Cam Johnson ready for elevated role with Suns in Jae Crowder’s absence
PHOENIX — Any team is going to be in a tough spot on a game-to-game basis when one of its top six or seven players isn’t going to suit up, whether it’s injury or something else.
For the Phoenix Suns, it’s something else.
After some cryptic social media activity from starting power forward Jae Crowder that suggested he might be unsettled, he got straight to the point in a tweeted and quickly deleted post three days before media day that he would not be at training camp. Two days later, the Suns confirmed it was a mutual agreement that he won’t be there and The Athletic’s Shams Charania reported the two sides are working together to find a trade.
The Suns, however, are in a fortunate position, and part of that has to do with why Crowder wants to leave.
Fourth-year wing Cam Johnson has been knocking at the door of the starting lineup for nearly two seasons at this point. And heading into this year, after being a finalist for Sixth Man of the Year, it felt like he was finally going to kick that door down and never look back.
ESPN’s Brian Windhorst reported Crowder was told he may not have his starting spot, and it makes sense not only because of Johnson’s emergence, but the undeniable feeling after the way the team looked in the playoffs that it needed to shift its dynamic a bit.
Johnson’s injection of sharpshooting is more than just a few sprinkles of extra offensive pop.
In 16 games as a starter last year, Johnson averaged 16.3 points, 4.9 rebounds and 1.9 assists per game while shooting 49.2% from the field and 42.0% at 3-point range. More importantly, Johnson took 7.4 triples a game over that decent-sized sample size.
For reference, Crowder reached at least 16 points in seven total games last season.
We have seen flashes of Johnson reaching levels where he shows he can occasionally be a lethal scorer. His rage-fueled, career-high 38 points against the New York Knicks that included a 30-foot game-winner is the top billing.
That highlight reel is not just of catch-and-shoot 3s in the corner. There is some smooth shooting on the move and off the dribble, as well as intent to get to the basket, where he attempted 12 free throws.
On the defensive end, Johnson has proven to be capable and certainly has the upside to be great after consistent year-to-year improvement.
At the same time, that’s where a drop-off would take place.
Crowder has mastered the intangibles that go into defense. He’s still very good on that end even though his foot speed at 32 years old is not what it once was.
If you watch solely Crowder for a game and don’t just lash out whenever he misses a chunk of 3s in a row, his impact is clear.
Crowder constantly produces possessions on defense that are pretty much perfect over the course of 10-15 seconds.
I could watch Jae Crowder defend all day pic.twitter.com/iAXivpsZEa
— Kellan Olson (@KellanOlson) June 10, 2021
That and Crowder’s intelligence are irreplaceable.
Head coach Monty Williams has said in the past that new players are told to watch Crowder on defense to see how it’s done in the Suns’ system, something Williams notes is pretty much the biggest compliment he can provide for Crowder’s savvy. Associate head coach Kevin Young called Crowder probably the smartest player he had ever coached when executing and understanding defensive coverages.
Crowder’s veteran voice and willing assistance in teaching the younger core the little things that go into winning in the regular season and playoffs was a luxury those guys fully took advantage of across two seasons.
Mikal Bridges, who just finished second in Defensive Player of the Year voting, said on Monday the most he took from Crowder was as a defender.
“It’s just every day. On the court, off the court,” Bridges said of what he absorbed from Crowder. “I love Jae to death. It just sucks that I haven’t seen him all summer and then now I’m not going to see him until whenever we probably play against him.”
The situation really doesn’t have any complexities to it. Johnson is a valuable 26-year-old who presumably is going to get a shiny new contract extension before his Oct. 17 deadline that will make him one of the highest paid players on the team. He deserves to start, and to see it from Crowder’s side, so does he.
Crowder has done everything the Suns have asked. He was brought in to provide toughness and experience that would rub off on the developing players, to a point where he plays a big part in helping them reach the playoffs and beyond. His quality of play on both ends has been as advertised, and he should feel like he should still be starting in this league.
To that point, this whole hubbub gives Johnson a perfectly good reason to be a bit offended by Crowder’s actions. Crowder, after all, is doing all this because the Suns are going to have Johnson take his starting place. Think about yourself in that position.
But this is far more about the self-belief Crowder has (and every player in the league should have) than a shot at Johnson’s capabilities.
Johnson had nothing but good things to say about Crowder on Monday when he was asked about Crowder’s situation.
“That’s the thing that you learn most in the NBA that guys will do what’s best for them. To a certain extent, guys should,” Johnson said. “You’re your best advocate, you’re your own advocate. If that’s a career move he has to make, as a teammate, you want what’s best for your guys, you want what’s best for your boys. There’s no bad blood between Jae and I. Jae has looked out for me over the past couple of years.
“He’s taught me a lot, he’s shown me a lot. He’s somebody that I could always call and be like, ‘What’d you see during this? Talk to me, talk to me. How do you guard this? What is your advice on this?’ At the end of the day, I feel it’s just business. It’s him trying to do what’s best for his career.”
The Suns made the right call. Crowder, in a contract year, made the right one for himself too if he can find a team that will give him a role where he doesn’t have to compete with wings like Bridges and Johnson for serious minutes.
In the meantime, though, the Suns will objectively be a worse team without Crowder. His departure in a deal could fix that depending on the return but it could be a while.
The attention now turns to the likes of Torrey Craig and Ish Wainright, who, like Johnson, likely will have more on their shoulders this season. We could also see Williams go big and enter the likes of Dario Saric at the 4 or trend smaller with Bridges in that spot sometimes to open up room for Josh Okogie and/or Damion Lee.
But it all goes back to Johnson. He has done nothing but play at a level over three seasons to earn a serious promotion.
Now it’s time for him to take advantage of the opportunity like he has with all the others, and if he does, the sequence of events will have ultimately been a benefit for the Suns.