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It wasn’t the most auspicious of starts to the season for Cam Johnson. Coming off an NBA Finals matchup just a few months prior in which he frequently played the part of third option, the 25-year-old wing simply couldn’t get shots to fall.
Even as the Phoenix Suns turned their 1-3 start into an impressive (and still ongoing) win streak, Johnson struggled to find his touch. Head coach Monty Williams has always emphasized his shooters letting it fly, and Cam Johnson had become the poster child of that early-season plight.
“I just wish he would just shoot it initially,” Williams said Friday at shootaround before the Suns faced the Dallas Mavericks. “Our 3-point attempts are not even close to where they need to be, especially in relation to the league. And when we look at the film, we’re turning down shots. So we’re pushing our guys to take those shots, and he’s one of the guys that just has to let it fly. He does have people running at him, but I trust him to shoot those shots and knock them down.”
Through the first 10 games of the season, Johnson was averaging just 6.5 points and 2.4 rebounds in his 21.2 minutes per game. The worst part, however, was a glaring lack of efficiency for a guy with the reputation of being a knockdown shooter, as he shot just 33.3 percent and 31.7 percent from 3-point range.
Part of the issue was the Suns’ second unit being in a constant state of flux. Cam Payne missed a week due to a hamstring injury; JaVale McGee went from reserve to starter while Deandre Ayton was dealing with his lower leg contusion that sidelined him for six games; and with Dario Saric most likely out for the season, Landry Shamet became a quasi-replacement for that same sort of secondary playmaker off the bench.
As that group tried to build chemistry, and the Suns attempted to unearth a happy balance when it came to the number of shots and ball-handling situations Shamet required in order to be fully optimized, Johnson got lost in the shuffle.
“One thing we’ve seen, Landry’s impact on that group has taken shots away from guys, and that’s okay,” Williams said. “I just feel like Cam needs to get more looks. He’s that good of a shooter.”
It was clear Phoenix needed to do a better job creating looks for their sharpshooter. After all, Johnson was a career 41.1 percent shooter from long range over five years in college. He drilled 39 percent of his 3s as an NBA rookie, and although that number dropped to 34.9 percent last year, it was really because of a disastrous 12-game stretch to close the season where Johnson was hampered by a wrist injury and shot 19.7 percent.
Before that cold streak, he had been shooting 39.4 percent from 3-point territory, and upon fully recovering, he shot a blistering 44.6 percent from deep in the playoffs, going on to post the fourth-highest true-shooting percentage (69.3 percent) in NBA playoff history (minimum 100 field-goal attempts).
So yeah. The Suns needed to get him going in what was expected to be a breakout year off the bench.
However, even his wide-open shots weren’t falling to start the season. For his part, Johnson said he tried to get back to basics, starting closer to the hoop and building further away from the basket. As a shooter, any slump starts with reflection on his form to determine whether there’s something technically wrong. From there, he examines the mental aspect, before getting up a ton of reps to hammer out any lingering issues.
Despite what the early-season numbers said, Johnson never seemed deterred.
“I’ll tell you what, throughout the whole season, they’ve been feeling good,” he said last week. “I don’t really even feel like I’m in a slump. Shots leave my hand and they feel like they’re going in. Some of them just back rim, front rim, back rim, out. So a little bit of misfortune there, but just gotta keep shooting ’em.”
“Keep shooting” is the perfect advice for any 3-point marksman, and fast-forward to Sunday night, Johnson lit up the Denver Nuggets for a career-high 22 points in 23 minutes off the bench. He shot 9-for-15 from the floor, drained four of his 10 3-pointers and chipped in 2 assists for good measure.
“Just being aggressive, and a lot of it is the unselfishness we play with,” Johnson said. “Today I was the beneficiary of a lot of open looks. It felt like a couple more should have gone down that felt good leaving the hand. Always tons of room for improvement, but it’s big credit to the guys today.”
Those 15 shot attempts and 10 long-range attempts were both season highs by far, and they reflected the Suns’ point of emphasis to get him more looks. They also epitomized Williams’ message of putting that 6-foot-9 frame to good use by simply shooting over defenders frantically closing out to the 3-point line.
“The last few games, he’s playing free, guys are looking for him, and he’s knocking down shots,” Williams said. “He’s had good shot quality this year. I think last game somebody asked me about he and Jae [Crowder] and Landry and those guys taking shots, I’m like, I think they turn down too many shots. So I feel like when you’re 6-foot-9 and you can shoot it that way, if a guy’s four or five feet away from you, you should take the shot.”
Johnson may have missed the free throw, but his potential 4-point play against Denver was a byproduct of that exact “let it fly” mentality:
Once a few of those perimeter looks fell, the Nuggets became even more desperate to close out on him. That opened up his drives, cuts and even some drive-and-kicks once he blew by defenders who were overplaying him at the 3-point line.
“He gets a chance to show his playmaking skills and his athleticism,” Williams said. “Cam’s a freak athlete off the one leg, he can get up in the air. But I’ve said this since we’ve had him, he has the ability to see the floor. When he attacks the basket, things don’t speed up for him. He’s found guys a number of times in that scenario where he’s driving, somebody steps up, and he can find the big or find the guard on the backside.”
Over the last six games, Johnson’s numbers have seen a considerable uptick. It’s a small sample size, but the difference compared to his first 10 games is pretty stark:
- First 10 games: 6.5 PPG, 2.4 RPG, 24-72 FG (33.3%), 13-41 3P (31.7%), -27 overall
- Last 6 games: 11.7 PPG, 4.7 RPG, 25-49 FG (51%), 15-35 3P (42.9%), +41 overall
For the third-year wing, it was simply a matter of overcoming a slump similar to the one he endured near the end of last season. Johnson recalled a game against the New York Knicks in late April when, despite missing seven in a row heading into the fourth quarter, his coach had enough faith to draw up a play for him.
Johnson made three of his four 3s in that fourth quarter, helping the Suns get a big win at Madison Square Garden. This year, Williams’ emphasis on getting his sharpshooter more looks despite his early struggles represented the same faith that any shooter appreciates during a slump.
“That stuff, that goes miles to a shooter’s confidence, to shooter’s mind, especially in this league when games come and come and they just keep on going,” Johnson said. “So when you slide, it can pile up if you don’t put an end to it or if you got somebody that’s trying to take away your confidence, but that’s not the case here. They encourage everybody to shoot. We’re working on it in practice past couple of days, and guys are letting it fly.”
Yet even after setting a new career high that bumped him up to 36.8 percent shooting from deep for the season, Cam Johnson is nowhere near satisfied with how he’s slowly turning things around during the Suns’ 12-game win streak.
“Man, I just congratulated him in the back, you know what he told me? He says, ‘It’s not 50 or nothing,'” Devin Booker laughed. “I said, ‘Man…you gotta crawl before you can run.’ So I’m proud of him, but I love the mentality and his approach. He’s gonna have a lot more games over 22.”
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