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Figuring out the right contract extension for Cam Johnson

Gerald Bourguet Avatar
May 24, 2022

The Phoenix Suns have a busy offseason ahead, with some major decisions to be made. As if Deandre Ayton’s murky future as a restricted free agent wasn’t enough, Devin Booker will undoubtedly be eligible for a supermax contract, and general manager James Jones will have several other decisions to make after the bench of the “deepest team in basketball” disappeared.

The one member of the second unit who can actually say otherwise, however, is Cam Johnson. Heading into his fourth NBA season, Johnson will be eligible for a rookie-scale extension, much like Ayton, Mikal Bridges and Landry Shamet were heading into last season.

Even with the ugly and abrupt manner the Suns’ 64-win season ended, it’ll be an expensive offseason to keep a contender intact. But as much as Ayton’s next contract will be the central focus, and the eye-popping numbers for Booker’s extension will draw the most attention, Johnson’s potential payday shouldn’t fly under the radar. Here’s a look at what Cam Johnson provides for the Suns and what his extension might look like.

Cam Johnson’s value to the Suns

Admittedly, it wasn’t the breakout year many were expecting for the 26-year-old Johnson after he looked like a certified third option in the 2021 NBA Finals. He didn’t usurp Bridges or Ayton as the team’s main bucket-getter behind Booker and Chris Paul, nor did he supplant Jae Crowder in the starting lineup.

However, Johnson’s growth shouldn’t be overlooked either. The former North Carolina product averaged 12.5 points, 4.1 rebounds, 1.5 assists and 0.9 steals in 26.2 minutes per game while shooting 46 percent from the floor. He also shot 42.5 percent from 3-point range — fourth in the NBA — on 5.9 attempts per game. Every single one of those numbers was a career high.

“As I’ve said before, on both ends of the floor, he’s a starter in my eyes,” coach Monty Williams said back in December. “That’s a luxury we’ve had is to be able to have a guy like Cam Johnson who could start on most teams in the NBA, he’s coming off the bench for us.”

Although the Suns’ season fizzled out in historically underwhelming fashion, Johnson was one of the few bench contributors who, well, contributed. He averaged 10.8 points in 24.6 minutes per game, shooting 46.5 percent from the floor and 37.3 percent from deep. Those numbers might have been even better if not for a quad contusion that sidelined him for a month right after his career-high 38-point night in March.

Amusingly enough, for all the panic on the outside about Johnson’s ice-cold shooting slump to start the season, the former UNC sharpshooter wasn’t deterred. Despite Johnson’s 13-for-41 start from 3-point range (31.7 percent) through the first 10 games, Williams looked and the film and determined that he was turning down shots.

“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,” Williams said.

The Suns’ head coach certainly wasn’t wrong, looking at some of the contested 3s he gets off so easily, and he wasn’t the only one telling Johnson to keep shooting either.

“I just know he knows he’s gonna get yelled at if he don’t shoot the ball,” Chris Paul said. “Everybody on our team gon’ be pissed if he don’t shoot the ball, ’cause he is seriously one of the best shooters in this league and one of the best shooters I ever played with.”

So why is all this important? Well, because Johnson’s unwavering faith in his own shot and the work he put in should’ve made what came next all too predictable.

“I’ll tell you what, throughout the whole season, they’ve been feeling good,” Johnson said amidst the slump. “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.”

Johnson did exactly that, and the results spoke for themselves. After that rough 10-game start to the year, he shot a scorching 43.7 percent from downtown on 6.2 attempts per game the rest of the way.

During the Suns’ first-round series against the New Orleans Pelicans, his former assistant coach Willie Green wasn’t surprised by the growth he’d seen from afar.

“Cam stays in the gym,” Green said. “It’s not a coincidence, at least from our perspective, that he’s having the success that he’s having. No. 1, he’s a great person that comes in the gym every day and works at it. And he wants to be great.”

