How Suns Mikal Bridges and Cameron Johnson Evolved Ahead Playoffs

Phoenix Suns, Mikal Bridges, Cameron Johnson. Mandatory Credit: Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports
Phoenix Suns, Mikal Bridges, Cameron Johnson. Mandatory Credit: Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports /

The Phoenix Suns offered their fans an abundance of highlight plays, fun moments, flashy jerseys, and most importantly wins during the 2021-22 NBA season. But amidst that parade of sorts, fans also saw the evolution of the “Twins” in Mikal Bridges and Cameron Johnson, both individually and as a tandem.

It became abundantly obvious that both “homegrown” talents took all which they learned from their playoff run last year, watched film, and honed in on specific skills that would prove conducive in Phoenix’s “0.5” system. They also developed themselves as solid compliments to ball-dominant teammates Chris Paul and Devin Booker.

Both rangy, two-way wings experienced multiple stretches of excellence that spanned over games (if not months), and resembled been key factors in those declaring this year’s Suns team as better than its predecessor.

Each player’s points of emphasis included some improved self-creation and generating offense independent from Paul and Booker—adding more flexibility to this already versatile rotation.

Phoenix Suns Torture Twins: Mikal Bridges

Bridges represents the quintessential role player. Even more, his play is all-encompassing, which makes it important to gauge as a whole.

Although he came into the league with renowned defensive skills, he improved this past year as a defender on the ball at the point of attack and as a helper/chaser off-ball. He is the key that unlocks Phoenix Suns basketball—all the while planting himself in the Defensive Player of the Year conversation.

  • Last season: 13.5 PPG, 4.3 RPG, 2.1 APG (.543/.425/.840) (+4.7) 
  • This season: 14.2 PPG, 4.2 RPG, 2.3 APG (.534/.369/.834 (+7.0)

When opponents test their chances with Bridges by involving his man in primary actions, he often makes plays that garner extra possessions for the Suns, such as steals that unlock their transition offense.

Off steals last season, the Suns ranked 29th in points per 100 plays, according to Cleaning the Glass. But this season, on an identical frequency, they finished third in the NBA with 148 points per 100 possessions.

This is not solely because of Bridges, but it is in large-part due to his efforts in changing ends of the floor with a propensity for finishing plays in transition.

Bridges leads the team in transition frequency (24.1%), and his 1.37 points per possession (70.8 eFG%) indicate both consistency and efficiency in converting those opportunities into points. This level of play has always been something brought to the table by Bridges, but the way Phoenix’s aforementioned team numbers coincide with his efforts fully illustrates his limitless value.

Going back to his beat off primary actions, those in turn give him a head start even on his teammates during fast breaks.

After a steal or takeaway, he used to meander on the wing in hopes of receiving hit-aheads to then attack. But now, he feasts on defenders trying to sprint back with him. More often than not, he exploits them with deep seals that pin them inside the restricted area to afford soft looks at the cup, much like Deandre Ayton does on his rim-runs.

Past that, Bridges’s methodical maneuvering in the half court represents his other largest area of growth. He does this both while working within a strategic set for Phoenix, and as an improvisor.

Bridges’s two-point field goal percentage this year skyrocketed by double-digits compared to the last, going from 52.9 percent to 63.6 percent. His percentage of points on midrange shots jumped by +3.0 percent, and his overall percentage of unassisted field goals rose by +2.7 percentage points.

The Warden even finds himself shooting 56.0 percent from the short mid-range, a spot where nearly a third of his shots come from. Bridges is clearly aware of where he needs to attack and can navigate his way there thanks to an improved handle, all elevating the Suns to new heights.

Bridges now seems far more adept with his touch on dribble pull-ups and finishing with a floater, which he of course follows with his patented “floaties” celebration right after.

He also possesses a slick turnaround jumper which is nearly impossible to contest given his release point and ability to throw defenders off balance. It’s cagey and crafty, as he does a fantastic job disguising it.

Phoenix Suns Torture Twins: Cameron Johnson

This past year, Cameron Johnson enjoyed his first season north of the 40.0 percent threshold from beyond the arc, doing so even on a career-high volume with 5.9 attempts per game. In fact, during his 45 games after the new year, he shot 43.6 percent from deep while averaging 6.5 attempts per game.

On the season, amongst the elite (those taking 5+ 3PAs per game), Johnson ranked third at 42.5 percent from deep. Even more, among those attempting at least three catch-and-shoot attempts per game, he ranks eighth in percentage and second in points.

  • Last season: 9.6 PPG, 3.3 RPG (.420/.349/.847) (+2.9)
  • This season: 12.5 PPG, 4.1 RPG (.460/.425/.860) (+3.3)

His growth came via an improved handle which allows him to attack the basket more (+5.0% in rim attempts), giving him game a unique balance between rim pressure and deadeye shooting.

Although he more often comes off the bench unlike Bridges, Johnson started a few times for Phoenix this year. Occasionally filling in for Jae Crowder, he averaged 16.3 points and 4.9 rebounds per game on .492/.420/.912 splits. He also included a 22-game streak this year where he averaged 14.9 points per game on .495/.476/.864 splits.

His talents remains a premium value to the Suns as he makes the team that much more dynamic any time he steps onto the hardwood.

All these tools make him a premier “0.5” piece with his ability to shoot, drive, and cut. His tendency to do all things needed in a 0.5 offense have him often scoring the second or third most points for the Suns from time to time, even while playing fewer minutes.

Johnson also now knows the game to a further extent as a shooter, doing an excellent job to grant himself clean looks via his relocation shooting—whether that’s thanks to his lifting, sinking, or continued movement after a drive-and-kick. Then, thanks to his shooting prowess, his ability to get into pull ups in attacking closeouts and generating rim pressure follows.

He resembles a true all-around scorer, with so few flaws you forget that this was only his third season at the NBA level.

Phoenix Suns Torture Twins: Working Together

As a duo, both Bridges and Johnson are ever-present in transition in via hit-aheads, outlets, or even while “one-man fast breaking.” Then, in the half court, they are both masters at relocating and cutting after off-ball screens.

In cutting, they do so in a timely manner, with such actions becoming key components within how the team operates. Both Bridges and Johnson make sharp cuts even when other aspects of the offense stagnate.

This makes the Suns special, as other teams allow a lot of stand-still offense so a defense can load up. But when Bridges and Johnson get moving for Phoenix, they force rotations, and then open up looks for other shooters.

In screening, Bridges and Johnson also know a thing or two about the second-side, where they play off of the help defense and attention drawn by Paul and Booker. With the help defenders’ backs turned to the second-side, they set up rip-screens to give the shooters around them additional clean looks.

However, nothing tops each player’s new found skills in ghosting, where they fake a screen before popping out into space, and then slip said screens. These two entities serve as short-roll type scenarios for them to play make for themselves and get going downhill.

It also adds to Phoenix’s overall scheme at the offensive end, as the diversity in their attack gives it an ambiguity and randomness that keeps opposing defenses on their toes. These factors make points easy to come by for Phoenix from all angles.

In part, all these tools on display from Bridges and Johnson just show their ever-growing ceilings, which from a general standpoint has been a common practice for all Phoenix Suns players over the past two years.

This all comes together when both guys take the floor at the same time, and with unrivaled chemistry, they possess a highly entertaining and innate sense for finding each other.

Next. Suns Secret Lineup for the Playoffs?. dark

Keep an eye on the frequency of lineups this postseason that include these two, as they promise to show off the multiple growths and effectiveness which Bridges and Johnson enjoyed this season, and likely will continue to do so for years to come.