2016-17 record: 24-58. 15th in the Western Conference.
Transactions: Ryan McDonough didn’t really do a lot this off-season and that’s a good thing.
For a long time the Suns have been an organization looking to make major changes with blockbuster trades or going after big time free agents. Not using a significant portion of the team’s young talent and future assets to go after Kyrie Irving was a huge step forward for the organization in terms of their own version of what’s known around the league as “The Process”: #TheTimeline.
With a franchise cornerstone in Devin Booker and a lottery pick in a loaded draft that projects to become another one in Josh Jackson alongside two young bigs with a lot of upside in Dragan Bender and Marquese Chriss, the focus for the Suns needs to be on developing their young talent and continuing to build for the future.
In other words: follow #TheTimeline.
With that in mind there were not any flashy deals at all.
Hometown favourite Alan Williams is back with the Suns for his third NBA season on a three year, $17 million deal. The 24 year old affectionately known as “Big Sauce” is going to be looked to provide stability up front off the bench until one of Dragan Bender, Alex Len or Marquese Chriss can emerge as the Suns big man of the future.
Williams may seen a bit undersized for the 5 spot at only 6’8” but his hustle and drive more than make up for it. Particularly on the boards where he’s got the fourth highest rebound percentage in the NBA over the past two seasons behind Andre Drummond, Hassan Whiteside and DeAndre Jordan. Big Sauce is also just the fourth player since 2000 to average 17 points and 14 rebounds per 36 minutes.
He’s an incredible asset to the team not just in terms of his rebounding but also his presence in the locker room and with fans as his personality and humour have made him a cult hero in Phoenix. On a young team, Big Sauce can also step in to play key minutes as he proved with a 11.4 points and 9.1 rebounds in 22.6 minutes per game after the all-star break.
Alex Len is also returning to the Suns after some contract uncertainty until last week when he agreed to a $4.2 million qualifying offer with the team. As with any qualifying offer, it carries much more risk for Len than for the organization as he now has to gamble on himself in hopes of earning a better deal with Phoenix or elsewhere next season with Bender or Chris able to replace him.
The 24 year old hasn’t lived up to expectations thus far with the Suns as he couldn’t take the starting job from 35 year old Tyson Chandler and was outplayed by Alan Williams down the stretch last year. Len has to show the Suns more than the 8.0 points and 6.6 boards he brought to the table in 20.3 minutes per game in his last somewhat underwhelming campaign. He’s entering his fifth season and last chance to show the organization that he’s worth committing to long term.
Ryan McDonough made one trade this off-season when he sent a top 55 protected 2018 second round pick to the Memphis Grizzlies in exchange for their 2018 second rounder and Troy Daniels.
That’s right the same Troy Daniels who Devin Booker reminded us has “been on five team in three years” in an epic takedown after the two had gotten into it during a game last season.
The organization apparently spoke to Booker before making the deal to make sure everything was now cool between the two. Thankfully the answer was yes because Daniels immediately addresses two concerns for the Suns and will hopefully push Booker as well if there is some residual competition stemming from last year’s beef.
The first need that Daniels fills for the Suns is their lack of depth at the back court with Brandon Knight and rookie Davon Reed both out with injury. Secondly, Daniels will bolster the team’s poor three point shooting performance. He’s a career 40.6% from downtown and will help improve a Phoenix squad that was 27th in the NBA in three point percentage and 29th in makes last season.
The Suns signed forward TJ Warren to a four year, $50 million extension. The 24 year old enters his fourth NBA season coming off a career year where he averaged 14.1 points and 5.1 boards and should provide a lot of value for Phoenix off the bench as he moves to the second unit to make room for rookie Josh Jackson.
2017 NBA Draft: With the 4th overall pick in the draft, the Suns took Josh Jackson out of Kansas who had a highly productive freshman year with 16.3 points, 7.4 boards, 3 assists, 1.7 steals and 1.1 blocks. He continued that type of impact all over the floor in the NBA Summer League where he averaged 17.4 points, 9.2 rebounds, 1.6 assists, 1.2 steals and a block per game in the tournament on the way to first-team honours.