Johnson’s shooting prowess is nothing new. Before a dismal 15-for-76 stretch to close the 2020-21 campaign (when he played through a wrist injury), he had been shooting 39.4 percent from deep. As a rookie, he made 39 percent of his 3s. In college, he made 40.5 percent of his triples. During Phoenix’s Finals run, he posted the fourth-highest true-shooting percentage in NBA playoff history, going 44.6 percent from beyond the arc.

His gravity and efficiency as a 3-point shooter is invaluable to the Suns’ offense, even coming off the bench. He ranked in the 94th percentile on spot-ups this year, per, and he ranked second in the NBA among all qualified players in catch-and-shoot points per game (7.1), trailing only Malik Beasley (7.6).

“Man, when Cam Johnson shoots, that thing is going in,” Ayton said. “I’ll just tell you that. It’s such a perfect form at 6’8″, and we see him work on it all the time.”

It’s not just the offensive end where Johnson has proven to be effective. As a defender, he works hard and has a high basketball I.Q. to put himself in the right positions and rotations. He’s not the most athletic guy when it comes to lateral speed, but he can keep up, and he’s got the size and length to aid what was a top-five defense.

“I think his ability to guard different positions, his growing knowledge of the NBA, and then he’s just a big, strong dude,” Williams said of Johnson’s defense. “You look at Cam, you think ‘shooter,’ but you don’t realize he’s upwards of 230-240 that can move his feet and stay in front of people.”

While his career 1.4 assists per game hardly scream “playmaker,” Johnson has improved as a decision-maker within the Suns’ 0.5 offense too. Defenders closing out hard on him at the 3-point line have learned the hard way that Johnson has no problem blowing by them off the dribble and making the right read to the open man:

According to The Bball Index, Johnson’s passing creation quality ranked in the 78th percentile, despite his volume only being in the 32nd percentile. The ball will never be in his hands enough for Phoenix to need to rely on him as a secondary facilitator, but he’s clearly a smart player who can keep the offense humming.

“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.”

Cam Johnson’s contract value

That’s all well and good, but as the Suns approach their first season as a luxury tax team, how much is a promising sixth man worth?

For starters, Johnson did just finish third in Sixth Man of the Year voting. But perhaps more importantly, Phoenix doesn’t view him as a reserve at all, even as he came off the bench for 50 of his 66 appearances.

“He puts the work in, and he’s accepting the role that, over the course of the season, has changed,” Williams said. “He’s been a role guy off the bench, he’s been a starter, now he’s back on the bench, but the thing I like about Cam is his mentality doesn’t change. I think our guys look at him as a starter, and I think he’s accepted that responsibility. We don’t feel like when he comes off the bench he’s a role guy or a rotation guy off the bench, we feel like we’re bringing another starter in the game.”

The numbers backed that belief up. In 16 starts this year, Johnson put up an impressive 16.3 points, 4.9 rebounds, 1.9 assists and 1.1 steals per game, shooting 49.2 percent shooting from the field and 42 percent from 3-point range on 7.4 attempts per game. According ESPN’s Bobby Marks, he averaged 17.3 points on 50 percent shooting and 44 percent from 3 in games where he played at least 30 minutes.

Of course, it wasn’t just Johnson finding individual success; the Suns’ usual starting lineup kept chugging along with him in Jae Crowder’s place. Per, the Paul-Booker-Bridges-Johnson-Ayton lineup boasted a +41.3 Net Rating in 24 minutes together during the playoffs, making it the Suns’ third-most-used lineup, as well as a +29.5 Net Rating during the regular season. That came in a surprisingly low 42 minutes, but it’s still something to keep in mind as Crowder approaches his 32nd birthday next month.

In other words, the Suns will be paying for their long-term wing starter next to Mikal Bridges, and that may be Johnson’s calling as soon as next season.

That’s not to say there are no areas for improvement. While Johnson is an effective finisher, shooting at least 71 percent at the rim in each of the last two seasons, he only took 19 percent of his shots there this season, per Cleaning The Glass.

