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Cam Johnson's return provides morale boost for Suns despite tempered expectations

Gerald Bourguet Avatar
January 19, 2023

After missing 37 games with a torn right meniscus, Cam Johnson will finally return to action against the Brooklyn Nets on Thursday.

It’ll be Johnson’s first appearance since Nov. 4, and it’s the Phoenix Suns’ first bit of positive injury news in weeks.

“It puts a lot of things in perspective,” he said. “It’s a blessing to have this as my job, to have the group around me that I do to help me get back to where I need to be. I can’t tell you how excited I am to get back on the court.”

At practice on Wednesday, coach Monty Williams confirmed Johnson has checked “every box possible” leading up to his return, but he’ll play limited minutes in his first game in over two months.

His role, however, remains the same as ever…even if immediate expectations should be tempered.

“He’s gotta be Cam, and it’s his first game back in a while, so we don’t want, ‘Go save us, Cam!'” Williams said. “That’s never been his role anyway. But he’s an unbelievably important player to the program, and we’re just happy to have him back.”

Tempered expectations for Cam Johnson

Johnson has only played in eight games this season due to injuries, averaging 13.0 points in 25.3 minutes a night. He’s also shot 44.6 percent from the floor and 43.1 percent from 3-point range on 6.4 attempts per game, with the Suns going 6-2 in his eight appearances.

Having this corner 3 sniper back certainly won’t hurt:

Phoenix is 15-22 without Johnson this season, largely due to other injuries piling up. Rather than trying to dominate or suddenly snap the Suns out of their funk, Johnson is keeping his focus simple.

“Go out there and have fun, do what I do,” he said succinctly. “I feel really good about my knee, my body as a whole, so I’m just gonna let it go. Just have fun out there and try to contribute to a win.”

The Suns could really use the help. Since the start of December, back when they boasted a 15-6 record, they’ve fallen to 6-18, sporting the NBA’s third-worst record, second-worst offense and seventh-worst defense.

Williams wouldn’t say whether Johnson will start on Thursday, but having a starting-caliber player back in the lineup will certainly provide a boost for the rotation.

“Man, I just want to help,” Johnson said. “I just want to help the team, I just want to help us be to where we can be, where we have been, and where we know we can still be.”

It’ll be a while before the Suns get their preferred starting lineup of Johnson, Chris Paul, Devin Booker, Mikal Bridges and Deandre Ayton back on the floor together. Paul was upgraded to questionable for Thursday after missing the last five games with right hip soreness, but Booker remains sidelined by a left groin strain that won’t be re-evaluated for another week.

Even so, Johnson represents a beacon of hope for a team that’s been ravaged by injuries, especially with Josh Okogie (nasal fracture) and Landry Shamet (right foot soreness) both downgraded to “out.”

After all, in 67 minutes over six games together this season, the Suns posted a +33.1 Net Rating and 4-2 record with their preferred starting lineup. It’s a small sample size, but that’s actually Phoenix’s fourth-most used lineup so far this season, per NBA.com.

Johnson also boasts a team-high +9.1 point differential and a team-high +18.8 Net Rating on the court this season. Phoenix’s defensive rating has plummeted from 104.0 with him on the court to 113.8 with him off it, and their offensive rating has done the same, dropping from 122.8 with him to 112.6 when he’s out.

Obviously those numbers have been boosted by his absence during Phoenix’s injury-riddled stretch, but they speak to the team’s true identity — and Johnson’s potency as a starter — when everyone’s healthy.

“Guys like him, Cam Payne, even when they don’t have the ball, they put pressure on the defense because they can shoot the ball so well and they can play in 0.5,” Williams said. “We don’t want to get happy on the farm about Cam coming back and playing low minutes for a few games before he gets back to form, but it is good to have him back.”

The road back

Johnson’s injury came long before Booker, Paul and the rest of the Suns went down, and the team carried on without him for a few weeks, but his torn meniscus was emblematic of the snake-bitten season it’s been for Phoenix.

Mikal Bridges said it best in mid-December: Every time Johnson started playing his best basketball, he wound up getting hurt. Fortunately, Bridges also said Johnson didn’t let it weigh him down.

“It’s how life is sometimes, when you’re always at your peak, something trying to put you down,” Bridges said. “So just happy to see him, his spirit ever since he got hurt, every time I’ve been around him, he seems great. So he never lost that, and you just see him, he’s excited. I know he’s ready to come back.”

Johnson is obviously excited to return, but he acknowledged how difficult it was watching his teammates struggle without being able to help.

