much time away from Johnson.

“When you have a rim threat like Deandre and a shooter in the corner like Cam — that’s what the NBA is. You have to make a decision,” Booker said. “The way Cam’s shooting the ball, I think teams are going to realize that’s a decision they can’t make.”

And that’s where things really get interesting for the Suns is when they use that decision against opposing defenses.

This set below gives Booker a double ball screen to get himself to the left side of the floor while Ayton rolls. Because Ayton’s rolling and it’s Johnson in the strong corner, that’s open real estate for Booker to do his usual mid-range business.

Pretend Rui Hachimura in this next example is an engaged defender and there’s still nothing he can do to step in on Booker’s path or even swipe at it, because if he does, Johnson’s getting a clean look.

It gets fun for Williams when he starts to use Johnson in the motions of the offense.

Watch Johnson here.

It’s essentially Booker screening for Johnson before Johnson screens for Booker before Johnson releases to the top of the key as Ayton rolls, tricking Johnson’s defender into helping on Ayton for a split-second.

But the result also isn’t bad in creating space off the dribble for your best player.

“Having Cam at the 4 — him and Mikal (Bridges) being interchangeable at that position just gives us a lot of space out there,” Booker said.

In 61 minutes now over 13 games, that five has outscored teams by 27 points, good for a 14.6 net rating.

It’s working, and working well. But for Williams, this sounds like a late-season tweak to get Johnson what he needs more than anything else.

“The most important thing is Cam is developing,” Williams said. “He’s growing, he’s getting experience.

“You can tell people what it’s like to go to Antarctica and how cold it is but until they go they really don’t know. Until you experience it, you just don’t know it. He’s gotta go through this.”

With that, Johnson has picked up the pace of the game considerably more since the start of the season.

“Figuring out where my shots will come from and how to get established in the flow and the rhythm of the game is another thing that comes and I think that’s starting to come along for me,” he said.

You can see it through takes off quick actions like this.

And this.

Johnson’s improvement defensively since the draft has been significant, substantial enough to make him reliable as a rookie wing.

He clearly worked to not only make it more of a focus mentally, but physically as well.

Beyond being more attentive and locked in than he was at North Carolina, he’s clearly gotten quicker laterally and with his first step.

Tuesday’s game against the Los Angeles Clippers will be a true test, as Johnson will be guarding one of Marcus Morris, Paul George or Kawhi Leonard.

That’s why Williams has got him out there.

“I believe he gives us a chance to win but I also feel the need to develop his game and develop his mind in these moments and in these experiences,” he said.


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