PHOENIX — It’s December 23, and Cam Johnson is beaming as she leaves the Footprint Center.

He received an early Christmas present.

“I’m going on a road trip!” Johnson exclaimed to reporters with a joyous smile.

At that time, he had been recovering for almost two months from a torn right meniscus. Johnson’s rehab reached a point where it was okay for him to continue away from the Suns’ state-of-the-art practice facility. He could get back into the swing of things with the day-to-day routine outside of playing time, but more importantly, he was back with the guys every day and every night.

It’s a few weeks later and almost half the season has been spent on the shelf for Johnson. Thirty-seven games. Johnson will return for Thursday’s matchup against the Brooklyn Nets in a limited role, the team confirmed Wednesday.

It’s the kind of emotional boost the Suns with an overall record of 21-24 and 5-17 in their last 22 games badly need.

Johnson is, as Monty Williams says, “an incredibly important player for the program.” He is the only player on the list who can claim his entire NBA career has been guided by Williams, arriving in the Valley at the same time as the head coach in 2019.

He knows the system better than anyone since, well, it’s the only NBA system he’s ever seen. Williams will constantly cite Johnson as a guy who does X or Y well when discussing the various intricacies of the team’s playing style.

Johnson plays his tail. He spends more time on the ground than anyone on the team. I have been with him for a few years but he is the player I have asked the most about a blow or a bruise. There was one over the eye of him earlier this year literally out of hardwood.

Johnson sat down after practice Monday to speak to the media for the first time since his injury, drenched in sweat, as he has been for the past two weeks every time we’ve seen him.

He exhaled with a “ugh.” The last boxes to check have been his conditioning and the most direct and determined movements of that right knee.

These latest 100 percent progress percentile increases must have been particularly upsetting to Johnson, who admitted the time off this year isn’t the same because of how many losses Phoenix has lost over the year.

“It feels different,” Johnson said. “Especially because there have been a lot of guys coming in and out of injuries and it just shows that it’s harder for everyone individually.”

“Frustrating is not the word,” he added, joking that he may have fought with medical staff at times. “It will test your patience, but I understand that you have my best interests at heart and I understand that you are looking out for the longevity of my career.”

Johnson is much more prone to the flashes I get in the little window we’re in the locker room over the past month specifically, watching his teammates limp after a game where the Suns would only have 9-12 players available. . .

The boys who have been able to play are doing so due to some ailments. You can imagine how much that burden on Johnson’s teammates can make him feel.

“I’ve been thinking about it a lot,” he said. “A feeling that you can’t shake in that situation is a feeling of guilt. I didn’t try to make an injury happen or anything like that, but you see guys play heavy minutes, the numbers are getting lower and lower and I’m just sitting there watching and you feel guilty.”

You’re done with it. Now, Johnson can provide on-court relief to handle some of the unsustainable weight that has been placed on the Suns’ roster construction.

No team is well-designed enough to handle the loss of two of its six most important players, which is Johnson and Jae Crowder, who have been waiting all season for a trade. Put it in the same position? Forget this.

“It’s mid-January coming to the end of January: it’s the dog days of the season. … It’s been a lot of stress for the guys and you can see it,” Johnson said. “I think the team has kept great spirit about them and how they deal with this adversity.”

Wing Torrey Craig went from, “Man, that’s a good guy to have as your fourth forward by depth” to a starter in 33 games and one of the Suns’ X factors over the past two months.

“It’s a little bit stressful on your overall rotation,” Williams said. “We have had to play differently. And congratulations to Torrey. He stepped up and played heavy minutes, played both ends of the floor, Dario (Saric) had to play some, Ish (Wainright) played some. Yes, there is stress in the rotation, but as we start to get the guys back, hopefully it will ease up a bit.”

Johnson is focused on bringing that aforementioned relief, you guessed it, playing with the tail. The No. 1 point of emphasis he saw as he watched the team from the sideline and on his TV at home was pace.

He wants to bring energy, cover his teammates on defense, and attack the opposing defense quickly. He’s ready to use that to be that emotional boost.

“A lot,” Johnson said when asked about it. “I just think that anyone who comes back injects some of that energy and life.”

From the way you described it, it doesn’t sound like there is any mental block built around your knee.

“I feel great with my knee, my body is complete,” Johnson said. “So I’ll just let it slide and have fun and try to contribute like a win.”

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By sbavh

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