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Every NBA Team Needs Their Own Cameron Johnson

At a certain point, every NBA team has good players; the hard part is finding ones who are good in complementary and compounding ways. Perenially slop-eating teams like the Oklahoma City Thunder and Washington Wizards still boast the likes of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Bradley Beal, both of whom can measure up with just about any shooting guard on earth. Accordingly, winning in the NBA is certainly about talent, but it’s also the product of some complicated, intangible calculus of fit and scheme and luck and vibes. So even as the championship race and the digital fug of the NBA’s thriving Takes Economy understandably swirls around the league’s biggest names, day-to-day success is rooted as much in smaller goodness as larger greatness.

In fact, Phoenix Suns are the best team in the NBA precisely because of their ability to stack smaller goodness into something unmissably great. Between Devin Booker and Chris Paul and DeAndre Ayton and Mikal Bridges and Cam Johnson, the Suns are loaded with talent, albeit at a lower voltage than, say, the Brooklyn Nets or Los Angeles Lakers. But whereas the Lakers prompt apocalyptic Twitter Spaces after every loss and the Nets struggle to convince Kyrie Irving to unwedge his thumb from his third eye, the Suns play a unique brand of exacting, synergistic basketball. Phoenix has rampaged to a 43-10 record because their every possession is informed by a clarity of purpose, each player providing a skillset that serves a common goal.

Cam Johnson, the Suns’ first round pick in the 2019 NBA Draft, is perhaps the player most indicative of Phoenix’s approach. A 6’9 wing who shoots 43.6 percent from 3, Johnson has the kind of portable game that every team in the NBA needs. He’s the archetypal, low-maintenance role player, spacing the floor without attitude or ego. While Paul and Booker dominate the ball, Johnson (alongside his wing cohort of Bridges and Jae Crowder) unlocks the Suns’ elaborate pick-and-roll attack in subtle ways. Away from the action, Johnson sneakily fools with his defender’s help responsibilities, placing them in a state of forced ambivalence–he relocates on the weakside to create longer rotations for his man or slips behind flare screens or sets them himself. The Suns are unstoppable partially because Johnson’s off-ball chicanery leaves teams confused on how to even go about stopping the Suns. 

Johnson would always have a high baseline level of utility because of his size and shooting touch, but his canniness and shot versatility is what separates him from the Pat Connaughtons and Georges Niangs of the world; he’s a good shooter in a variety of contexts, making him a roving, mobile weapon rather than merely a stationary spot-up threat. In this sense, Johnson is the NBA’s Bud Light Lime, an outwardly prosaic, generically decent option, but with a twist that elevates him towards greatness. 

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