Vol.2, Iss.5: Addition By Subtraction

The Suns have found two ideal fits for their young core. Bridges and Johnson are showing out, now that the opportunity has presented itself.

Thanks For Your Support…..

It’s been a little while since the last Issue but with no Suns basketball currently, I had some time to write and I hope you have some time to read. I also hope you enjoyed the special podcast edition of the Newsletter last time around. Just a quick welcome to any new subscribers, a quick thanks to any old subscribers who invited a friend, and a quick nudge to any readers who haven’t yet hit that little button below.

Time To Do Some Not So Quick Math…..

Ask anyone around the NBA who the biggest surprises have been so far this season and the names of Mikal Bridges and Cameron Johnson will no doubt come up more than a few times.

But I can tell you who won’t be surprised - the players themselves and the team that made moves to get them. Phoenix traded an extra first round draft pick in 2018, with a Draft Night move to secure Bridges. A year later, the Suns traded back in the 2019 NBA Draft for Johnson and were still accused of reaching with the selection. But Phoenix knew who they wanted and now we are starting to see why.

One big reason the two are starting to flourish - another recent trade.

While the off-season trade for Chris Paul was largely spoken about in terms of what he could add to The Valley, and rightly so. A much less asked question was on my mind at the time - how would the subtraction of Kelly Oubre have a positive impact on the rest of the young core?

Disclaimer - This isn’t a hit piece on either Kelly Oubre or to a less extent Deandre Ayton. I loved Kelly’s time on the team but was consistent in my belief that long term, his play-style wasn’t a good marriage with this core. As for Deandre, you can read here just how talented I think he is and what his best role is on this team.

But Don’t Just Listen To Me…..

With only 11 games played so far (thanks A LOT Wizards!), we are definitely still in Small Sample Size Alert territory. But with a few extra days to pore over the numbers and re-watch the games, there’s plenty to discuss.

Looking at the Per 36 comparison above, a few things stand out. Through increased opportunity, Bridges and Johnson have been able to match or better just about every aspect of Oubre’s game. Improved efficiency and differing shot profiles are largely responsible for how the Suns current duo are able to provide an even better impact with less touches and shots. And what’s not listed you ask? Well, the interesting fact that all three guys are in their age 24 season at the time of these stats.

When your offense going forward is going to revolve around Devin Booker, Chris Paul and Deandre Ayton - even with that trio having plenty to figure out still - this is the type of Wing production you need.

That’s where we get to talk about Jae Crowder and team usage numbers. Crowder has been the obvious replacement for Oubre in the starting lineup to date, so I know it seems weird that he isn’t being included in this larger conversation. And that’s mainly for two good reasons. Firstly, I’ve discussed Crowder’s ideal role on this team both in Issue One and Two. Secondly, it comes down to usage.

If you compare Booker’s usage rate last season to this season currently, there is basically zero change (30.0 vs 29.6). Add starting PG, with little difference between Rubio last season (20.4) and Paul so far this season (20.1). Then you get to Oubre (22.4) compared to Crowder (14.6), to get your first big discrepancy of -7.8. It is of course no coincidence and should be no surprise then, that Bridges has gone from 12.7 to 16.0 (+3.3) and Johnson from 15.7 to 20.3 (+4.6) to eat all of that difference up. It also shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone watching, that Ayton has had his usage slide from 23.7 to 18.7 this season.

This has all resulted in more touches (and shots) for the likes of Mikal and Cam. And now we get back to why both team and player wouldn’t be surprised at their impact through 11 games in Season 2020/21. This is who they are, they just needed the opportunity to show it. In some respects, they may have even more to show and there is likely going to be that opportunity to do so going forward.

Looking at a Per 40 comparison this time (stupid College Per 40 numbers, what’s all that about?) to even things out, we can see how the last season in College may have provided the window into the current production Bridges and Johnson are showing now.

What stands out? I’ll let you decide that for now (with a little help). My thoughts on some of the highlighted figures, will come as we watch the clips below.

Now Let’s Go To The Tape…..

Don’t just let all that math convince you.

Let’s take a look at how Mikal and Cam flashed a lot of what they are doing when in College and how it’s translating into the NBA. Via clips (WARNING! and stats, there’s going to be more stats) I want to look at how some of it shouldn’t be a surprise at all and how some further leaps this season, shouldn’t catch you off guard either.

Pro Tip - The below content is likely going to be best viewed in the browser version of this Issue, so head over to the site if you are currently reading just within your email.

Don’t Leave Them

Let’s start with the very obvious, shall we? Per Synergy numbers, Mikal and Cam ranked in the 98th and 97th percentile respectively on Spot Up possessions in their final year at College. It was also the play-type each player had the most reps in during their last season. That’s basically just a fancy way of saying the Suns got two damn good shooting prospects.

