Cameron Johnson

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Three Things to Know: Phoenix has a plan and it’s working — it’s time to take them seriously

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Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, so every weekday morning throughout the season we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA.

1) Phoenix had a plan and it’s working — it’s time to take them seriously. It’s been hard to figure out precisely what the plan was in Phoenix the past couple of years. Sure, they had Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton, but what were they putting around those two? Was there a grand design?

Last season the Suns signed Trevor Ariza only to trade him for Kelly Oubre Jr., then also traded Ryan Anderson to Miami for Tyler Johnson. This past summer they flipped the No. 6 pick in the draft — turned out to be Jarrett Culver — to the Timberwolves for the No. 11 pick and Dario Saric, then they used that pick on Cameron Johnson (a guy older than Booker and considered a reach). Phoenix sent their 2020 first-round pick to Boston for Aron Baynes to be a backup center. There were two objectively smart moves, picking up point guard Ricky Rubio as a free agent, and signing Monty Williams to be the coach. Then this season started with a punch to the gut — Ayton got suspended 25 games (pending an appeal) for taking a banned substance, a diuretic.

Turns out, the Suns’ plan was to put a team of competent NBA players around Booker, then simplify the offense and defense but execute it all cleanly.

It works.

Quite well, thank you very much.

Phoenix had already beaten the Clippers this season, then on Monday they got another statement win knocking Philadelphia from the ranks of the unbeaten with a 114-109 victory.

Phoenix is 5-2 on the young season with the fourth-best net rating in the NBA (third best if you filter out garbage time as Ben Falk does over at Cleaning the Glass). The Suns are legitimate and — while it’s early, we’re not even 1/10th of the way into the season — Phoenix looks like a playoff team.

Devin Booker looks every bit the All-Star guard, getting revenge on those that thought he was simply an empty calorie guy who could get numbers but not help a team win. He certainly helped the Suns win on Monday with maybe his best game — 40 points on 15-of-19 shooting, while picking apart a good defensive team in the Sixers (granted, one without Joel Embiid due to suspension).

Whether the Suns can sustain this level of play is up for debate — right now they are the only team ranked in the top 10 in offensive and defensive net rating. But even if they come back to earth some, GM James Jones deserves some credit for having a plan and pulling it off — a plan that has the Suns looking like a quality team.

Phoenix hasn’t been to the postseason since 2010 when Amar’e Stoudemire and Steve Nash were running the remnants of seven seconds or less for Alvin Gentry. That looks like it will change this season, Phoenix is back. Things are looking bright in the Valley of the Sun.

2) Brandon Ingram dropped 40, but Kyrie Irving had 39 and Nets out-duel Pelicans for the win. This is what the Pelicans have done all season long — play hard, but come up just short. The Pelicans are 1-6 on the young season, but with the net rating of a 3-4 team. They just keep losing close games.

Monday night that happened against Brooklyn. Brandon Ingram continued his hot start for New Orleans (not coincidentally, in a contract year) and scored a career-high 40 on 17-of-24 shooting, but it wasn’t enough against Brooklyn, where Kyrie Irving dropped 39 on the gray floor.

Caris LeVert added 23 points and all five starters (plus Garrett Temple off the bench) scored in double digits for Brooklyn.

It wasn’t a surprise that the Pelicans didn’t really get serious in contract extension talks with Ingram, he had missed the end of last season with a blood clot issue and that scares teams because it can be career-threatening (Ingram’s was different from, for example, Chris Bosh’s situation, Ingram’s clot was in his arm, but it’s still a concern). Plus, Ingram had been up and down in Los Angeles, and there remain questions about how well he’ll fit next to Zion Williamson.

Ingram, however, has put in the work — his footwork and handles are lightyears ahead of his lanky, awkward rookie season — and it shows. His game is more fluid now. He is averaging 25.9 points a game this season, shooting 48.6 percent on five threes a game, and is grabbing 7.1 boards a night. He is playing like an All-Star. He’s playing like a guy who will get paid next summer, one way or another.

3) Grizzlies and Ja Morant vs. the Knicks RJ Barrett: how much should teams play rookies? There has become an interesting dichotomy this season, a real debate about how to handle a star rookie player:

Should teams be already thinking load management and watching the minutes of a potentially elite young player on a bad team? Or do you throw the guy out there and let him learn by doing as much as he can racking up minutes?

In Memphis, the plan is to bring Ja Morant along slowly. The No. 2 pick out of Murray State — where he played a lot of minutes because they didn’t have a choice if they wanted to win — is averaging 28 minutes a night, and has played more than 30 just once in six games. Morant is starting, being allowed to make mistakes and learn, and in those limited minutes is still averaging 19.5 points and 5.5 assists per game, shooting 50 percent from three (on two attempts per game). He has a PER of 20.3, which is insanely good for a rookie. Morant is everything that was advertised, a freakish young athlete with a great feel for the game. A franchise cornerstone kind of player.

