In the Phoenix Suns’ first game without Chris Paul this season, Cam Johnson will be taking his place in the starting lineup on Thursday against the Oklahoma City Thunder.
The three-wing look puts Devin Booker back in the role of primary offensive initiator he dabbled with earlier in his career, also known as “Point Book.”
Johnson has had a breakout offensive season, averaging 11.9 points per game and shooting 43.0% from three-point range. The third-year wing has stepped up his scoring a bit at a few different points this season when the Suns dealt with injuries.
He was the team’s second-leading scorer (14.6 PPG) when Booker sat seven games in December and also when he started in place of Jae Crowder for six games later that month, amounting to 17.8 points a night for that stretch.
Head coach Monty Williams said pregame he expects Booker to be a “huge facilitator” in the Suns’ Paul-less offense. Booker averaged nearly seven assists per game over his last two seasons without Paul, including Williams’ first year in Phoenix when Booker shared a backcourt with Ricky Rubio.
Williams has been tentative in the past to roll with Point Book in extended stretches because of the extra workload it gives Booker but Johnson in the lineup is simply the Suns’ best starting five and Booker is capable of running the offense.
To that point, the starting lineup Thursday of Booker, Johnson, Mikal Bridges, Jae Crowder and Deandre Ayton has played only seven minutes together this season.
Paul will be out re-evaluated in April for an avulsion fracture in his right thumb. The point guard missed four games in his first season with Phoenix last year: one in the regular season for a sore hamstring, another for rest and the first two games of the Western Conference Finals due to COVID-19.
Veteran guard E’Twaun Moore, who is no longer with the team, started that win over the Cleveland Cavaliers when Paul’s hamstring gave him issues while Paul’s backup Cam Payne played exceptionally well against the Los Angeles Clippers in the pair of playoff fixtures.
Payne, however, is still out because of a right wrist sprain that has now amounted to a 13-game absence that the team is designating a day-to-day status to. Payne is presumed to be the man for the job alongside the starters once he’s healthy.
Johnson in the lineup allows for Williams to keep his second unit intact when Payne gets healthy, but the question is if it is Elfrid Payton or Aaron Holiday as the backup point guard in Payne’s spot.
Williams noted pregame they don’t want to overwhelm Holiday, who just joined the Suns at the trade deadline on Feb. 13. In three games, Holiday has shown in knack for floaters, shooting and playing the role of defensive pest with a high-end motor but is less of a pure point guard than Payton is and doesn’t have his size defensively.
Payton, 28, has nearly 400 NBA starts to his name but is a clunky fit in Phoenix’s offensive system, where the ball and player movement with proper spacing doesn’t intertwine well with Payton being a poor shooter that runs a solid two-man game in ball screen situations. If he gets in, keep an eye on how Payton gels with backup big JaVale McGee, a good pick-and-roll partner for any ball-handler.
Payton, though, is a strong defender and will definitely help maintain what was a top-3 defense in the NBA prior to the All-Star break. And while what he does offensively sometimes isn’t in the typical flow of Phoenix’s offense, it is still some production off the bounce that Phoenix really needs without Paul.
Whoever it is will join guard Landry Shamet in the backcourt, a key returning piece after Shamet sprained his right ankle and missed nine games. Torrey Craig, the team’s other trade deadline acquisition, and two-way wing Ish Wainright gives Williams some good depth at forward despite starting three.
Thursday’s tip-off in Oklahoma City is at 6 p.m. on 98.7 FM Arizona’s Sports Station
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism