EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Cam Johnson ready to provide Phoenix Suns much-needed lift in return

Jan 18, 2023, 3:18 PM | Updated: Jan 19, 2023, 7:16 am
Phoenix Suns' Cameron Johnson goes to the basket (23) untouched by any Houston Rockets during the s...

Phoenix Suns' Cameron Johnson goes to the basket (23) untouched by any Houston Rockets during the second half of an NBA basketball game, Sunday, Oct. 30, 2022, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Darryl Webb)

(AP Photo/Darryl Webb)

PHOENIX — It’s Dec. 23 and Cam Johnson is beaming as he leaves the Footprint Center.

He got an early Christmas present.

“I’m going on the road trip!” Johnson exclaimed to reporters with a joyous smile.

At the time, he was nearly two months into his recovery from a torn right meniscus. Johnson’s rehab reached a point where it was OK for him to continue it away from the Suns’ state-of-the-art practice facility. He would be able to get back in the swing of things with the day-to-day routine outside of game time, but more importantly, he was back with the guys every day and night.

It’s a few weeks later and it has been almost half the season on the shelf for Johnson. Thirty-seven games. Johnson will return in Thursday’s matchup against the Brooklyn Nets in a limited role, the team confirmed Wednesday.

It is the type of emotional lift the Suns at an overall record of 21-24 and 5-17 in their last 22 games sorely need.

Johnson is, as Monty Williams puts it, “an unbelievably important player to the program.” He is the lone player on the roster who can claim that his entire NBA career has been guided by Williams, coming to the Valley at the same time the head coach did back in 2019.

He knows the system better than anyone since, well, it’s the only NBA system he has known. Williams will constantly cite Johnson as a guy who does X or Y right when discussing various intricacies of the team’s style of play.

Johnson plays his tail off. He spends more time on the ground than anyone else on the team. I’ve only been around him for a few years but he’s the player I’ve asked the most about a bump or a bruise. There was one above his eye earlier this year literally from the hardwood.

Johnson after practice on Monday sat down to speak with the media for the first time since his injury, drenched in sweat, as he has been for the last two weeks whenever we’ve seen him.

He exhaled with a “whew.” The last boxes to check have been his conditioning and the more direct, purposeful movements off that right knee.

These last few increments of percentile progress to reach 100% have to of been particularly bothersome to Johnson, who admitted this year’s time out is not the same because of how much Phoenix lost during it.

“It does feel different,” Johnson said. “Especially because there’s been a lot of guys coming in and out of injuries and it just shows it’s harder on everybody individually.”

“Frustrating’s not the word,” he added, joking he may have put up a fight with the medical staff at times. “It will test your patience but I understand that they have my best interests at heart and I understand that they are looking out for the longevity of my career.”

Johnson is much more prone to the glimpses I’ve got in the small window we’re in the locker room for over the last month specifically, seeing his teammates limp around after a game in which the Suns would only have 9-12 players available.

The guys that have been able to play are doing so through some ailments. You can imagine how much that load on Johnson’s teammates can make him feel.

“I’ve been thinking a lot about that,” he said. “One feeling that you can’t shake in that situation is a guilty feeling. I didn’t try for an injury to happen or anything like that but you see guys play heavy minutes, numbers get lower and lower and I’m just sitting there watching and you feel a guilt.”

He’s done with that. Now, Johnson gets to bring relief on the court to handle some of the untenable weight put on the Suns’ roster construction.

No team is designed well enough to handle losing two of its most six important players, which is what Johnson and Jae Crowder — who has been waiting all season for a trade — are. Put it at the same position? Forget it.

“It’s mid-January coming into late January — it’s the dog days of the season. … It’s been a lot of stress on the guys and you can see it,” Johnson said. “I think the team has kept a great spirit about them and dealing with this adversity.”

Wing Torrey Craig went from, “Man, that’s a nice player to have as your fourth wing for depth” to a starter in 33 games and one of the Suns’ X-factors the last two-plus months.

“It does stress your overall rotation a bit,” Williams said. “We’ve had to play differently. And kudos to Torrey. He’s stepped up and played heavy minutes, played both ends of the floor, Dario (Saric) had to play some, Ish (Wainright) has played some. Yeah, there is a stress on the rotation but as we start to get guys back we hope that gets alleviated some.”

Johnson is focused on bringing that aforementioned alleviation by, you guessed it, playing his tail off. The No. 1 point of emphasis he saw while observing the team from the sidelines and on his TV at home was pace.

He wants to bring energy, cover for his teammates on defense and attack the opposing defense in quick-hitting ways. He’s ready to use that to be that emotional lift.

“Very,” Johnson said when asked about that. “I just think anybody who comes back injects some of that energy and life.”

The way he described it, it doesn’t sound like there is any mental block built around his knee.

“I feel really good about my knee, my body is whole,” Johnson said. “So I’m just gonna let it go and just have fun out there and try to contribute as a win.”

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