For Brooklyn Nets forward Cameron Johnson, keeping his mind on basketball – and not his pending restricted free agency – is “not too hard”.
“I’ll let the future take care of itself. I’m not going to sit here and think on it too hard or worry about it too much,” Johnson told Brian Lewis of the New York Post. “I’m really just living in the present, enjoying it. There’s so much I’ve got to think about getting acclimated to a new city. This time of the year is serious basketball and that’s enough for all of us, for any of us, to keep us plenty occupied.”
Restricted free agency can be a tricky place for players and teams.
Front offices are often reluctant to tie up their finances in a player for up to 48 hours while the incumbent team retains the right to match that offer at any point within that window.
From 2012 through the 2022 season, only 20 players have changed teams as restricted free agents, per Sam Quinn of CBS Sports. This past season, there were 28 restricted free agents, per Spotrac.
Of that group, only two changed teams.
One was Collin Sexton whom the Cleveland Cavaliers packaged to acquire Donovan Mitchell from the Utah Jazz. The other was second-year point guard Sharife Cooper, a former second-round pick of the Atlanta Hawks who was cut after a disappointing showing during summer league action before latching on with the Cavs G League affiliate.
Johnson, a former 11th overall pick in 2019, has a better pedigree than Cooper and fills a more vital role as a 6-foot-8 two-way wing compared to the 6-foot-1 Sexton.
Regardless, he is keeping a laser focus.
“You’ve got to think why you’re doing it in the first place,” Johnson said. “And then you’ve got to think what you’re doing it for, and it’s because at the end of the day, I love to compete and play this game. …My goal right now is to win games and make a playoff push.”
Nets Face Risk with Cameron Johnson’s Restricted Free Agency
Restricted free agency has long been derided with NBA correspondent Tom Ziller considering it an extension of a flawed draft process.
“Restricted free agency is just an extension of what makes the draft bad,” Ziller wrote for his Substack, Good Morning It’s Basketball in 2022. “So you’ve taken a young player, you’ve forced him to join a team in a place that is not of his choosing. After four years there, you give him an opportunity to seek employment elsewhere in the league. But if he finds a situation he prefers, the incumbent team has the right to simply match whatever contract offer he signs from the new team, keeping him there another 3-4 years.”
For that very reason, there is also some inherent risk for the Nets in letting things get to that point with the affable Johnson.
He could be highly sought-after this summer.
And we’ve seen it play out in a high-profile fashion multiple times in recent years.
“Restricted free agency is a great way to burn bridges with your best players,” asserts Quinn. “In 2014, the Utah Jazz refused to give Gordon Hayward a max deal, but they matched the one Charlotte gave him. Three years later, he was gone. That same offseason, the Spurs refused to extend Kawhi Leonard‘s contract after he won Finals MVP. Instead, they made him wait until restricted free agency in 2015 so they could artificially deflate his cap number and preserve space for LaMarcus Aldridge. Four years later, he was gone. Denying players money they think they’ve earned is a great way to lose them as soon as they’re free to leave”
The Nets have benefitted from Johnson’s approach so far. It will be interesting to see just how much that changes when the season ends and his agents will have as much of newly-minted general manager Sean Marks’ attention as he will get.
What is Cameron Johnson’s Value?
Johnson, 27, is averaging 17.2 points, 4.2 rebounds, 1.7 assists, and 1.4 steals in 29 minutes per game in 10 appearances as a Net.
All of those marks would be career-highs across a full season and have come despite the career 39% three-point shooter connecting on just 33.3% of his looks from downtown since being traded from the Phoenix Suns.
“He’s shown a little bit of everything,” Nets head coach Jacque Vaughn said, per Lewis. “His ability to handle the basketball, play pick-and-roll. His ability to shoot the ball off the bounce in transition. So some things that I’m growing to understand and learn about him. “I feel comfortable putting the ball in his hands.”
The Nets will have plenty of options about which direction they want to go in next and Johnson will play a large role in that process. After he rejected an offer of $72 million over four years, keeping (or acquiring) the former North Carolina Tar Heel won’t be cheap.