EMPIRE OF THE SUNS
Suns’ offseason questions: Cam Johnson has earned expensive extension
After the Phoenix Suns’ shocking end to the season, Empire of the Suns will roll through a number of questions the team has to answer this offseason.
We’ve covered ones involving Deandre Ayton, Devin Booker and Chris Paul. Now it’s the extension-eligible Cam Johnson.
Let’s play a little game of whittling down the NBA’s 500+ players that played this season into a select group.
I’m looking at wings that are at least 6-foot-6. That’s 216 players.
Now I’m going to add on playing in at least 30 games. We’re down to 154.
Ah, right, we are in the year 2022. These guys have to be able to shoot. I want at least three attempts from 3-point range per game. OK, now it’s 72.
But I need shooters the defense won’t sag off. What was the NBA league average for 3-point percentage this year? 35.4%. Got it. Forty remain.
Good enough. The offensive side of the ball is sorted. The other end needs to as well, and I can’t have a traditional power forward defensively in today’s NBA.
I’m still seeing some question marks defensively who snuck by our qualifications that aren’t really switchable defenders like Carmelo Anthony, John Collins, Danilo Gallinari, Kevin Love, Bobby Portis, P.J. Washington and Christian Wood. That’s seven more names off to get to 33.
And for the sake of what we’re discussing today, no No. 1 or 2 options. Looking more for glue guys and role players. Farewell Jaylen Brown, Kevin Durant, Paul George, Jerami Grant, LeBron James, Khris Middleton and Klay Thompson, attempters of at least 15 shots a night.
That’s 26 players in the NBA left thanks to the handy-dandy Basketball-Reference.
This is not meant to create an exclusive club, define everyone by a specific type or even go as far as evaluating how good the select group is or isn’t at their respective talents but to show that wings with size who shoot adequately well and project to switch defensively don’t grow on trees.
Phoenix Suns forward Cam Johnson is one of those 26 and he’s pretty darn good at those two key skills. Speaking of 26, he’s 26 years old and will be a restricted free agent next offseason if the Suns don’t agree to a contract extension. I would assume at least 26 other NBA teams would be interested in signing him as well if it came to that.
Johnson shot 42.6% from deep, tops among those 26 players and was fourth leaguewide. His tremendous shooting acumen coming out of North Carolina in the 2019 NBA Draft didn’t quite translate right away but did eventually, as is a semi-common occurrence for sharpshooters coming into the league.
His teammates and coaches often emphasize how much they want Johnson to shoot because of that ability. Head coach Monty Williams and point guard Chris Paul joke but not really joke that Johnson could never shoot too much.
A big reason why is because at 6-foot-8 with a lightning-fast release, Johnson will rarely take a “bad shot” in a catch-and-shoot situation. His footwork and technique are so great that he’s ready to fire at just about any point.
His reputation as a shooter opens up opportunities for Johnson in 0.5 scenarios, where he has to attack the basket and make the right play from there. He showed a knack for it immediately as a rookie and has gotten better each year with it.
Johnson does not hesitate when these situations arise. He shot better than 70% at the rim each of the last two seasons, where his touch and toughness combination really show.
When the defense is already rotated a certain way and Johnson’s play is one pass away, he can make the right read.
Defensively, Johnson improved leaps and bounds from his days at UNC. He’s capable on multiple positions, getting physical with bigger matchups and sliding his feet quickly with smaller matchups. Most importantly, he works his tail off across all areas of the floor.
Johnson is flying around the court on both ends and will often inspire sequences when he has directly affected two or more possessions in a row.
Here is three straight in a potential closeout game on the road, a 5-0 Johnson run just off doing what he does.
He has turned himself into a very well-rounded, solid basketball player. With the way Johnson shoots, that is a huge bonus.
His extension and price will be interesting to monitor. His teammate Mikal Bridges, also a part of those 26 players, recently got four years and $90 million. Bridges is one of the best defenders on the planet, is also a great shooter and shows a lot of potential as a scorer.
We haven’t quite seen that level of untapped growth for Johnson three years into his time in Phoenix. He attempted 114 shots from the midrange this year and converted on just 33% of ’em, and even with the way he finishes at the rim, only 19% of his total attempts came there, per Cleaning the Glass.
Then again, he has gotten definitively better as a player every season and as a starter in 16 games this year averaged 16.3 points per contest. He’s obviously going to keep improving.
Bridges’ deal has a yearly average of $22.5 million. Johnson will surely command at least a few shades north of $15 million a year. How much, though? Can he get to $20 million?
He might. The market was nice to shooters the last couple of years. Davis Bertans got five years and $80 million from Washington, Joe Harris received four years for $75 million via Brooklyn and Miami paid Duncan Robinson $90 million across five years.
Whatever the number winds up being, it shouldn’t prove to be too expensive for the Suns. Having Bridges and Johnson as the glue on the wing for the foreseeable future that will continue to get better is a luxury just about no other team in basketball has right now. Most teams would kill to have just one wing like that, and the Suns could have two for the next half-decade.
The unanswerable question right now is, if the Suns re-sign Deandre Ayton, does that make Johnson’s long-term salary too expensive on the luxury tax bill going forward?
If Booker’s supermax extension gets done and Chris Paul sticks around, that plus Ayton’s, Bridges’ and Johnson’s deals absolutely will reach a level of price in a few years that only a few franchises across the league have paid recently.
*shrugs* We’ll see!