Phoenix Suns have One New Starter Thriving as Another Struggles

Phoenix Suns, Cameron Johnson, JaVale McGee (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
Phoenix Suns, Cameron Johnson, JaVale McGee (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images) /

It might not be how they wanted it to happen, but Phoenix Suns fans finally got their wish—Cameron Johnson is a starter.

With countless NBA players sent into league health and safety protocols over the past month, the Suns stood strong, swimming against the current for some time and keeping their team intact. But this week, the pandemic finally breached Phoenix’s gates.

As it stands now, Jae Crowder, Deandre Ayton, Elfrid Payton, and head coach Monty Williams are all stuck under quarantine orders having either tested positive for or been exposed to COVID-19. With Crowder starting every single game for the Suns leading up to the outbreak, his absence opened the door for Johnson to step into this starting role.

By his side, JaVale McGee also finds himself fielding minutes to begin games, taking over for Ayton.

McGee already started eight games for the Suns this year when Ayton missed time due to a left leg contusion and then a non-COVID related illness. He and Johnson now resemble two “glue guys” being put to the ultimate test, as they try to keep the Suns together while the pandemic tries to tear them apart.

Breaking Down Cameron Johnson and JaVale McGee as Phoenix Suns Starters

Only running with remaining starters Chris Paul, Devin Booker, and Mikal Bridges for two games now, the sample size to judge McGee and Johnson remains relatively small. But with that considered, one can still make a few mild conclusions based on each contest’s results.

Starting with Johnson, he averaged 15.5 points per game while starting against the Grizzlies and Thunder, tied for the second most on the team behind Booker. With that effort, Johnson surpassed Paul as a scorer, who averaged 11.5 points, and even more than doubled Bridges’s scoring contributions, with him averaging just 7.5 points.

Before those previous two games, Phoenix’s top scorers included Booker, followed by the vanquished Ayton, then Paul, and then Bridges. Obviously with Ayton gone, it makes sense for someone else to assume the secondary scoring spot, but for Johnson to handsomely surpass both Paul and Bridges while doing so, it clearly illustrates that given the opportunity, he possesses all the tools needed to work as a top player on this team.

Johnson has not just reached this level due to an increase of shot attempts either, with his efficiency remaining top notch.

Before starting, Johnson posted .442/.430/.791 shooting splits. During these last two games though, Johnsons put up .478/.400/1.00 splits. He maintained his stellar 3-point shooting, while improving his accuracy from the field and charity stripe.

At the defensive end, Johnson’s rebounding percentage is up from 7.7 percent to 10.5 percent as well, proving himself as a far better glass eater as a starter than reserve guy. Granted, the Suns still surrendered a combined 112 points in the paint to the Grizzlies and the Thunder, but defending there remains more of McGee’s responsibility rather than Johnson’s.

When looking at him, McGee’s sample size feels even more microscopic considering how much time he spent in foul purgatory against the Grizzlies. But regardless, his numbers still show a difference in his production as a starter, which has unfortunately been rather negative.

McGee’s scoring is down from 30.5 points to 24.4 points per 100 possessions. From an efficiency standpoint, his field goal shooting dropped by a less dramatic, but still noteworthy 2.2 percentage points as well.

However, his rebounding numbers illustrate the most shocking drop off. While playing 15.9 minutes per contest leading up to this stretch, McGee averaged a solid 7.4 boards per game. But now with him playing an increased 22.8 minutes per game, he somehow finds himself securing less boards, averaging 6.0 rebounds per game.

Without question, these results make it clear that while McGee thrives during spurts off the bench, he cannot maintain his effectiveness during the long periods of play which teams ask of their starters.

While Johnson puts forth a strong case to serve as a starter going forward—presenting the Suns with a strong option to slide into the first five should Crowder ever lose his touch, they likely cannot wait to take the reins away from McGee and hand them back to Ayton.

Next. When Could Ayton and Crowder Return?. dark

With McGee as an aging veteran and Johnson still a few years away from his prime, this revelation makes sense, but also just goes to show you how vital Ayton specifically is to Phoenix’s winning efforts.