Jackson will bring some good size on the wing for the Suns and he’s an explosive athlete with great quickness. He excels above the rim and uses his quickness to get out in transition where he can make spot up jumpers, cut off the ball and mix in timely rebounds and post-ups. Jackson’s an extremely versatile offensive player who can operate on or off the ball and brings a lot to the table as a scorer or facilitator. He has shown that he’s got excellent instincts in terms of cutting into open spaces in order to be available for lobs or crash the offensive glass.
The 20 year old was a streaky shooter at times but seemed to get in a better rhythm as his freshman year rolled on. He made 39% of his spot up jumpers and as he improves his shooting mechanics, he will only become more of a consistent shooting threat. That’s the biggest area he needs to improve on to be an effective NBA scorer as he really appeared to struggle at times and it seemed like he never shot the ball the same way twice in college.
Defensively is where Jackson really shines. He’s a fierce competitor who has been recognized for his two-way play from a young age and takes great pride in his work on the back-end. Jackson does an outstanding job locking down opponents on the perimeter with his lateral quickness and ability to draw charges by staying in front of them. He doesn’t have a great deal of length but his speed and high level defensive IQ allow him to anticipate and cut off passing lanes. His athleticism allows him to elevate as a shot blocker and excellent rebounder and he’s not afraid of throwing his body around and get physical. Jackson is able to guard 1 to 4 on the court with relative ease but will need to work on his strength to match up with some of the bigger and more experienced 4s in the NBA.
The Suns have a player they hope will form the core of the future alongside Devin Booker. Jackson is an unselfish, athletic two-way player who will compete every night and do everything on the floor to help win games and make his teammates better. He can be a little too fiery at times, but that passion brings an incredible effort every night which is exactly what Phoenix will need as they continue to build for the future.
At the 32nd pick in the draft, the Suns selected senior Davon Reed out of the the University of Miami who stands at 6’5.5” with a 7’0” wingspan.
Reed projects as an excellent 3 and D man in the NBA which is a combination of skills that will guarantee you a roster spot in the space and pace era. He’s a versatile and tenacious defender who competes on every play and is excellent in one-on-one situations against opposing guards. He also knocked down 39.7% of his threes in his senior year and in excellent as a spot up option or can create his shot under pressure.
Reed was seen as a bit of a reach in the early second round but managed to answer some of his doubters with a solid14 point and 4 rebound, 1.2 assist and 1.2 steal per game performance at the Summer League. Unfortunately he sustained an injury to his left meniscus that required surgery and will keep him out until December at the earliest.
If he can return healthy, the former Hurricane should be able to carve out a nice role on the Suns bench with his vital 3-and-D skill-set and solid play on the wing.
Phoenix made a reach with the 54th selection in the draft when they took Valparaiso forward Alec Peters, another four year senior who will be coming off a surgery.
Peters exploded in his senior season with 23 points and 10.1 rebounds and is an intriguing prospect with his shooting. He hit threes at a 41.6% clip in his collegiate career and is great off the catch-and-shoot and can help space the floor as a spot-up option. In his senior year, he also became much more comfortable creating his own shot off the dribble and showed a lot of improvement as a passer.
Defensively, Peters really struggles as as one-on-one defender due to his lack of physical tools and an absence of lateral quickness to stay in front of opposing players. He does show a lot of promise as a team defender and showed a lot of commitment and willingness in the system at Valpo.
If not for the injury that ended his collegiate career with four games to go in the regular season, he likely would have ranked higher as a prospect and his recovery from a stress fracture in his right leg will go a long way toward determining how he is able to do in the pro game.
Outlook: Beyond the development of Josh Jackson over his rookie season, the focus of #TheTimeline will also be on the continued ascension of guard Devin Booker to superstar status.
