NEW YORK -- If there is one thing that Brooklyn Nets coach Jacque Vaughn has learned about Cam Johnson since they started working together eight months ago, it's how much attention he pays to the intricacies of the game.
"I can go and talk to him about pick-and-roll coverage; I can also go talk to him about which side of the floor he likes to shoot and what foot he'll shoot off going from right to left, left to right," Vaughn said.
If you're the type who subscribes to more than two basketball podcasts, you'd recognize Johnson as a fellow sicko. During a recent appearance on "The Old Man and The Three," he and JJ Redick had a lively conversation about how the retired sharpshooter used to square his shoulders mid-jump when shooting 3s going to his right. During a 2020 appearance on "Locked on Suns," Johnson said he'd studied Duncan Robinson's footwork and Davis Bertans' form. It's a wonder he doesn't host his own show.
Not that Johnson hasn't been busy. This past summer, he re-signed with Brooklyn on a four-year, $94.5 million contract, then, along with longtime teammate Mikal Bridges, spent about six weeks with Team USA. Weeks after the national team returned home from the FIBA World Cup empty-handed, Johnson strained his left hamstring in a scrimmage at the Nets' practice facility, an injury that prevented him from playing in the preseason. Now that the regular season is (almost) here, though, he's raring to go.
Heading into the fifth year of his career and his first full season in Brooklyn, Johnson said that 2023-24 is another "step" for him. Vaughn wants him to get up 10 3s a game, and Johnson simply wants to continue to grow with a team that is in the early stages of establishing an identity.
"I'd say, throughout my whole entire career, I have not yet become the player that I want to become," Johnson said after practice Monday. "It's a process towards that final whatever-that-may-be. But I think the encouraging thing that keeps me going every day, that keeps me working, is that I see the areas I can improve in and I see the steps that I can make. And so it's clear, and I can chase those things and work on them.
"I've gotten better at them over time, so it just gives me a little bit of excitement about my career as a whole. And I think I'm getting better, and that's just been the name of the game for me since as long as I can remember. And whatever stats, accolades, performances come along with that, I can accept, because I know that I'm working to become the best version of myself."
This Q&A has been condensed and edited for clarity and flow.
This time of year, everybody's doing season previews. If you were doing my job, what would you say about this Nets team going into the season?
I would have questions. If I were you, doing your job, I'd have questions surrounding who we want to be, how we want to play, what kind of lineups will be out there and what it would look like and what our own expectations would be. Outside of that, I think I would also ask about how a team culture is being built. Because it's a new team, really. This team didn't have a crazy amount of time last year to jell, so I would ask about how that jelling process has gone. If you've heard me say that we need to jell in the past, then I'd ask about that.
I'll kind of steal that question then: What did you expect coming into training camp and how are you guys jelling?
My expectation was to lay a groundwork for what we wanted to do and how we wanted to play, and I think that's what we did. I wouldn't say this was a training camp that was completely based around Xs and Os: we're going to run this play, we're going to run that play. I think the training camp was based very solidly about concepts -- concepts and environments that we wanted to play in, and identity as a team. So a lot of time was spent on that. Without getting too deep into that stuff, I think the bottom line is that we're going to have to play hard and be willing to give extra efforts, and that's going to filter into offensive and defensive areas of the game, and we'll see how it plays out.
I'm sure Jacque will put in some more sets, but does what you said about playing out of concepts tell you something about his philosophy and the identity of the team already?
Yeah, I think there's a freedom to it because we have guys like a Ben [Simmons] or even like a [Nic] Claxton who can play all over the court. Claxton can play all over the court as an initiator, handoff guy, and so can Ben. So I think we're looking to score quick, looking to use pace to our advantage to create space on the court, as opposed to Xs-and-Os sets in the halfcourt. I think a lot of teams say that they want to play with that pace and don't want to have to settle in the halfcourt a lot, but I think it's very, very important to our success to play that way.
So the counter to that is opponents switching and trying to get you out of your flow. Is that the sort of thing where you guys just have to keep moving and run your stuff harder?
Yes, exactly. And that goes back to what I just said: It's not going to be pretty, it's not like we can walk out there and run cute sets and win games. It's going to have to be effort across the board. I think that's what we're going to hang our hat on. I think we'll look back to conversations like this by the end of the year, and if we were a team that played hard and was known for that, then the success will be a lot higher than if it was the opposite.
We've seen Nic do fake handoffs and in the preseason he's getting drop-off passes from Ben and attacking the basket like a guard. What is your perspective on Nic as an offensive player?
He's first probably the fastest center in the league, I'd say, and he has a fluidity to his game that isn't very common for his position. That is useful in those situations when you drop it back to him. He can push it in transition. And he'll get better at those things, too, and I think you'll continue to see more of that. I think you probably saw more of that towards the end of the season than you maybe have earlier just due to the players around him. But it's just a speed and fluidity that he has that we can use to our advantage.
It's not like he's going to be out there shooting catch-and-shoot 3s all day to create space. He creates space with that ability to move around the court quickly, get to spots, get to handoffs, be on the rim as a lob threat, break plays off and go to the rim himself. And he finishes around the rim as well.
What are the little things that you were looking at incorporating into your game this past offseason?
I think the biggest thing that I focused on this summer would be the base of my shot. The base, balance and strength of that. So I think improving that will allow me to shoot better on the move and will allow me to shoot better off the bounce. When you're a stationary shooter, balance and base is a lot easier taken care of. But the best in the league that can shoot on the move find elite balance and elite rise, elevation on their shot. They're able to get their feet down under them and move straight up. They're able to get their body squared towards the hoop in some manner or another. So I'd say that's what I've been working on in order to become more of a versatile, consistent shot-maker, and just continue to add to that bag of areas in the floor and actions that I can find looks off of.