“One feeling that you can’t shake in said situation is a guilty feeling,” he explained. “It’s like, I didn’t try for an injury to happen or anything like that, but you see guys playing heavy minutes, the numbers getting lower and lower, and I’m kind of just sitting there watching it, and you feel guilt. So it’ll feel nice to get back out there and take some of that off my shoulders.”

It would’ve been easy for an injury-riddled, losing stretch like that to break the Suns’ confidence, but everyone seems to be on the same page about pushing through until they can get guys healthy and turn things around. As Williams explained, their relentlessness was tested, but not broken.

“It’s hard not to talk about the injuries, because we’ve had so many of them, but at the same time, I’m proud of the way our guys have battled,” Williams said. “The spirit of our team has been tested, and that has remained true to form through all of the adversity, injuries, distractions, whatever the case may be. I’ll continue to believe that it’s going to help us be a much better team as we go forward and get guys back.”

Despite how hard it was to watch his teammates lose, Johnson had his own issues and milestones to worry about — getting his knee straight, getting his quad back, weightlifting, sprinting, cutting, building up to playing one-on-one, two-on-two, three-on-three, and so on and so forth.

Now, his focus is on building his conditioning back to game shape where he’s ready for full minutes and back-to-backs again. Johnson says he’s close, but there’s no rush to force-feed him big minutes right off the bat. He’s been diligent for this long, accepting when the training staff has preached patience and checking off all the right boxes first.

“It will test your patience, but I understand that they have my best interests at heart, and I understand that they’re looking out for the longevity of my career,” Johnson said. “One, two, three games is nothing compared to coming back full and strong and continuing as normal, so they remind me that. I might fight them back, but I know. I know that they’re looking out for me and want me to be my best self.”

That patience might finally pay off during a stretch where the Suns could desperately use reinforcements. Johnson mentioned the support of his teammates in helping him push through his rehab. Bridges continued to lend his sense of humor to his “Twin,” while Torrey Craig, who suffered a similar injury earlier in his career, offered advice based on his own recovery process and timeline.

After feeling “every bit” of that two-and-a-half-month absence, Johnson will get a chance to return the favor.

“It’s the dog days of the season, where you have the All-Star break to recover, and it’s been a lot of stress on the guys, and you can see it,” he said. “I think the team has kept a great spirit about them in dealing with this adversity, but we’re all competitors. Nobody takes losing lightly, and it’s frustrating, especially when you can’t do anything about it. You feel kind of helpless, so now I’ll be able to get rid of that feeling a little bit.”

Where Cam Johnson can immediately help

The biggest area where Cam Johnson can help — and the area he’s seen the Suns find success lately — is with pushing the tempo.

While he’s not viewed as the quickest or most athletic player on the court, Johnson actually ranks in the 96th percentile in transition this season, per NBA.com. He has no problem attacking the rim:

Or pulling up for backbreaking 3s on the fly:

With Johnson’s shooting prowess and efficiency in transition, it’s no surprise the Suns’ 24th-ranked pace jumps from 98.38 to 102.01 with their preferred starting lineup. That mark would rank fifth in the league.

During this stretch without guys who can slow down the game and still execute like Paul or Booker, the Suns need more of that up-tempo approach.

“”They can get to their spots, they can get everybody going, and that’s what makes them really elite, really special,” Johnson explained. “I think that what we’ve been able to capitalize on and have success is that 0.5 mentality when they’re not playing. That pace, that 0.5, and that’s been working for us and that’s kind of where I play myself.”

With 10 of their last 12 games coming on the road, the Suns’ current five-game homestand gives them an opportunity to regroup, get guys healthy, and add in a few more wrinkles during practice time.

“On the road, it’s been a bit stressful, just ’cause I think we were on the road like 20 out of the last 24 days, so you’re dealing with travel and injuries and all of that,” Williams said. “Now that we’re home, you may see a few changes in what we do, how we do it, but hopefully here at home, as we start to get guys back, we’ll be able to implement a few more things because we’re more whole.”

Sitting three games under .500 and 1.5 games out of a guaranteed playoff spot, the Suns have ground to make up. Cam Johnson’s return won’t immediately turn it around, but with a more favorable stretch coming up and guys slowly trickling back into the rotation, he could be the first domino in getting the season back on track.

“I’ve been out a lot of games, guys have missed games,” Johnson said. “I wouldn’t call it disappointment, I would call it just adversity. There’s been a lot of adversity, but it’s the same group of guys that did win games [last year] for the most part. So I think we still got that, and I think we’ve still got that capability. I wouldn’t count us out.”

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