The wild card in the Phoenix Suns’ 2019 offseason plans is guard Tyler Johnson.
Acquired at the trade deadline from the Miami Heat in February for power forward Ryan Anderson, Johnson gave the Suns both a properly-functioning player in the rotation and a large expiring contract that could potentially facilitate a future deal.
Looking past the possibility the Suns choose to extend Johnson, he will surely accept his player option for a salary of $19.2 million next season. With the limited cap space the Suns have and their aspirations to add key veterans at both point guard and power forward, Johnson seems like one of the more likely players to get traded before the start of the season.
But don’t tell that to the Suns’ new head coach Monty Williams, who is a fan of what Johnson brings to a team.
When asked about the offseason on 98.7 FM Arizona’s Sports Station’s Suns Offseason Special, Williams rattled off names on the roster, beginning with Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton — as one normally does. But the third player he brought up and went on to describe was Johnson.
“I’m really excited about Tyler,” Williams said Thursday. “I think Tyler’s a guy who has been in a winning program and he brings intangibles to the team that really excite me.”
In the 13 games Johnson played, he was adequate, but certainly showed why he’s unable to escape a combo guard label and admitted as much by saying that being a full-time point guard was a new thing for him.
Averaging 11.1 points, 4.0 rebounds and 4.2 assists, Johnson’s 36.8% shooting from the field in a short sample size was disappointing. But the winning traits Williams brings up shine through on the floor and Johnson’s young teammates spoke highly of the experience Johnson brought into the locker room as a 27-year-old who has “been there before” with the Heat.
Most impressively, Johnson had a 3.86 assist-to-turnover ratio, notably using some of those assists to set up Booker’s shooting when the franchise two-guard was playing off the ball.
If Johnson can take care of the ball, compete defensively and hit a couple more shots, that’s a guy the Suns and Williams should want in their rotation.
But it gets complicated with Johnson on the roster if the Suns add another guard, which sure seems to be the plan and should be.
If that’s a veteran point guard on a healthy-enough salary, the Suns would likely be spending at least $25 million on their point guard rotation, if not more depending on the price of the theoretical point guard. They could create that space by trading one of their wings, such as T.J. Warren or Josh Jackson.
If the Suns draft a point guard with the No. 6 pick in the 2019 NBA Draft, say Vanderbilt’s Darius Garland or North Carolina’s Coby White, that’s where Johnson as a stop-gap option for a season and a veteran mentor is more logical.
But, again, $19.2 million is a whole lot of money and if the Suns do what most assume in re-signing wing Kelly Oubre Jr. to an eight-figure deal, spending will be tight.
There’s also the chance they find a trade for either a point guard or another position that involves a large salary and would require Johnson’s expiring to make the deal function. After Booker and Johnson, the next highest-earning Suns player is Warren making $10.8 million.
Williams’ high level of interest in the skills Johnson provides adds an interesting dynamic to the Suns’ offseason decision-making chart. If their plans to add a point guard fall apart or what they believe to be a greater opportunity to use their assets to upgrade another position presents itself, they’d at least have an option that their head coach seems to trust.