Kyle Korver once told me that the more shots he took, the more serious he got about shooting -- he didn't want to just make shots because he was in rhythm, he wanted to know why he was making them. You relate?
Yeah, it absolutely hits home. As I get deeper into this thing, I start to see why I'm missing, where I'm missing and why I'm making and where I'm making. That whole rhythm thing -- I think the best shooters are able to capitalize on that rhythm but are also able to fix it when it's off very quickly. A ton of guys in the world can stand in spots, catch a rhythm and just make tons and tons of shots. But can you do it when you're sped up? Can you do it going left? Can you do it going right? Can you do it when you just missed three? The longer I've been doing this, the more I see that I need to improve upon.
I wouldn't say it's as much pick their brains as observing them and talking to them. So, one thing Joe Harris is really elite at is he gets a super consistent base to his jump shot, elevation and flick. It looks the same every time. And to achieve that, it takes incredible work. As a shooter, you miss more than you make, unfortunately, but the one thing I saw with him, especially when watching up close, is that no matter how many he's made or missed, the next shot looks exactly the same.
And it's the same with Seth. Obviously, he's been gifted elite touch because he can shoot from all over the court, he can shoot at different angles. But he has strategies to get his shot off, being a smaller guard. There was one in specific that he has that I thought was really interesting: He does a mini-pump fake to raise the defender up, and even if the defender is in his face, high contest, he'll continue into his jump shot, knowing that when he gets to the peak of his, the defender would be coming down.
So there's just little small details in their games and stuff that I would look at. Patty [Mills], too. And Patty is in that same boat as Joe Harris where he has an elite flick and an elite base to his jump shot. And another thing about Patty is he practices full speed. You see him in workouts, he's shooting game-speed shots all the time in workouts. I think you can't just tell somebody, "Go out, shoot game-speed shots," because you gotta understand what you gotta accomplish. So there's a combination of fine-tuning exactly how you want to shoot and then doing that at game speed, and I think Patty is one of the guys that has mastered that.
You said recently, "Sometimes you can't see the picture when you're in the frame," in reference to observing the team while you were sidelined during camp.
My dad said that to me all the time.
So that's where you got that line. But when you were watching, did the style of play remind you of any other teams?
The best version of what we're trying to accomplish is the Golden State Warriors, where they play with that pace. But it's a detail-oriented offense where everybody's on the same page. That's all you want at the end of the day offensively: everybody to be on the same page, everybody to know what the next person's going to do and everybody to be available to get to the next action. Golden State has won a lot of championships being that kind of team. You know, you add guys like Curry and Klay who can really make shots, but the basis of what they do is really effective. And it takes a lot to guard them and that's why they'll play a beautiful style of basketball. So I think that's a team that plays with that pace and spacing and flow that everybody would like to achieve.
Yeah, and they can do it with two bigs on the floor.
Two non-shooters, essentially. But there's tons of space on the court. And you have to be prepared to guard that, and that's what I'm saying.
People have asked a how Ben and Clax can play together: Does it come down to those principles, in terms of the way the Warriors move to the next action, the way the non-shooters use the space in front of them to screen guys open? Are the concepts essentially the same?
In that regard, yes, absolutely. I wouldn't say it's an exact 1:1, but I'd say that that idea, being the principle that gets our offense moving -- stagnation is tough. If you have elite ISO scorers and elite floor spacers, then the isolation game works a lot better, I'd say. But I think stagnation was a big cause for concern with us last season in the playoffs. We got swept because there would be times in a game where we'd get a little stagnant and we're easily guarded. So being able to get ourselves out of those situations and just knowing how to combat that if we ever find ourselves a little stagnant, I think, will be really big for us.
Tyrese Maxey was on JJ Redick's podcast talking about the bullet passes Ben throws and the angles from which he'll pass to you. What have you noticed about the nuances of his passing?
I think it's beneficial because there's been a couple so far that I've seen and there's been a couple so far that he's passed it to me where I see his eyes so I know he's going to throw it. So I think one of the things is also a patience when you're playing with him because he'll see the play develop, but he'll let it develop. It's kind of like it was with Chris Paul: You trust their ability to get you the ball, so you might need to take that step down, you might need to take that step up, you might need to work a little bit extra because you know you have his attention on that weak side. And so obviously it's going to be something that's going to need to be cleaned up better, improved upon, whatever you may say, as the season goes on, but I think there's a lot of potential there.
I can't not ask about Mikal: We've seen him average 27 points with an almost 30% usage rate. On this team, what's his next step? Is it possible that he'll score a little less this season but be even better overall?
Anything is possible, as Kevin Garnett once famously said. I would not put a cap on his ceiling as a basketball player. I would not put a cap on his ceiling as a scorer, as a distributor, as a defender. Obviously, the more you do in one area of the game, the harder it is to do all of them at a super-super-high level. I bet if you ask him, he'd say he was a lot more tired on the defensive end playing in Brooklyn than he was on the defensive end playing in Phoenix. But I wouldn't put a cap on him.
He puts the work in every day. He's constantly chasing new things. You can see the areas of improvement, you can see where he's come and you can see where he's working on new things every day. He has a really good frame and a unique ability to shoot pull-ups out of different angles that he really feasted upon when he got here. That opened up a ton of the game for him, and I think there's still more that he can get to, all around the court, that he'll continue to get better on.
So I'm not going to put a cap on his game. But it's been fun to watch. I think of my rookie year, his second year; we're both coming off the bench and our roles offensively were not crazy. So I got to see him earn more rope, earn more rope, earn more rope, work on his game, work on his game, work on his game. I wouldn't put a cap on him.