With Basketball Bloodlines in ‘Cradle of Quarterbacks,’ Suns Rookie Cameron Johnson Was Born and Raised to Ball
LAS VEGAS -- Zion Williamson and R.J. Barrett were the biggest names in this year's NBA draft, but Cameron Johnson stole the show on that June night in New York City—even though he was nearly 400 miles away. The Phoenix Suns traded down from No. 6 to select the 23-year-old fifth-year senior out of North Carolina with the Minnesota Timberwolves’ pick at No. 11. That decision perplexed pundits and fans alike, but it was the short-circuited reaction of Tar Heel-turned-Chicago Bulls rookie-to-be Coby White that caught fire on social media.
After squinting at a nearby screen to confirm the news of Cam’s lottery selection, Coby continued with his now infamous string of “Wow’s” from the podium.
“Wow, that’s so crazy,” Coby said. “I’m so happy for him right now. Y’all don’t understand how happy I am for Cam because he proved it, night in and night out, that he deserves to be in the conversation for a lottery pick, man.”
“It's genuine Coby,” Cam tells CloseUp360 during the NBA Summer League in Las Vegas this past July. “It's real special to have a guy that you played with for a year that has that reaction to seeing his teammate get drafted.”
What about Cam’s own reaction to his surprisingly early selection? Did he, too, drop more “Wow’s” than Owen Wilson upon hearing he’d be not only the 11th overall pick, but also the first Pittsburgh-area player selected in the first round since the Milwaukee Bucks took Danny Fortson at No. 10 in 1997?
Perhaps, if Cam had any verbiage to offer while watching back home in Moon Township, Pennsylvania.
“In that moment, I couldn't even put a word to the emotions that I felt,” Cam recalls. “I wouldn't say that I was surprised. I was just, like, I couldn't even put a word to it. It's just a lot going on in my head at once, so much that it's almost nothing. It's almost just kind of, like, ‘Whoa, what's going on here?’
“But it was a pretty fun moment to spend with a lot of friends and family.”
Whatever shock that moment might’ve brought, Cam’s journey there made it at once stunning to see him reach the NBA at all, and entirely predictable that he would someday be a bona fide professional.
Western Pennsylvania has long been football country. Joe Montana and Joe Namath, Dan Marino and Johnny Unitas, Jim Kelly and George Blanda—those Pro Football Hall of Famers and more all hailed from the “Cradle of Quarterbacks.”
Moon Township has yet to contribute to that specific lineage of the region, though it does have at least one claim to fame in basketball. Before John Calipari rose to prominence as a college coach at the University of Massachusetts, the University of Memphis and the University of Kentucky, he played point guard at Moon Area High School and, later, at Clarion University less than 100 miles away—just as Cam’s brother, Aaron, did before becoming a researcher in a neuroscience lab at the University of Pittsburgh.
Still, the place is no less obsessed with pigskin. A handful of NFL players have come out of Moon, including A.Q. Shipley of the Arizona Cardinals, and Sean Gilbert and Rich Milot, both of whom played in Washington. More than a few members of the Pittsburgh Steelers have moved there over the years, due to its proximity to the Steel City.
“It's Western PA,” Cam says, “so first of all, football rules everything.”
As such, football was a big part of his life, almost by default. For a time, Cam looked like he might join that aforementioned “Cradle.” He played quarterback through his freshman and sophomore years at Moon Area High, showing off a strong arm and a sharp understanding of where his teammates needed to be in any given formation.
But the physicality of the sport and the quality of competition in Western Pennsylvania took its toll on Cam.
“I'm gonna be honest—and I hope this doesn't get back to too many of them—but there have been some years where I didn't have the best offensive line, so it was a lot of running for my life, a lot of getting hit and a lot of hard hits,” he says. “You gotta be tough, and in Western PA, we had some real good players around town.”
Cam had the mind and the ability to be one of them, but after two years under center for the Moon Area Tigers, he’d seen and felt enough to get himself off the gridiron.
“I loved playing,” he says. “I got tired of getting hit by my junior year of high school, but being a quarterback was great. It taught me a lot.”
In 2012, Cam transferred to Our Lady of the Sacred Heart High School in nearby Coraopolis. There, he found a role on the Chargers’ boys’ basketball team as a plucky, 6’2” point guard. He could guide his teammates on the court, just as he had as a quarterback on the field, but without enduring the same physical punishment. And since he’d been one of the smaller kids on the court since childhood, he had already developed a smooth outside game to vaporize that size differential.
Then, Cam started growing. And growing. By the time he graduated as the salutatorian of his high school class in 2014, he was a 6’8” forward, tipping towards 6’9”, with an intriguing inside-out game.
Not that Cam’s growth spurt or knack for basketball came as a shock to him or his family. His father, Gil, had been a 6’8” forward at the University of Pittsburgh in the late 1980s. His mother, Amy, scored 1,018 points during her four-year career at Kent State University. The two met as coach and player, respectively, in the American Basketball League (ABL), which predated the WNBA by one year and folded two seasons after its own founding.
Cam, then, was practically born to play basketball. In many respects, he was raised that way, too.