Williams admitted that watching the other playoff series following the Suns’ second-round defeat made him question whether he put Johnson, Bridges and even Shamet in enough positions to attack and simply “go get buckets” like all the other teams seemed capable of doing. That could be a point of emphasis heading into next season.

It’s also worth noting that on such a midrange-heavy team, that ability to get to the rim is rare and important. Johnson has to be more aggressive in attacking off the bounce when he sees openings and getting to the foul line, especially with his midrange efficiency dipping from 46 percent last year to 33 percent.

So the question is, what kind of contract can the Suns expect? It certainly won’t be in the four-year, $90 million ballpark that Bridges wound up getting, but a look at recent deals for similar guards, wings and sharpshooters paints an illustrative picture:

  • OG Anunoby: 4 years, $72 million ($18 million annually)
  • Mikal Bridges: 4 years, $90 million ($22.5 million annually)
  • Duncan Robinson: 5 years, $90 million $18 million annually)
  • Lonzo Ball: 4 years, $85 million ($21.3 million annually)
  • Spencer Dinwiddie: 3 years, $62 million ($20.7 million annually)
  • Evan Fournier: 4 years, $78 million ($19.5 million annually)
  • Tim Hardaway Jr.: 4 years, $74 million ($18.5 million annually)
  • Norman Powell: 5 years, $90 million ($18 million annually)
  • Marcus Smart: 4 years, $77 million ($19.4 million annually)
  • Gary Trent Jr.: 3 years, $54 million ($18 million annually)
  • Davis Bertans: 5 years, $80 million ($16 million annually)
  • Joe Harris: 4 years, $75 million ($18.8 million annually)

Looking at that list, it’s hard to see Johnson getting anything less than $15 million annually, with his figure probably approaching the $17-20 million mark. Since it won’t be a five-year max, the most years the Suns can offer is four, putting our final estimation for Cam Johnson’s next extension somewhere in the four-year, $70-80 million range. That would not kick in until the 2023-24 season, as Johnson is owed $5.9 million for the 2022-23 campaign.

The next few years is where things would get pricy. Once Johnson’s extension kicks in, Phoenix would owe $36 million to Booker, $30.8 million to Paul, $21.7 million to Bridges and, more than likely, something in the $30 million-plus region to Ayton. Only $15.8 million of CP3’s deal is guaranteed, but with Paul’s 2022-23 salary being fully guaranteed and Booker’s supermax kicking in for the 2024-25 campaign, the Suns could be poised to be a tax-paying team for the foreseeable future.

For his part, James Jones is saying all the right things about not letting the tax hinder Phoenix’s plans.

“That’s a part of the business: As your team improves, typically your payroll increases,” Jones said of potential extensions for Johnson and Booker during his end-of-season media session. “We’re focused on improving the team, and those guys deserve the credit, they deserve the accolades and the financial rewards that come with being good players and productive players. So it doesn’t preclude us from doing anything. We’re not talking about luxury tax issues or avoiding those things. Like, that’s not something that’s going to prevent us from continuing to build this team to keep this team together.”

That could just be lip service, but it echoes what owner Robert Sarver said on Arizona Sports’ Burns & Gambo last July. That’s good news, since Johnson has been on our radar as a guy the Suns need to keep around for a while now. It sounds like he’d like nothing more than to continue his career in Phoenix for the long haul — especially after having unfinished business on a 64-win team.

“I feel very grateful to be in this city, playing on this team, a team that accomplished a lot in the regular season,” Johnson said after Game 7. “The people that we have in our program, the people that we have on our team, they all mean a lot to me individually. And it was a situation where I showed up to work every day, happy and excited — excited to be around our coaches, our teammates, our staff. And you can’t take that away. The pain of this doesn’t take that away. All of us got a lot of friends in this league, and from everything that I’ve gathered, we have a very good group, a very fun group to play with, and a great group that fights together.”

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