Welcome to the Morning Shootaround, where every weekday you’ll get a fresh, topical column from one of SI.com’s NBA writers: Howard Beck on Mondays, Chris Mannix on Tuesdays, Michael Pina on Wednesdays, Chris Herring on Thursdays and Rohan Nadkarni on Fridays.
Zion Williamson still stands as the jewel of the 2019 NBA draft, but the highlight of the June evening two years ago came 10 picks after Williamson was selected by David Griffin and the Pelicans.
The Suns entered the 2019 draft on the heels of a disastrous 19–63 campaign, marking their fourth consecutive year with at least 58 losses. What was once a playoff stalwart became a full-fledged laughing stock, standing as one of the most dysfunctional franchises in sports. The 2019 draft appeared to mark another misfire, when Phoenix selected Texas Tech guard Jarrett Culver with the No. 6 pick before shipping him to Minnesota in exchange for veteran Dario Šarić and North Carolina forward Cameron Johnson. The decision was a shock to many and widely panned by draftniks throughout the league. Johnson is now in the Finals two years later, serving as a critical piece as Chris Paul & Co. chase the Larry O’Brien Trophy. Such a prominent role on a contender seemed impossible just over 24 months ago.
It wasn’t just Phoenix fans that were surprised by Johnson’s selection in the lottery. The move caught Coby White off-guard as well. The Bulls guard and No. 7 pick in 2019 sat in front of the media as he learned of Johnson’s draft slot, which marked the first time two Tar Heels were selected in the lottery since 2012. White’s excitement for his former teammate was palpable. So was his surprise.
“Cam got drafted 11th?” White asked a reporter before adding “wow” three times for emphasis. “That’s so crazy, I’m so happy for him. ... He proved it night in and night out that he deserves to be in the conversation for a lottery pick. He shot the ball unlike anyone I’ve ever seen before in my life.”
White’s words may not have quelled the anxiety from the Phoenix faithful on draft night. But in hindsight, his initial reaction proved prescient. Johnson enters Game 4 vs. Milwaukee on Wednesday with 32 Finals points under his belt, turning in a trio of solid performances as one of coach Monty Williams’s most valued bench pieces. Šarić is out for the series due to an ACL injury, and Frank Kaminsky looked painfully overmatched in just under 14 minutes Sunday night. When Deandre Ayton sits, Johnson is Phoenix’s top option against Giannis Antetokounmpo & Co.
Johnson has handled his role well on the offensive end in the Finals. He canned five threes and shot 47.6% from the field, including a 5–11 mark on Sunday night. Johnson sparked a third-quarter comeback that cut Milwaukee’s lead to just four in Game 3, tallying 10 third-quarter points. And Johnson’s baskets didn’t just come from simple floor spacing. He delivered perhaps the highlight of the Finals as he obliterated P.J. Tucker on a transition dunk, and, perhaps more impressively, he put the ball on the floor and finished a reverse layup while being hounded by Antetokounmpo. Johnson entered the league as a stretch big with questionable ball skills. His performance in the 2021 Finals is a testament to the work done by Williams, Paul and Phoenix’s organizational infrastructure.
A solid performance from Johnson in the NBA bubble was followed by a hot start to the 2020–21 season. Johnson finished in double figures in seven of his first 10 contests, quickly finding a rapport with Paul as the Suns established themselves as a fringe Finals contender. Johnson is a dangerous pick-and-pop threat, and he can make plays in space when Paul is trapped. The 3-and-D archetype has consumed the NBA in recent years, often boxing players into roles that don't appropriately exercise their talents. That’s not the case in Phoenix, where Paul and Williams have let Johnson grow on the fly.
“[Paul] is always at least a couple steps ahead of the game,” Johnson said in January. “And that rubs off. He teaches a lot, pulling us aside, telling us what happened here or there or what we need to change. It’s a constant learning process, but I feel like each day with him keeps making me better.”
Johnson is an effective complementary piece on the offensive end, one who is playing some of his best basketball of the season at a perfect time. Yet ultimately, it may be his work on the other end that could play a major role in this series. Antetokounmpo has frankly pummeled the Suns in the paint in the last two games, facing little resistance at the rim when Ayton is off the floor. Johnson’s slender frame doesn’t exactly lend itself to an enticing battle with Antetokounmpo, though he did attempt some sly tricks in an attempt to win each possession. Johnson will pull the chair out if needed. He can dance with Antetokounmpo on the perimeter to a degree, a better situation than getting bullied in the post. Ayton can’t play the full 48. Foul trouble or not, Johnson will be needed to at least slow Antetokounmpo in minutes featuring Phoenix’s small-ball lineup.
The Suns are now in a true Finals dogfight after winning the first two games of the series with relative ease. Antetokounmpo is channeling peak Shaq, and Jrue Holiday found a rhythm in Game 3 after a dreadful start to his first Finals. Perhaps Paul and the Suns will win Wednesday and close the series at home on Saturday night, though that’s not close to guaranteed as Game 4 approaches. The Suns won’t win the championship solely on the backs of their big three. Two years after being the surprise pick of the lottery, Johnson is among the Phoenix’s most important pieces through the rest of the 2021 Finals.
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