FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. — There’s been a lot of talk about the Phoenix Suns roster and how it better suits multiple players.
Devin Booker has had the most help since taking his game to a high level. Deandre Ayton has a pure playmaker to work with. They both have an established NBA coach for the first time. There is depth in several places on the floor.
But one player who is in a much better position than last season, one who is often overlooked because of his time in Phoenix and how he got here, is guard Tyler Johnson.
Johnson was acquired at the trade deadline in exchange for Ryan Anderson, a move the Suns made primarily because Johnson’s $19.2 million contract expiring this season will be easier to move if they choose.
The 27-year-old also gave them what they sorely lacked as a competent ball handler.
The problem is that Johnson has spent most of his NBA career playing both guard positions off the bench.
At Phoenix last season, he was inserted as the Suns’ starting point guard in 12 of his 13 games. Johnson was limited to 13 as he underwent knee surgery in April and missed the rest of the season.
Now comes Rubio, putting Johnson out of a lot of people’s minds when they think of the Suns.
But because Rubio is there, Johnson can return to the default role he held for five seasons with the Miami Heat as a reserve combo guard.
“His comfort level is coming off the bench,” Suns head coach Monty Williams said of Johnson on Thursday.
“That’s where he excelled.”
It’s hard to pull off from afar but there is some nuance that Johnson needs to come off the bench.
And it’s not exactly about when he comes in, it’s more about what he does when he’s not playing, watching the first six or seven minutes of a game.
“Coming off the bench allows me to see how the defense was playing, to feel the rhythm of the game (and) to see where I could put my fingerprints on it,” he said on Thursday.
Johnson got more specific about how it can help him.
“Pick-and-roll coverage, you can see which player is getting into what type of rhythm,” he said. “So if you get into the game, what can you do to cut that? We’re doing a play and you see a reading that we didn’t get access to in the top five and you’re like, ‘OK, maybe now we’ve read it a few times with this band (so) I can hit them with that.'”
And he’s just wrapped up one of the most learned seasons of his career being thrown into the starting point guard role.
“That time, being a starter at that time really helped specifically,” Johnson said.
“It was hard, I’m not even going to lie to you. [Those] first games [were] difficult.”
Again, it’s more complex than you first think. It goes from where Johnson likes to be in transition to how he has to, all of a sudden, lead an entire team.
“First, I love leading the wing,” he said. “It’s something I’ve done since I was little.
“We had to get back into the ball. You have to know where everyone is supposed to be. Usually when a game goes down they look (the point guard for help). It taught me a lot of responsibility more than anything. Understand not just my position, but multiple positions on the pitch, multiple play reads and do it for an entire game.
Johnson said he has a lot more respect for the job itself now, and it obviously gave him new experience as a leader.
Also, the difference with Johnson is that he’s a different type of voice for the Suns.
He came off the bench in high school. He was not drafted out of Fresno State. He had to go through “The Jungle,” what his former Heat teammates called the G League, before carving out a real role for himself and earning a $50 million extension.
“He understands the work and the grind,” Williams said.
That can go a long way for a team that needs extra parts to get off the bench, and reliable parts.
Williams doesn’t look like a coach who thinks he’ll have to worry if he gets good minutes from Johnson.
“I like Tyler because he’s tough,” he said. “He doesn’t make a lot of mistakes. He does a lot of things well. He can shoot, he can pass, he can play the dribble, he defends his position, he rebounds.
“I think he understands the team.”