The Brooklyn Nets have telegraphed their intentions re Cam Johnson’s upcoming restricted free agency: They want him back, period.
In his exit interview for the season, Sean Marks said that “we hope that Cam will be back. He’s a big priority for us. There’s no question.”
As for Johnson himself, it sure sounds like he’s planning on being in the borough for the foreseeable future:
“I’m excited for the future, and I’m excited to see everybody’s individual and collective growth this summer...I think there’s a special group of people here,” said Johnson in that same media availability.
And, if you’re looking to read in between the lines, there is the fact that the Nets’ social media team has been including Johnson in virtually all their off-season content. There’s also the fact that, as Brian Lewis points out, that his “tight relationship with Bridges, positional value and status as part of the Durant deal make him hard to let escape.”
All this to say that while transparency isn’t exactly a strong suit of NBA front offices and players, it’s hard to imagine Cam Johnson in another uniform to start next season. Whether the Nets should or shouldn’t extend an offer to the 6’8” wing of around $20 million annually for four years )what many estimate his market value to be) is a separate issue. It’s going to happen. Wisely or not, Brooklyn fancies themselves on competing — actually competing -- in the playoffs sooner rather than later, and views their current nucleus of players as just that, rather than a stepping stone to the next big thing. Cam Johnson is set to be a part of that nucleus, barring the extremely unexpected. The question that we must turn to now is, how valuable is he?
We must discuss the warts of Johnson’s game, as he steps into a far meatier role than he had as Phoenix Sun, or even as a North Carolina Tar Heel. He has gone from an ancillary, spot-up shooter to, hopefully, a secondary offense creator. His success in this position will not only determine how his next contract is viewed, but how this next iteration of the Nets are too, at least in part.
There is not much to speak of regarding his defense; at 6’8” with an ordinary wingspan and athleticism, but with solid awareness, effort, and hands, Johnson is probably the benchmark for an average NBA defender. That is no slight. Brooklyn can execute whatever scheme they want to with the 27-year-old on the court; they don’t have to worry about blundered rotations on his end.
Thus, it is his offense beyond the excellent 3-point shooting that will determine if his $20 million gets lumped in with the Duncan Robinsons and (sorry) Joe Harrises of the world, both earning similar figures. There is no choice but to look at his game with a critical eye.
However, there is also the intangible, emotional appeal, and Johnson makes a very strong one. He is the best interview on this Nets team, even ahead of Spencer Dinwiddie, and not because he curses or rips off punchlines. Johnson is admirably introspective when he speaks, and makes it hard not to root for him.
@Alex__Schiffer asked Cam Johnson to reflect on his year, and I thought Johnson's answer was worth reading in full. As others have noted, he's a really great, sincere interview: pic.twitter.com/ALSIZPONEC— Lucas Kaplan (@LucasKaplan_) April 23, 2023
When he says he wants to win, it’s hard not to believe him, especially after a strong playoff performance vs. the Philadelphia 76ers. The theme of that sweep was Joel Embiid completely shutting off the rim for Brooklyn, not only erasing drive after drive, but eventually scaring various Nets from even challenging him in the paint. Well, every Net but Johnson.
Despite the fact that self-created two-point buckets are perhaps the major question in his game right now, the UNC product continually took it at Embiid in all three games the MVP played, and the results were nothing short of inspiring:
It’s one thing to be at a talent disadvantage, but for too much of their first-round defeat, it felt like Brooklyn didn’t go down swinging. Sure, there were some feisty moments in Game Three specifically, with Nic Claxton taunting Embiid to the tune of two technicals. But in a basketball sense, the Nets didn’t take it to Philly’s best player and force him to beat them. That is, except for Johnson.
On those finishes, he exhibits many of the keys to his successful forays to the rim. Yes, he is adept at moving without the basketball and reading defenders’ momentum before the catch; on that last poster of Embiid, Johnson spaces deep from the basket and revs up his momentum before taking a dribble.
But, on his more standstill drives, either in the pick-and-roll or on handoffs, he often encounters into more trouble, particularly when he picks up the ball too early. His successful finishes over Embiid in the above clips feature him extending his dribble until the last possible moment, allowing him to get all the way to the rim.
Johnson, with the ball in his hands, is a subpar athlete for his size. There is a lack of vertical explosion in his game, meaning it is imperative he does as much work as possible on the ground before rising up to finish.
While that includes taking that extra dribble, often through traffic, that’s a key for every player trying to score the ball. Johnson’s best drives include that detail, yes, but often combine in with a level of persistent physicality, taking an initial bump from a defender but powering through it anyway:
Going through defenders must be available for Johnson, because going over the top often isn’t. That lack of vertical pop shows up in surprising misses around the basket, even after otherwise strong takes, but especially when he fails to take that last dribble, as he does in the final clip here:
Ultimately, a lack of explosion requires Johnson’s drives to be technically perfect much of the time, as he simply lacks the tools necessary to get creative in the air or to dust his defenders with a live dribble. That’s where that physicality comes into play; he simply doesn’t have that wiggle that...when you see it, you know it:
In a way, some of this is slightly encouraging. It’s not Johnson’s handle that is lacking, but rather his quick-twitch athleticism. Think the opposite of Jaylen Brown, who is a downright blur, but often can’t take advantage of those physical gifts given his loose handle - you gotta take the ball with you.
Given the rest of Johnson’s game, Brooklyn will those strengths and weaknesses. His career 39.3% mark from deep forces defenders to fly at him on the arc, and we know he can read defenders’ momentum and speed past by wild closeouts. He can also read the floor, provided he gives himself enough time to do so:
This is one of his most encouraging reps of the season, showcasing a prolonged dribble, not getting deterred by contact, and wrapping a pass to the corner with his left hand. Johnson has real skill and floor-reading prowess, it's just about tapping into that more often by slowing the game down. His ability to be a secondary creator, to get inside the arc and making decisions, looks a lot shakier when he picks the ball up too early and forces himself into making quick decisions. Here, Johnson is his own worst enemy:
Despite my reservations about Johnson’s ultimate offensive potential given his physical limitations, there clearly is a lot to work with here. His handle is tight enough, he’s proven he can endure contact and keep his dribble alive, and as he receives more reps as a ball-handler, he’ll become more aware of the weak-spots in a defense.
There’s also the question of Johnson’s in-between game, which hasn’t been a strong suit over the first four seasons of his career. Basketball Reference has him at just 41% from 3-16 feet over his career. On its own, that’s not a terrible mark, but a bit befuddling considering his prowess as a long-range shooter, and a bit troubling considering the questions concerning his finishing at the rim. Certainly something to track throughout next season.
So, Cam Johnson, in all likelihood, will be locked in to around $20 to $24 million annually for the next few seasons as a Brooklyn Net. That much seems like a formality. We know much about his game, most prominently the fact that he is a lights-out 3-point shooter and much of his offense either comes from beyond the arc or from defenders scrambling to run him off of it.
But we knew that from the second he arrived in Brooklyn. What we don't know is how much his game will progress in an expanded role. There are reasons to be either optimistic or pessimistic (mainly the fact that he’s already 27 years old and a subpar athlete with the ball in his hands) depending on which side of the bed you woke up on.
The salary cap is projected to balloon after the 2024-25 season, the second of Johnson’s upcoming contract. That is also when Ben Simmons’ albatross comes off the books, and when all non-max contracts signed prior to that season will start to look surprisingly small, including Johnson’s.
Consider that Brooklyn’s messaging has recently been one of wanting to compete without rushing things. Add in how glowingly the team has spoken of Johnson, and it seems like the other player received in the Kevin Durant trade is set to be an affordable part of the next iteration of contending Nets.
Whether that is a recipe for success all depends on Johnson’s individual growth on a roster that, with its lack of offensive creation, was starved for it this past season. Perhaps it will still be starved for it next season. In just three short months as a Brooklyn Net, Cam Johnson has become a fan favorite, and for very good reason. But he still has much to prove.