Gil gave him the middle name Jordan after Michael Jordan, who was on his way to his fourth NBA championship with the Chicago Bulls when Cam was born in March 1996. At age 2, Gil and Amy bought their second son his first pair of Jordans. At age 4, his aunt, a North Carolina grad, gave him his first Tar Heels jersey: No. 23, with Cameron emblazoned across the back.
By then, Cam says, he already believed that basketball “was gonna be my occupation one day.” That he was able to play on his older brother Aaron’s fourth-grade AAU team when he was in first grade only strengthened his resolve to reach the NBA.
“Just been going at it ever since with this goal in mind,” Cam says.
Despite his pedigree and impressive progress, Cam’s path to the pros was anything but straightforward.
He began his collegiate career at Pitt, his dad’s alma mater, but his freshman year was cut short by a nagging right shoulder injury that resulted in season-ending surgery.
“The shoulder was probably mostly from football, honestly, from throwing, from getting hit, from hitting,” Cam says. “So that was probably mostly a carryover from football when I had to get that fixed.”
That situation, while a setback to his ambitions on the court, ultimately put Cam on an even more fruitful path. After taking a medical redshirt, he and an advisor determined that, with all the AP courses he’d taken in high school, he would be able to get his degree in communications in just two more years, including a summer session on campus.
Come spring 2017, Cam had graduated with honors from Pitt as a two-time Academic All-ACC selection. And after averaging 11.9 points per game as a redshirt sophomore and shooting nearly 40 percent from three during his three years with the Panthers, he had higher-profile programs practically clamoring after him as a graduate transfer. That included North Carolina, which had just won the NCAA tournament championship and lost Justin Jackson, another tall sharpshooter, to the 2017 NBA draft.
As perfect as the fit appeared, Pitt wasn’t prepared to let Cam transition so seamlessly to another ACC school. Though graduate students with NCAA eligibility are supposed to be allowed to transfer freely, without having to sit out a season, the university insisted that he would have to take another redshirt year if he chose to go elsewhere within the same conference.
Despite that impasse, Cam declared his intention to be a Tar Heel. The Johnsons hired an attorney, but before they took any serious legal action, the NCAA stepped in to affirm that Cam, like any grad transfer, would either be eligible immediately or barred from UNC entirely.
Pitt relented and, in the fall of 2017, Cam departed for Chapel Hill to play ball and pursue a master’s in sports administration. He became a key contributor on the court from the jump, averaging 12.4 points for Roy Williams’ squad en route to a No. 2 seed in March Madness. The following year, Cam led the Tar Heels—the ACC regular season champions and a No. 1 seed in this year's NCAA tournament—in scoring (16.9) and logged the highest three-point percentage (.457) of any player among the six biggest conferences in college basketball.
All the while, Cam’s family cheered him on—and, in Amy’s case, made sure he learned to play big after hitting his growth spurt.
“My mom, she's on me constantly,” he says. “She's, like, ‘You're tall, get in there, rebound, get in there, post up, get in there!’ I'm, like, ‘Yes, mom, yes, mom, yes, mom.’ So over the course of college, it was a big emphasis.”
Cam led the Tar Heels in scoring (16.9 points) and three-point shooting (45.7 percent) as a fifth-year senior. (UNC Athletic Communications)
So much will change for Cam now that he’s in the NBA. For one, he can look forward to a near future as a millionaire, with more than $8 million in guaranteed salary over the next two years, before the Suns have to decide on his third- and fourth-year options. Assuming a healthy summer (the first he’s had in years) gives way to fitness in the fall and winter, he’ll get to experience all the NBA has to offer on and off the court.
In the meantime, Cam’s life is more or less the same, especially when he’s at home with his family. According to him, the “natural order” among his brothers still stands, with Aaron, now 27, running things while he, Donovan (18) and Braylon (14) fall in line.
“They still give me a hard time about every little thing,” he quips. “I don't have any more leeway in the household because of how the journey has progressed or anything.”
That’s particularly true with Donovan, who goes by “Puff.”
“He'll still run his mouth, saying he can beat me one-on-one,” Cam says.
Puff’s bravado earned him a beatdown on the blacktop before the draft: 44-12, by Cam’s count. The second-oldest of the Johnson boys first topped their mom in head-to-head competition when he was 14, and may well have bested their dad before he largely bowed out with knee troubles—if not for some on-court chicanery.
“My dad, he'll cheat to win, so there's no beating him,” Cam claims.
Of course, his parents won’t be his most important or prominent opponents now that he’s settled in Arizona. Puff has joined Cam in Phoenix, after transferring from Moon Area to Hillcrest Prep for his senior year, though both brothers will have plenty of other foes to foil at their respective levels of competition.
Cam looks forward to a mild winter in The Grand Canyon State compared to the snowy seasons he’s seen in Pennsylvania and North Carolina. But more than anything, he’s aiming to wow the world—not by merely showing up as an unlikely lottery pick, but rather by showing off his brain and game for the Suns.
Josh Martin is the Editorial Director of CloseUp360. He previously covered the NBA for Bleacher Report and USA Today Sports Media Group, and has written for Yahoo! Sports and Complex. He is also the co-host of the Hollywood Hoops podcast. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.