EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Cam Johnson’s constant improvement brings on career-best spurt for Suns

Dec 18, 2021, 5:05 PM
Cameron Johnson #23 of the Phoenix Suns attempts a three-point shot over Jeff Green #32 of the Denv...
Cameron Johnson #23 of the Phoenix Suns attempts a three-point shot over Jeff Green #32 of the Denver Nuggets during the second half of the NBA game at Footprint Center on October 20, 2021 in Phoenix, Arizona. The Nuggets defeated the Suns 110-98. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
(Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

PHOENIX — The Phoenix Suns’ whole roster will go through shooting drills after a practice or shootaround.

Third-year forward Cam Johnson this year shoots alongside Mikal Bridges and Elfrid Payton. With each guy taking turns from one of the main five spots beyond the arc, Johnson on Saturday missed a few and looked frustrated by it. That alone made it clear he was probably going to spend even more time shooting on his own.

Indeed he did, going over a half-hour extra after already logging his extra reps.

This is not a special thing on this team. As I type this, Payton is taking 3s right in front of me, becoming the holder of this year’s Jevon Carter Award for the last guy typically off the court.

But Johnson’s work ethic sticks out even around a group full of great ones. It’s a big reason why he’s having the best stretch of his NBA career over the past couple weeks while Devin Booker (left hamstring strain) gets healthy.

In the seven games Booker has sat, Johnson is the Suns’ second-leading scorer with 14.6 points per game off the bench and is shooting a blazing 45.8% from three-point range. He has scored in double figures for eight straight outings, a streak he was unable to get above three prior to this season.

“Ball’s going down a little bit more but it’s the same work that we put in for the last three years,” Johnson said of it on Thursday. “You know how it go: sometimes you’re hot, sometimes you’re not. You gotta keep shootin’ ’em.”

That’s something his teammates are on him about all the time.

Johnson is an excellent shooter that needs barely any space and time to still get off what you would consider a good look. That was abundantly clear in college and has translated directly to the pros.

As you would expect, Chris Paul never gets off Johnson about shooting. The main example Paul provides to Johnson is quick swings to the corner when his teammates expect him to shoot, and Paul’s main point is that his teammates are positioning themselves to prepare for a shot.

Paul, who has played with a lot of shooters over his 16 years in the NBA, said Johnson is one of the best he’s ever had alongside him.

“Everybody on our team is gonna be pissed if he don’t shoot the ball because he is seriously one of the best shooters in this league,” Paul said.

Johnson’s had that shoot-first mentality for a while now, even through stretches like the start of this season when 13 games in he was clocking in at 32.2% from deep. He said he played up in age groups a lot growing up, so as the smaller kid on the court, he’d often be in the corner taking 3s.

He’s been used to the whole deal of being a shooter.

“You go through the cycles enough … Talking about being a guy who has a large portion of his points from 3, you learn to understand sometimes they go sometimes they don’t,” Johnson said Thursday. “But the nature of the game (is) you gotta keep going. You gotta stay with the work and you gotta keep shooting them. I’ve had a lot of coaches over the years that have instilled that in me, and been on me even when I’ve been more tentative to shoot after a couple didn’t go.

“And it’s nice to be in a situation at this level where you have coaches and teammates that encourage you to keep doing it.”

For the whole season now, Johnson is shooting a career-best 41.2% at range after registering 39.0% his rookie year and 34.9% last season. That downtick in Year 2 can be attributed some to a nagging wrist injury and a spell under the league’s health and safety protocols, but it’s not terribly uncommon for prolific shooters to take a bit to find their footing in the league.

Looking at forwards in the last two decades to average at least two three-point attempts per game over their careers and to reach Johnson’s 145 career games, only 15 have a career three-point percentage at 40% or above, per Basketball-Reference.

And a handful of them took some time to get there.

Utah’s Joe Ingles with a career mark of 41.4% was at 36.3% in his first two seasons. Going back a generation, Kings legend Peja Stojakovic (career 40.1 3P%) was at 35.3% two years in and Suns general manager James Jones (career 40.1 3P%) through four seasons was at 38.5% before breaking 40% in four of his next five.

To go back to Johnson’s work ethic, one head coach Monty Williams said Saturday he thinks the forward deserves more credit for, Johnson’s also gone through multiple changes to his body.

Johnson’s physical transformation has been apparent for me personally as someone who spent a year-and-a-half talking to him from afar or over Zoom before getting back up close this season.

Johnson’s shoulders have filled out and he’s a legitimate stocky athlete now that possesses clear physical strength in both his upper and lower body.

He weighed in at 205 pounds in the 2019 NBA Draft Combine and said Saturday he’s up to 221. Johnson took advantage of the quarantine time during the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, because he could simply focus on just lifting weights as opposed to being in the highest level of basketball shape.

Johnson arrived at the University of Pittsburgh having never played the 3 and briefly forayed into the 4 in the last year of his college career at North Carolina.

While he can still play the two-spot and has more than proven he can defend those guys, Johnson’s optimal spot in the NBA has been as a 3/4, so he developed his body for that.

Johnson has maintained that process while still embarking on an eight-year journey of trouble with his hips. He had two hip surgeries done with the Tar Heels back in 2018 to help correct some issues he had been dealing with all the way back to high school.

He’s been doing rehab work over all that time and said that it is still an ongoing period of “tying up loose ends.”

Johnson co-signed the point of there being a mutual understanding between him and the Suns training staff when he was acquired by Phoenix, putting an emphasis on making those joints and the areas around them stronger.

He said he’s still seeing month-to-month improvement when he does that extra work, including exercises he performs himself at home.

“There’s a lot of things that I do for them and it’s just that natural progression, that buildup of five, six years of it,” Johnson said of his focus on his hips.

Johnson, as you would assume, has been able to pick up more from the best of the best athletic trainers that an NBA team has on its staff. He’s grasped an even better understanding from them on how to keep continuing this improvement and the solid state his hips are in.

“Those things are maybe the biggest, in taking those lessons and learning how to continue to build from those,” Johnson said.

On the topic of growth, we should absolutely spotlight his defense before we go.

I will dump the bucket of cold water on my big dumb head myself as someone who had concerns about Johnson’s defensive ability in the pre-draft process, and boy is he proving the doubters wrong.

He is legitimately one of the best defenders and athletes on the team, covering three positions confidently, now possessing that strength to scale up to bigger covers on the wing and looks the part of someone who really worked on lateral quickness, too.

Johnson has figured out the nuances of positioning and moving his feet, which is where I should mention that Paul said Johnson is arguably the smartest player on the team. For the Point God, one of basketball’s greatest minds ever, to say that. Sheesh.

Look at how confidently Johnson navigates this on-ball possession while maintaining aggression, a necessary combination when switching onto Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry.

 

We saw on the NBA’s grandest stage, the NBA Finals, how quickly Johnson can swing games because of his two-way skill despite playing a role in which he’s rarely on the ball.

Williams has been calling Johnson “a starter in this league” since last season, and it’s a pretty remarkable luxury for the Suns to have one of those off the bench under an immensely valuable position group like wings.

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