PHOENIX – It’s December 23rd and Cam Johnson is elated as he leaves the footprint center.
Received an early Christmas gift.
“I’m going on a road trip!” Johnson shouted to reporters with a happy smile.
At the time, it had been nearly two months since he had recovered from a right meniscus tear. Johnson’s rehabilitation had reached a point where it was appropriate for him to continue away from the state-of-the-art training facility at The Sun. He would be able to get back into the swing of things with the daily routine outside of game time, but more importantly, he was getting back with the players every day and night.
It’s been a few weeks and almost half of the season has been shelved for Johnson. Thirty-seven games. The team confirmed Wednesday that Johnson will return for Thursday’s game against the Brooklyn Nets in a limited role.
It’s the kind of emotional lift needed for a Suns team that has an overall record of 21-24 and 5-17 in its last 22 games.
Johnson is, as Monty Williams puts it, “an incredibly important player on the programme.” He’s the only player on the list who can claim his entire NBA career has been directed by Williams, as he came to the Valley at the same time as the coach back in 2019.
He knows the system better than anyone since, well, it’s the only NBA system he knows. Williams will continually cite Johnson as the man who does X or Y right when discussing the various intricacies of the team’s style of play.
Johnson plays his tail. He spends more time on the floor than anyone else on the team. I’ve only been around him for a few years, but he’s the player I’ve asked the most about bumps or bruises. There was one above his eye earlier this year literally out of hard wood.
Johnson sat down after practice on Monday to talk to the media for the first time since his injury, drenched in sweat, as he has been for the past two weeks when we’ve seen him.
Exhale with “whew”. The last boxes to check were his conditioning and the more direct and purposeful movements of that right knee.
Those last few percentage progression increases to 100% were particularly irritating to Johnson, who admitted that the timeout this year isn’t the same because of how much Phoenix lost during it.
“It feels different,” Johnson said. “Especially because there are so many players in and out with injuries and it just goes to show that it’s more difficult for each individual.”
“Frustration is not the word,” he added, joking that he might have gotten into fights with the medical staff at times. “It will test your patience but I understand that they have my best interests at heart and I understand that they are looking out for the longevity of my career.”
Johnson is more inclined to the glimpses I’ve had in the tiny window we’ve been in the locker room for the past month in particular, watching his teammates limp after a game with only 9-12 players available. .
Guys who manage to play do it through some ailments. You can imagine how much that burden on Johnson’s teammates that can make him feel.
“I’ve been thinking about it a lot,” he said. “One of the feelings you can’t get rid of in this situation is guilt. I didn’t try for an injury or anything like that, but you see the players playing heavy minutes, the numbers go down even more so I’m sitting there watching it and you feel guilty.”
I’m done with it. Now, Johnson is getting rest on the court to deal with some of the unsustainable weight on the Suns roster build.
No team is built well enough to handle the loss of two of its six most important players, which is what Johnson and Jay Crowder – who had been waiting all season to make a deal – have been. Put him in the same position? forget that.
“It’s next mid-January to late January – it’s the dog days of the season. It’s been a lot of pressure on the guys and you can see it,” Johnson said. “I think the team has kept great spirit towards them and dealing with these adversities.”
Wing Torrey Craig has gone from “man, he’s a nice player to have as a fourth winger for depth” to a 33-game starter and Sun’s X factor in the last two or more months.
“It stresses your overall spin a little bit,” Williams said. “We had to play differently. And kudos to Toure. He stepped up and played heavy minutes, played on both ends of the ground, Dario (Saric) had to play some, Esh (Wainwright) had to play some. Yes, there’s pressure on rotation but when we start to Getting players back, hopefully that can be mitigated a bit.”
Johnson is focused on achieving that aforementioned mitigation by playing with, you guessed it, his tail. The No. 1 focus he saw as he watched the team from the sidelines and on his TV at home was speed.
He wants to bring energy, cover his teammates in defense and attack the opposition defense in fast-paced ways. He’s ready to use that to be that emotional trigger.
“Very,” Johnson said when asked about it. “I just think anyone who’s back injects some of that energy and life into it.”
The way he described it, there didn’t seem to be any mental block built around his knee.
“I feel good on my knees, my whole body,” Johnson said. “So I’m just going to let it go and have fun out there and try to contribute as a win.”