Kevin Gorman: The night Cameron Johnson cashed in his NBA lottery ticket
On the night he was selected in the first round of the NBA Draft, Cameron Johnson reflected on a parked-car conversation and the reminder that followed.
After Cameron had a rough high school game in his junior season at Our Lady of the Sacred Heart, Gil Johnson pulled into the garage of their Moon Township home and had a heart-to-heart talk with the second-oldest of his four sons.
“You’ve got to work harder on your game,” Gil told Cameron. “You have a lottery ticket. You have to protect that ticket. One day you’ll cash it in.”
Gil Johnson repeated that metaphor over the next seven seasons, telling Cameron with each step from OLSH to Pitt to North Carolina that he was starting to scratch off matching numbers. On Thursday night, Cam didn’t just match all the right numbers.
“Now,” Gil told his son, “you’ve got the Powerball.”
Cameron Johnson became the most unlikely NBA lottery pick when the Phoenix Suns selected him 11th overall, banking on him being a 23-year-old late-bloomer whose best basketball is ahead of him.
In other words, he won the lottery.
“That’s exactly what it feels like,” Cam said. “That was a consistent metaphor, and the metaphor was consistent for the past seven years. At the beginning, it was, ‘You were given a lottery ticket, and you were given a winning lottery ticket. It’s your job to scratch the numbers, take care of it and take it to where you need to take it and cash it in.’
“Obviously, it makes it sound very simple, but over the course of years, you’re scratching numbers and numbers are hitting. Over the past couple months, it’s been, all right, you’re on your way to cash it in. You’ve got to drive it there. The past couple days, I’m handing it to the cashier. Today, I finally got it punched in.”
Gil Johnson called it unbelievably believable. He saw natural talent in Cameron as a toddler and claims he had a vision for his son all along. It’s not quite that simple. The kid was Western Pennsylvania born and raised, a basketball star in a town that produces football players. A WPIAL product hadn’t been drafted in the NBA first round since Danny Fortson in 1997 — and he moved to Shaler from Altoona.
There hadn’t been a homegrown lottery pick since Bethel Park’s Armon Gilliam went No. 2 overall in 1987. Schenley’s DeJuan Blair went to the San Antonio Spurs in the second round in 2009. Chartiers Valley’s T.J. McConnell was undrafted in 2015 before making the Philadelphia 76ers.
But Johnson’s career has been all about defying doubters. Even after sprouting six inches to 6-foot-8, he had only a handful of Division I offers — including one that proved prescient — before OLSH coach Mike Rodriguez and Pitt director of basketball director of operations Brian Regan convinced Jamie Dixon to take a look. That look convinced Dixon to offer a scholarship.
Dixon was the first to fall in love not just with Cameron’s sweet stroke — he was billed as the best pure shooter in the draft — but also his willingness to work toward cashing that lottery ticket. When Johnson graduated in three years and was looking to transfer, Roy Williams lured him to Carolina. As a senior, Johnson shot 45.7 percent from 3-point range and averaged 16.8 points for the Tar Heels to earn first-team All-ACC honors.
Even as Johnson’s NBA stock rose, his family took a calculated risk for a fifth-year senior. Cameron’s agent, Seth Cohen, told teams Cam only would perform in individual workouts, turning down invitations to do group workouts. They believed Johnson had nothing to gain, even though he had everything to lose.
The Suns made the first truly shocking move of the night, by reaching significantly for the oldest player in the draft in Cameron Johnson. Johnson was not one of the 24 players invited to sit in the NBA Draft Green Room, and there was some talk that he may fall to the 2nd round.
— Jonathan Givony (@DraftExpress) June 21, 2019
Crazy as it sounds, it worked. But even Johnson wasn’t expecting to be a lottery pick. On Wednesday night, he and his three brothers rehearsed the moment on the back porch. It seemed like slow motion when Donovan jokingly announced Cam as the 89th pick by the New Orleans Saints — yes, the football team. Aaron placed a hat on his head, and Cam did handshakes with all three and clapped.
This time, it all happened so fast. After Tar Heels teammate Coby White went seventh to the Chicago Bulls, Johnson tried to sneak away for a sandwich. Where his family was watching upstairs in the living room, friends were gathered in the garage to watch the draft on a television on top of a refrigerator.
— NBA (@NBA) June 21, 2019
When Cohen received a congratulatory text message, the room started buzzing. Word had leaked on Twitter, but the Johnsons were hesitant to celebrate until they received a phone call from the team informing them it was official.
“We tried to keep it hush-hush,” Aaron Johnson said. “But everyone’s phones started blowing up. It was the most incredible experience of my life.”
Word spread quickly that the Phoenix Suns, who had a deal in place with the Minnesota Timberwolves, were going to take Johnson with the No. 11 pick.
That created a problem: They didn’t have a Suns hat.
Aaron had gone hat shopping at the Mall at Robinson with a list of teams likely to draft Cameron but couldn’t find a Suns cap at any of the stores. So Aaron declared a technicality, placing a Timberwolves cap atop his brother’s head amid the celebration.
“It’s surreal, beyond anything that we could have imagined,” Aaron Johnson said. “Sometimes I knew, as Cam’s older brother, he was destined to be a basketball player and destined for greatness. To see it come through like this, I’m at a loss for words.”
So was Cam, who was sitting on a sofa when Suns general manager James Jones called. Cameron hit it off with the Suns, thanks to his previous relationship with Jeff Bower, their senior vice president of basketball operations. Bower was head coach at Marist, the first Division I program to offer Cameron a scholarship.
When Gil raised his right hand, the partygoers let out joyous cheers and claps. Cameron was mobbed with hugs before NBA commissioner Adam Silver appeared on TV to announce the pick. Once Johnson’s name was called, the celebration commenced. Soon, the family popped champagne and toasted Cameron.
Later, still wearing his Timberwolves cap, Cameron scrolled on his phone to read reports calling the Suns’ selection of him a reach. He’s used to the slights about his perceived shortcomings and has learned to feed off them. Like his brother, Cameron believes he is destined to be a basketball player, one destined for greatness.
Cameron Johnson is older than Devin Booker
Devin Booker is heading into his 5th NBA season
— FanDuel (@FanDuel) June 21, 2019
“I love it. I love it,” Johnson said. “When I started in high school, I went to OLSH and people said, ‘You’re not that good.’ I went to Pitt and people said, ‘You don’t belong there.’ I went to North Carolina: ‘You don’t belong there.’
“When I went 11th, I was like, ‘Please, someone say I don’t belong there. Please tell me I don’t deserve to go 11th.’ That’s how it’s been my whole entire career to this point, and I feed off that. I love it. Tell me I can’t do something, and I’ll show you that I can.”
The lottery pick has another lottery ticket to protect.
Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Kevin by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .