Cam Johnson's rookie diary: Unpredictable 2019-20 season 'was a wild ride'
In his final entry, Johnson takes us inside the Suns' 8-0 bubble run, and why the team still feels 'alive' weeks later.
Welcome to the latest edition of Cam Johnson’s Suns rookie diary. Throughout the season, Johnson will share first-person insights about his on-court and off-court life as a first-year NBA player.
In his final entry, Johnson takes us inside the Suns’ 8-0 bubble run, from the initial practices, to heated video-game battles, to his feelings after watching the Portland-Brooklyn game that ended Phoenix’s season. He also shares his biggest overall takeaways from his rookie season and his offseason workout plans.
Sept. 16, 2020
I went home back to Pittsburgh right after the bubble and really just spent some time with my family. Let the body do its thing in terms of recovering from whatever nicks and bruises occurred down in Orlando, and just spent quality time. That’s important to me. It was good to be back. We couldn’t do as many of the normal things that we’d like to do, but we just would play games, shoot around the driveway, go play tennis at the park. It was relaxing.
The bubble experience, I think, was just super positive all around. The fact that we got to spend time with our team and practice and play and finish out the season, in a sense, was really important to us as a young team and as a developing team. I just think we took such big strides there that were really encouraging for the future. A lot of time spent together. We just had a lot to talk about. A lot to talk about with our season. A lot to talk about with society. And we had time and opportunity to do that.
One thing I can note is when we started practice, we were practicing with a lot of energy. Looking back, it was just (clear) that we were just excited to be playing basketball, which we were. We were excited to get back out there. Practice just had good energy from the jump. Everybody just seemed to buy in at a high level. We knew that making the playoffs was going to be a tough task, but we weren’t going to back down from it. And we didn’t. We were very, very close. At the end of the day, that’s something that hurt us. But it’s something that we definitely learned from and can grow from and that gives us confidence moving forward. I just think it started with us setting the tone in the beginning, with guys playing hard in practice — high-talk, high-energy and just excitement being in the gym.
It was great, just to be able to kind of shoulder a little bit more responsibility (as a starter), a little bit more minutes and kind of try to be productive in different facets of the game. Even if shots weren’t falling or baskets weren’t going in, just trying to rebound more and play solid defense and just be locked into the game plan of what we wanted to accomplish. Like I always say, experience is so valuable in basketball, especially in this league. Being able to play in that variety of situations also gives me confidence going forward.
It’s always a continuous building process. The things I did (during the hiatus) were just extensions of what I had been working on with the team and on my own for the past years. Just continuing to get stronger and have better body control and all that, it really goes a long way. I worked real hard on that. And then just continuing to develop my game in different avenues and different directions. I think it did pay off for me in the bubble. I think even now, post-bubble, the things I was working on before are still being continued and we’re still making progress and strides every day to continue getting them better. So just to kind of see the work pay off in some respects in the bubble, it was fun and it definitely makes me feel good going into next season.
Ty Jerome, Jevon Carter and Mikal Bridges and I, we played NBA Jam in the team lounge. It was the old NBA Jam system, and it’s probably from, what, sometime in the ‘90s? It’s not as advanced as the video games that we have access to now. We would compete on that little game, and we did it a lot. It was a lot of fun. The games were heated. That’s one memory that will probably stick with me for a while. We would text each other, “NBA Jam? NBA Jam? NBA Jam?” We’d go down there and play it. It was fun. I will say Mikal and Ty were a team and Jevon and I were a team, and they were whoopin’ us at the beginning. Whoopin’ us. We couldn’t match their rebounding and 3-point shooting. But I think, in the end, Jevon and I kind of found the recipe, and I think we left as top dogs. They might think differently.
We have a pretty close team, in general. But just having that extra time, it was fun. A lot of us are so young and most of us don’t have families of our own and wives and children. So when we were in the bubble, we were just hanging with the guys, kind of as usual. I think we took advantage of that, and I think it helped us out with our camaraderie.
There was a moment where we sat down after our game against Dallas, and we realized Memphis had just beat Milwaukee. We knew if we were to continue our season, everything depended on Brooklyn that night. We walked out of the locker room that day kind of with our heads held high, knowing that whatever happens, we took care of our side of business, which was all we could say at the end of the day. That’s what we talked a lot about. Just controlling what we can control, and live with the outcome.
We watched that Brooklyn-Portland game, a few of us, pretty locked in the whole entire game. It was a roller-coaster, to say the least. And the way it finished, I mean, we were all on the edge of our seats. There’s a moment of a little bit of frustration and it’s like, “Wow, we were so close.” At the same time, it’s tough to put so much of your emotions into a team or a game you can’t control. So just keeping that in mind was important, and knowing that we did what we could. We were totally locked, loaded and ready to play in the play-in games. And then, continue rolling. We had just won eight straight and we felt good. But, unfortunately, that shot by (Caris) LeVert was a little bit long, maybe a little bit to the left. And Brooklyn really played their hearts out that game. So, it’s not like you can sit back and say, “Man, Brooklyn really messed us up.” So it’s just something that you just kind of got to live with. You take those feelings and roll them back up and use that as fuel for the offseason, so that we don’t have to be in a position in the future where we rely on a last-second shot to send us into the playoffs.
We left with a lot of lessons under our belt. We want to build a good program. We want to build a good culture, and the bubble was important in moving that needle forward. That Portland-Brooklyn game was a later game, and I had not packed anything yet. So I had five weeks of life just surrounding me when I got back to my room. It was just all night, continuous packing, then finishing that up in the morning. And then we kind of all went our separate ways. It was an abrupt end, because there was a possibility of staying longer. But it wasn’t the most crushing end, if that makes sense.
My training plan is the same thing as it was before the bubble. I think it’s just expanding. Expanding my game. Expanding my knowledge of the game. Now that I’m a year deep with the coaches and the training staff and everything, there’s a level of comfort where it’s not as much a guessing game and we can just push. We know what I need to work on and where we want to take this. So it’s just kind of like grind mode. Head down and just try to get better each and every day. It’s been fun so far being back in the gym with the coaches, with the strength coaches.
I’m kind of just developing an overall skill set. You get to the NBA and everybody, at one point, had a lot of responsibility on the basketball court. Everybody on my team has had to be the point guard of their team, had to be the primary ballhandler, had to be the guy. Then when you get here, now everybody kind of has to play their role, but we still all push to get better in every category. For me, it’s a lot of ballhandling, shooting off the dribble, understanding defenses from an offensive perspective and how to attack them. Then it’s just overall strength: lower body, upper body, everything.
Without the bubble, who knows what the vibe would be? Just because we would have been apart for so long. I show up to the gym every day now excited, just because I get the opportunity to go back into an environment where I feel like the program is alive and guys are excited to be here, to be working out. It’s hard to ask for much more when going into the offseason.
Watching the playoffs, you see the result of pressure and preparation and where those meet. You see ups and downs and how people fight mentally through tough situations, and maybe how tough situations can hinder you mentally. You look at a team like Denver, who’s just a really solid team and how they’re able to rally. Being down 3-1 is not an easy place to be in, and you can just see, being down double digits, how they just kind of rallied together. That stuff speaks a lot, and I think it bodes well for a team like us who really just want to play hard and play with grit and determination. Then you see where experience kicks in, like the Lakers just handling business. You see upsets, just based on how hard Miami plays. Boston, they’re just efficient. It kind of shows, this is the level you need to get to if you ever want to be in that situation. It’s not an easy level to get to. It’s not an easy level to maintain. Those guys are definitely all playing at a high level right now.
The biggest takeaway from my rookie season is just handling different situations. I couldn’t have predicted how this year would go, by any stretch of the imagination. All of it, from beginning to end, was a lot of the unexpected. That’s how you grow as a person and as a player. From successes, to injuries, to pandemics, to illnesses, to this, that and whatever, just being able to adjust and adapt and make the most out of situations and environments and just kind of keep my focus toward the right things. Then overall, just learning how to be a pro and learning what it takes. I thought I had a decent idea coming in, and I think that helped me a lot this year. But you don’t know the half of it until you’re in it. There’s just so many valuable lessons that I can just continue to take with me as I keep going in my career. It’s definitely a different environment, but I really enjoyed this first year.
The one thing I would say is that it’s just been so much fun. I get to wake up every day and play basketball and go work out as my job. Being able to do that, and having lived this for a year now, I’m a very, very happy person. I’m very happy, thankful and blessed that I get to do this every day. I don’t take it for granted at all. It was a wild ride. It might be the longest rookie year on record, but I’m excited for where it’s going to take me and my teammates and this program as a whole into the future.
Cam Johnson’s Suns rookie diary
Oct. 17, 2019: The quick life transition and starting NBA career
Nov. 4, 2019: His delayed NBA debut and vibe around the upstart Suns
Dec. 5, 2019: Big night in New Orleans, playing while ill and learning tough lessons
Jan. 10, 2020: “It’s on me” to snap out of first NBA shooting slump
Feb. 11, 2020: Injury recovery, trade deadline emotions and that dunk at Staples Center
March 27, 2020: Workout improv, and managing the NBA hiatus