And while one has taken a slightly different route to the other so far in the Pros, they are both excelling in similar situations so far this season. On Spot Ups this year, Mikal ranks in the 82nd percentile and Cam the 78th. Arguably both with room to improve there, that’s still far ahead of Oubre last season who was in the 60th percentile.

We all know Johnson can shoot. The real threat he possesses is the deep range. His chemistry with Cam Payne in the second unit, reminds me a lot of the way he worked with Coby White at UNC. Watch below as defenders shade the lane to prevent the drive in both clips but Johnson is just a cheat code of a release valve.

Then there’s Johnson’s ability to head fake himself into an even better shot. Something he showed much earlier in College. He can take one dribble left or right, taking his shot while the close out defender sails on by. College or the Pros, it’s all the same to him.

So what about Mikal? As I alluded to earlier, his shooting confidence has been a much rockier road so far but you don’t need me to tell you that. We’ve ALL felt it. However, it was more than just blind faith if you believed he could turn things around. If you watched him rise up on the catch below versus Denver, you will have seen a guy we’d seen many times before. This sweet stroke was a regular occurrence for Villanova. Nice to see it back.

Whether it’s College or the NBA, Mikal sitting in the corner for guards to kick to is a huge luxury to have. The Suns Guards are even more dangerous on penetration than Bridges’ options at ‘Nova, so expect even more help off situations this season.

Lost In Transit

The next play-type Bridges and Johnson both excelled at in College, was in Transition. Both rated as ‘Excellent’ with Synergy and it was also next in line after Spot Up possessions in terms of frequency. Their mix of shooting and size, make them a nightmare to guard in the open court.

As does their ability to make good decisions. This is a much more underrated skill and a big reason Oubre only rated as ‘Very Good’ last season, despite his eye-catching athleticism. This season, Bridges and Johnson are 90th percentile or above.

Mikal often ends up with the ball in hands in transition on the back of defensive impact plays. At Villanova, his ability to get all the way to the rim was a big reason for his impressive transition numbers. It was also a big reason why defenders forced him to give the ball up once he’d crossed half court (see below). However, the Suns have other dangerous weapons out there and defenders don’t quite believe in his shooting yet. But they will soon, if he keeps pulling up like this.

As for Cam, he has also shown an ability to get all the way to the rim for both UNC and the Suns. But his true threat in transition, is to knock down open threes as the trail man on the break. Compare the flow and spacing in the two plays below and watch how in the Suns clip, Johnson holds himself back as everyone else gets down court. A beautifully timed run for Jevon Carter to pick up the assist.

Off Screen Roles

While the first two play-types will be fairly familiar with Suns fans watching Johnson and Bridges, this next one hasn’t been seen quite as much. But the trend continues - Off-Screens, Cam (97th) and Mikal (91st) both ranked in the upper echelon of College players in their final year. It wasn’t used quite as much then and it certainly isn’t now.

But maybe it should be called upon some more, given their College stats? This is one area where both players are already much more advanced than Oubre, who ranked just 29th percentile last season, but also still have plenty of room to grow.

For Johnson, he could present a real threat from deep if his name was called for more designed sets within Off Screens action. You can see below that Bridges essentially calls him into the corner and screens off his own man, thankfully with Payne finding him open. Now watch the UNC clip and imagine Bridges and Ayton setting an Elevator Screen for Johnson to get to the same spot.

Bridges on the other hand is flashing a different skill Off Screens inside the arc and that could signal a move by the Suns to replicate some of his College play. The Villanova play below is reminiscent of the Suns ‘Fist’ play, which we touched on alllllll the way back in this Newsletter’s very First Issue. The next Suns play is ‘52’ out of their Horns Action (also in that Issue). Bridges knocks down the mid-range J curling Off Screens in both. But what is more interesting about both of these plays? The Suns almost exclusively run these for Booker. High praise for Bridges and perhaps a sign of things to come.

Death By 1000 Cuts

Cam and Mikal are ‘Excellent’ at Cutting. Literally. Yet another less frequently used play-type for the Suns two Wings this season but Surprise Surprise, yet another where both rated 89th percentile or above in College.

Another area the Suns could improve this season, starting perhaps with Johnson and Bridges. It won’t shock you that Phoenix ranked 2nd in the NBA last season in Cut Frequency. It also likely won’t shock you that this season so far, they rate just 19th in the league.

One of my favorite skills of Cam Johnson in College, was his ability to slip screens and cut his way down a wide open lane. He shows that below for you. He also illustrates in the second clip how the danger of him popping over an Ayton screen for 3, allows him a clear lane down the middle while his defender gambles the wrong way. An easy read for CP3.

As for Mikal, he came into the NBA with a reputation of being a terrific cutter off the ball and last year really showed that chemistry with Rubio. But is it any surprise? The spacing difference in the below clips is laughable. If Bridges can find the tiny hole amongst the crowd in College, of course he can catch his defender sleeping to attack that ocean of space in the NBA. As the Suns main weapons heat up this season and take more of the defense’s attention, look for Mikal to get back to his best off the ball.

The Bonus Round

If you are still with me at this point, I have to firstly say thank you! Next though, you have likely started to notice the hypothesis I’m getting at here. If Bridges and Johnson were both rated ‘Excellent’ at all these things in College, should we really be that surprised it’s working in the NBA and can it continue?

We have covered four play-types so far, where both players shared their excellence in the area. Now we get into the Bonus, where our two Suns in focus split apart. These are areas where even at College, neither player got a huge amount of reps despite their excellent effeciency. Let’s call it; the areas we could see each guy take an even further leap and shouldn’t be THAT surprised if/when they do.

For Johnson, that’s on Hand Offs. He only had 19 Hand Off possessions in his last season in the NCAA, despite his efficiency on the play. If you compare the very rough play from UNC below to that with PHX, you can only imagine he would be even better in the NBA off this play. Particularly with Guards like Payne, Johnson can use his height to shoot over the defender who switches onto him as Payne gets in the way.

For Bridges, his untapped potential might exist in another area where he can look a little Booker-esque. We are just starting to see Mikal operate in the Pick & Roll as a ball-handler, a play-type he ran very effectively just 61 times his final season in the NCAA. Watch below as the finish is almost a mirror image of one another, while the lead up shows a little more patience to navigate far better defense in the NBA.

And just quickly, I had to throw in these almost identical attacks off the dribble from Bridges and Johnson. Another area both can really look to improve as defenders close out harder on them.

A Tale Of Two Defenders

As defenders, Bridges and Johnson couldn’t have been viewed any more different coming out of College. While Mikal had a reputation as a good defender, Cam’s reputation was a negative one.

I really only have two points to make here. Well actually, three.

  1. Mikal Bridges’ reputation was warranted - he is the Suns best defender.

  2. Cam Johnson’s reputation was unfair - he is actually quite sound defensively.

  3. Fundamentally, both are better defenders than Kelly Oubre, especially within a team construct.

Guarding in the post might be the final piece Bridges needs to master, in order to become one of the NBA’s elite. With a bit more strength to go with his ridiculous length, the below clips might become much more common.

With Johnson, I’m not sure we should be so surprised. He had corrective surgery to improve his mobility and there were still examples in College of him successfully guarding NBA level talent. Look at him slide his feet while maintaining strength against Duke teammates Cam Reddish and Zion Williamson.

Look At The Chemistry

I know it’s been a lot of reading to this point, so I won’t keep you too much longer or make you read too much more. The next four GIFs highlight the on-court chemistry Johnson and Bridges have together. An added bonus, if you will.

So What Does It All Mean?

Now let’s end just how we started. With some more numbers.

Bridges’ Usage Rate in his final season at Villanova was 23.2. Currently for the Suns it is 16.0. He is currently the second leading scorer for the Suns at 15.1 PPG, within a very balanced attack that still has room to improve. He was also the second leading scorer for the Villanova team that won the National Title in his final year. And that attack was also very well balanced, with six scorers averaging double digits. Everyone expects Paul or Ayton to get going at some stage, but history would suggest Bridges might not be totally out of place sitting right behind Booker on offense.

As for Johnson, his Usage Rate his Senior Year at UNC was 21.8 as a starter. Currently with Phoenix, it’s 20.3 coming off the bench. There’s going to be calls for Cam to start, if his play continues to improve. Just make sure you are factoring in the context of why he looks so good and if that would still exist as a starter. The bench role with Payne and Saric, presents an opporunity very similar to the starting role he played with UNC. There, Johnson was the leading scorer while sharing similar shot attempts per game with White and Luke Maye. With Phoenix, Johnson leads all bench scorers while taking a similar amount of shots as Payne and Saric.

Going forward, the Suns have two extremely valuable NBA Wings who are still on their rookie scale contracts. This season for instance, the combined salary of Crowder, Johnson and Bridges is $17.8 million. Oubre’s salary on his own is $14.3 million. Next season, Bridges and Johnson will only cost a combined $10 million. Kelly Oubre will be an Unrestricted Free Agent.

The Phoenix Suns had a choice of which of their 24 year old Wings was best to keep around and early indications suggest they chose right.

But none of that matters without the productive on-court play from the guys who stayed in the purple and orange. (No comment on the current play of the one wearing blue and yellow).

Mikal Bridges and Cam Johnson have surprised the NBA through 11 games this season, thanks to an opportunity to produce in ideal roles. Just don’t be shocked if they both look even better after 61 more. I know I won’t be.


Overtime…..

Hopefully a bit more entertaining than the recent Detroit OT, here’s a few extra links to Suns content recently: