In review: the evolution of Cameron Johnson


I feel very grateful to Cam Johnson in the midst of his recent hot stretch.

That gratitude puts me in a thoughtful mood, going back as far as his draft night, when I had my heart turned to Jarrett Culver, the combo guard of the then national championship contestant. Texan technology, at # 6 for the Phoenix Suns.

Culver was there for the take in 6th place once the Suns were on the set, and they took it! … And then proceeded to exchange it with the Minnesota Timber Wolves for Dario Saric and choose # 11, which would then be used to take Johnson, eliciting this viral reaction from his North Carolina teammate Coby White, who was taken to # 7 by the Chicago Bulls:

While White knew Johnson was the right choice even then, it seemed like every talker or opinionated Twitter account was quick to judge and doubt James Jones, who was writing on his own for the first time.

I was disappointed that the Suns didn’t choose my guy, but I recognized the value Jones saw in bringing Saric and Johnson together, who would end up getting really close, especially during the bubble.

So it seems so suddenly that Johnson is thriving to be one of the best shooters in the NBA. Here’s some background to tell the whole story behind how impressive his recent stretch was (on the morning of January 11, since Johnson was ruled out of the game that night with an ankle injury):

  • 19 games in a row with double-digit points – longer than Jayson Tatum (16), Deandre Ayton (16) and Rudy Gobert (14).
  • Longest active streak of 2+ 3-point shots (22) – 2nd: Fred VanVleet (13), 3rd: Seth Curry (9)

Suddenly as it may sound, in reality it happened in small steps. So I came back to watch his total of highlights from each season so far to see how his production has changed as he grows and develops.

Year 1: March 3, 2020 vs Toronto Raptors (114-123 loss):

21 points (2-3 2P, 5-13 3P, 2-2 FT), 4 rebounds, 2 assists, 1 interception, 3 blocks in 33 min (+3 in 9 loss points)

This game represents a part of our lives that I’m sure many of us would like to revisit, having taken place just days before the NBA’s initial Covid shutdown. It was good, way back in time, even before the 8-0 bubble race and before the Chris Paul era began in Phoenix.

As such, Johnson had a lot less freedom in offense than he does now, and it shows in the three total dribbles he took from his seven total baskets made. Here’s the reader who saw two of those dribbles:

Each of his five three-pointers came after stationary catches, which defenses won’t allow him to do very often at this stage of Johnson’s career:

But, even then, he was showing his high potential on the defensive end, staying with the guys on practice and challenging the shot at the highest point:

Year 2: December 27, 2020 @ Kings of Sacramento (116-100 victory):

21 points (4-5 2P, 3-4 3P, 4-4 FT), 1 rebound, 1 assist, 1 interception in 21 min (+25 in a 16 point win)

In this game, we’re starting to see more of Johnson’s independent actions that give a lot of hope as to where his cap is going. This takes the form of a side step of the socket:

… As well as attacking fences with mid-distance pull-ups:

… and even a (mainly) live dribbling aid:

… and finally, a training and a contact rim:

He also showed improvements in auxiliary scoring, such as a cut to the edge of a push-pull high with an assist from Paul:

Year 3: January 6, 2022 against LA Clippers (victory 106-89):

24 points (5-7 2P, 4-7 3P, 2-2 FT), 7 rebounds, 1 assist, 1 interception, 2 blocks in 35 min (+2 in 17 victory points)

Kicking this one off with a bang, here’s Johnson functioning as a pick-and-roll ball handler, something I’d love to see more of Johnson and his wing – and, affectionately his “twin” – Mikal Bridges. This possession ends with a nice stop-and-pop from the free throw line:

We can also see some “Johnson off movement” here with some wonderful pick-and-pop from Paul:

Movement shooting is essential for these sniper wings, as it opens up so many other ways to open up Johnson and gives him an inherent boost to be able to attack fences more aggressively when he wants to. This can be seen further with this curl game to open it up in the corner:

He’s also able to use some trick on the ball to catch near the elbow and reach the rim from there:

The increased confidence over the years was also visible in this game, opening up a better finishing game. I don’t think Johnson rookie year would have finished this game as cleanly as he does here:

Initial scouts as Johnson exited North Carolina may be shocked that his growth curve was as steep as it is, but it’s a critical flaw in tracking those curves. Here’s the way I like to think:

Rather than going into the draft as a senior fifth-year who’s already 23 on draft night, I like to think of him as a 20-year-old sophomore. That growth chart for a 20-year-old wouldn’t be so shocking.

The reason I think that way is that he spent his first three college seasons in Pittsburgh, which isn’t a good development background for the NBA prospects; Lamar Patterson (48th) was the last player drafted from Pittsburgh in 2014.

So I start Johnson’s development trail once he gets to North Carolina, obviously a much better background, and that makes the steep curve he had in Phoenix more logical – it’s also worth noting for I, a project analyst as well, remember to move forward with similar “older” perspectives.

Keeping that newly decided curve in mind helps us be imaginative when trying to project the best of Johnson, as talks around a possible contract extension intensify.

This summer, Johnson will be in the same contractual position Ayton and Bridges were in a summer, where the Suns can extend him beyond his rookie contract if they choose.

Chances are a new deal right now would look like the deal Bridges got – four years fully guaranteed, totaling $ 90 million; an average of $ 22.5 million per year. Johnson would likely be a notch or two below to move closer to four years worth $ 75 million to $ 80 million, but if that production continues to be this high and consistent, he could increase that number.

Ideally for Phoenix, they would want him to become a more frequent balloon maker once they hit that extra time, especially by the time Paul (on contract until summer 2025) is gone. Johnson’s poise in pick-and-roll handling situations along with his general shooting versatility gives me plenty of reason to believe he will be worth every penny and even more a potential extension.


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