The Grizzlies don’t want to burn Morant out, here is what coach Tyler Jenkins said, via The Athletic.

“We want to, for lack of a better phrase, put some money in the bank moving forward with him,” Jenkins said. “I’ve always been a big believer that when you start playing in the mid-30s, you kinda wear down. Our rookies, including him, have never played 82 games in a season.”

That’s a smart, practical, long-term thinking approach.

Then there’s David Fizdale with the Knicks.

RJ Barrett is averaging 37.1 minutes a game and is putting up counting stats — 18.3 points per game, 6.1 rebounds, he’s shooting 35.7 percent from three, and he’s also learning in a trial-by-fire kind of way. He’s just in the fire a lot more, which is how things have been done in the past in the NBA — and former players are good with that.

Hopefully so. But this approach also comes with more risk. The Knicks seem to have a wing in Barrett who can be a central part of whatever is ultimately built in New York — whatever other players come in via the draft and free agency — and they should be thinking about Barrett three years from now. Barrett can grow —  he struggled at points in Summer League, but he’s showing he learned from those experiences. That’s a very good sign.

So long as he doesn’t burn out. Or physically wear down (which makes a potential injury more likely).

Different players can handle different workloads, and they learn differently — there is no one-size-fits-all plan. However, David Fizdale seems to be taking an old-school approach in New York, whereas the Grizzlies seem to be more modern in their thinking about the long term.

We’ll see which philosophy pays off in the long run.

Suns improve, but to what end?

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NBC Sports’ Dan Feldman is grading every team’s offseason based on where the team stands now relative to its position entering the offseason. A ‘C’ means a team is in similar standing, with notches up or down from there.

While coaching Marist, Jeff Bower hosted a middling recruit named Cameron Johnson. Bower was ahead of the curve. Bringing Johnson to the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference would’ve been a coup. Bigger programs eventually realized Johnson’s ability, and he bypassed Marist for the ACC (Pittsburgh then North Carolina).

Bower and Johnson reunited this summer. The Bower-employing Suns drafted Johnson No. 11 overall.

Delightful coincidence or distressing signal?

Since leaving Marist, Bower got hired by the Pistons, ran day-to-day operations in Detroit’s front office the entire San Van Gundy era, got fired by the Pistons, sat out a full season and got hired by Phoenix. It has been a long time since his initial meeting with Johnson.

Put another way: Johnson is old.

At 23, he’s one of the oldest lottery picks in the last 20 years. His 23-and-over company aside from Buddy Hield (No. 6 in 2016) is uninspiring. The others: Ekpe Udoh (No. 6 in 2010), Tyler Hansbrough (No. 13 in 2009), Al Thornton (No. 14 in 2007), Rafael Araújo (No. 8 in 2004), Melvin Ely (No. 12 in 2002), Fred Jones (No. 14 in 2002), Courtney Alexander (No. 13 in 2000).

Johnson is a polished shooter. There’s a chance he could fill a rotation role for Phoenix next season. But it’ll be a limited role. His upside appears low. His injury history is troubling.

Off all the ways the Suns misplaced their priorities and operated like novices this summer, drafting Johnson stands out.

Phoenix entered the draft with the No. 6 pick then traded down for No. 11 and Dario Saric. Saric is a fine player, but not someone – one year from free agency – who justifies watching prospects like Jarrett Culver and Coby White go off the board. Then, the Suns made the shocking reach for Johnson.

Unfortunately for Phoenix, that multi-blunder process doesn’t even cover everything that went wrong this summer. In James Jones’ first year as general manager, the Suns were determined to get their desired players and improve quickly. Missions accomplished. But Phoenix’s short-term upgrades came with too little consideration for value and where the team is in its ascent.

The big addition was Ricky Rubio – a solid starting point guard on a team that had no point guard. He’ll solidify so many disparate parts around him. But h didn’t come cheap at three years, $51 million.

A pair of draft-day trade agreements with the Pacers and Celtics helped clear cap room for Rubio. But Phoenix’s return was disappointing. The Suns traded up from No. 32 to No. 24, relinquished the Bucks’ 2020 first-rounder, unloaded T.J. Warren (three years, $35.25 million remaining) and took Aron Baynes (one year, $5,453,280 remaining). I at least like using the No. 24 pick on Ty Jerome.

That didn’t open enough cap space for Rubio, though. So, the Suns had to trade Josh Jackson, De’Anthony Melton and a second-rounder or two to the Grizzlies for Jevon Carter. None of those prospects – including 2017 No. 4 pick Jackson – are great. But Phoenix had to forfeit some upside in order to clear cap room.

The Suns used the full room exception on Frank Kaminsky (two years with a team option). Again, not great value.

Neither was re-signing Kelly Oubre for two years, $30 million. But at least that was justifiable, because Phoenix held him at a lower number and had his Bird Rights. Oubre is an interesting young player who fits the long-term vision the Suns should be prioritizing.

Phoenix didn’t completely ignore youth this summer. Cheick Diallo and undrafted Jalen Lecque have upside and signed deals that grant substantial team control. Still, they were low-priority moves.

It’s easy to see what happened in Phoenix. The Suns have missed the playoffs a franchise-worst nine straight years and got impatient. They want to win now.

Rubio will help. The other new role players will help. New coach Monty Williams will help.

But even with all its immediate improvements, Phoenix is highly unlikely to make the playoffs next season. Would going from 19 to 34 wins really feel that much better, especially considering the downgrade in lottery odds? I don’t think so.

The bigger picture hasn’t changed much. The Suns are building around Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton. Phoenix can still grow into a winner around those two.

I doubt it happens next season. And because of this summer’s moves, the Suns will have fewer resources to use when Booker and Ayton are actually ready to win.

Offseason grade: D+

Report: Suns signing Cheick Diallo to two-year contract

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The Suns went old in the draft, picking 23-year-old Cameron Johnson at No. 11.

Phoenix will go younger in free agency with 22-year-old Cheick Diallo.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

Barring another move, the Suns have only the minimum available. Diallo will get $1,678,854 next season and $1,824,003 the following season.

The No. 33 pick in the 2016 draft, Diallo worked his way into the low end of the rotation during his three years with the Pelicans. He’s a hustle big, committed rebounder and athletic player. But at 6-foot-9 and 220 pounds, he’s not strong enough to bang with most centers. His skill level is low for power forward.

Phoenix will stick him behind Deandre Ayton, Dario Saric, Aron Baynes and Frank Kaminsky in the frontcourt. Diallo might receive situation minutes, but he must develop further to hold staying power.

Report: Suns signing Frank Kaminsky for room exception

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Frank Kaminsky wanted a buyout from the Hornets last season. That Kaminsky thought a buyout was even feasible speaks volumes about his career. He was a former No. 9 pick in just his fourth season. Players with that pedigree don’t get bought out so early unless things have really gone south.

Charlotte didn’t acquiesce and finally put Kaminsky into the rotation late last season. Kaminsky played relatively well down the stretch.

Well enough to earn this surprisingly lucrative contract.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

This looks like the room exception, which would pay Kaminsky $9,772,350 ($4,767,000 next season, $5,005,350 the following season).

The Suns certainly have their own way of valuing players.

General manager James Jones seems to care about shooting. First-round picks Cameron Johnson and Ty Jerome and Kaminsky are good shooters. (Don’t ask how free agent Ricky Rubio fits. Phoenix just needed a point guard.) Shooting is certainly an important skill. But Phoenix might have gone overboard at the expense of other areas – like defense and rebounding.

Coby White astonished by Suns drafting Cameron Johnson No. 11 (video)

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North Carolina point guard Coby White – the Bulls’ No. 7 pick – was doing his NBA draft media session when the Suns chose North Carolina forward Cameron Johnson No. 11.

I recommend the video to see White’s emotions, but the the transcript captured his words:

Q. Cameron Johnson just went 11th. How do you react to that news?

COBY WHITE: Cam went 11th?

Q. Yeah, it’s right on the screen right there.

COBY WHITE: Wow. Wow. Wow, bro! That’s crazy. That’s so low, bro. Y’all know Cam? You don’t know how hard Cam worked. There’s a lot of people that doubt him. But wow, that’s crazy, bro. Wow, that’s so crazy. I’m so happy for him right now. Y’all don’t understand how happy I am for Cam. He proved it night in, night out that he deserves to be in the conversation for a lottery pick, man. He shot the ball like anybody I’ve never seen before in my life or played with. Wow. I’m getting chills up here.

I had a similar reaction – minus the deep happiness for Johnson, whom I’ve never met.

I was stunned.

Johnson ranked No. 27 on my board, and that wasn’t a major outlier. Johnson was a fifth-year senior who does little besides shoot. (At least he shoots very well). There are also long-term health concerns.

Suns general manager James Jones is definitely putting his stamp on the franchise. He traded T.J. Warren and the No. 32 pick to the Pacers, traded the No. 6 pick to the Timberwolves for the No. 11 pick and Dario Saric, traded for No. 24 pick Ty Jerome (another upperclassman) and gave undrafted Jalen Lecque an unusually large guarantee.

Shams Charania of The Athletic:

Of all those moves yesterday, drafting Johnson so high was the eye-popping one.

It’s very cool White shared his joy for his teammate. That showed their bond and looked like a genuine moment.

But White also displayed a shock many of us were feeling, and that will probably be what gets remembered.