The 20 year old has an incredible leap in his second season that saw him increase his scoring from 13.8 points per game in his rookie season to 22.1 points per game last year which not only lead the Suns in scoring but also represented the highest jump in scoring in the entire league. Booker’s season was highlighted by a 70 point game in a loss against the Boston Celtics on March 24 in which he became the sixth player in the NBA history and youngest to accomplish the feat.
Booker is a scoring machine whose prowess increased through the season and peaked with 25.3 points per game in March and 27.4 in April. His prowess as a scorer has lead some critics to claim that’s all he can do – especially proponents of advanced stats where Booker’s game doesn’t translate to elite numbers – but he’s shown a high basketball IQ and can create in the pick-and-roll, create off the dribble in one-on-one situations, get to the basket against switches and just generally punish defenses as a high quality gunner.
Devin Booker is not going to amass a ton of blocks, steals or rebounds. He’s not going to lock down opposing wings on defense or confuse anyone for an all-NBA defender anytime soon. What he is going to do is score and score in bunches. He’s a player that LeBron James has deemed a future all-star, Dwyane Wade has heralded as one of the best two guards in the league and whose game Kevin Durant has stated that he loves for Booker’s ability to make opposing defenders pay and let them know about it.
The former Kentucky Wildcat has also continued to develop as a passer to the point where Earl Watson is considering using him as a point guard more frequently. It’s an idea that would certainly help with Booker’s development but certainly would call into question how much of a future Eric Bledsoe has in Phoenix.
Bledsoe is coming off a year where averaged career highs in points (21.1) and assists (6.3) and is one of the most underappreciated point guards in the NBA who is just entering his prime at 27 years old. He can run an offense and is a ferocious and capable defender in the right situation. With carrying so much of the offensive load for Phoenix, his defense has fallen off a bit, but he should be able to find that form again with Booker taking more of a role running the offense or in a new situation.
Since being shut down early last season to aid with tanking, Bledsoe has been the subject of many trade rumours and was the centrepiece of the rumoured package that McDonough was going to offer the Cleveland Cavaliers. His trade value has really peaked and he’s got a lot to offer a team looking to compete which the Suns definitely are not. Trading him makes too much sense and I wouldn’t be surprised to see it happen before the season is out.
In the meantime, he will continue to run the offense, work on his pick-and-roll chemistry with Tyson Chandler and the Suns young bigs, and play more off the ball to help Booker develop as a point guard which should help him with his energy on the back-end and give Bledsoe a live dribble to attack opposing defenses with.
Speaking of Chandler, the 35 year old is still an effective defender and rim protector when he’s on the floor and is also quite effective in the pick-and-roll and still a smart and capable big man who could be attractive to a competitor down the stretch. In the meantime, he’s got a lot of value as a capable starting centre who can mentor young bigs Marquese Chriss, Dragan Bender and Alex Len. The only question is how much “strategic rest” he’ll be given when the team decides to bottom out.
Chriss showed a lot of promise in his rookie year with per 36 minute averages of 15.6 points and 7.2 rebounds. Over the last 22 games of the year, he showed a huge leap in his interior defense as his blocks jumped from 1.2 per 36 minutes to 2.0 blocks per 36 minutes which should give the team a lot of confidence going forward. His shooting range also improved during that span as he 35.3% – an improvement from a concerning 30.3% over the first 60 games.
The 20 year old should continue to improve his interior D and shooting and build on the work he did down the stretch last season, but in order to establish a bigger role on the team his rebounding will also have to get better. Chriss stands 6’10” and 230 and is extremely mobile and athletic and able to get off the ground quickly and with ease. There is no reason why he can’t develop into a double digit rebounder with the kind of strength and athleticism that he possesses.
Chriss also has to become a more focused and consistent defender and really cut down on his fouls. He had 3.2 per game which was 7th in the NBA and was also called for 11 technical which is a number that needs to come down in order for him to stay on the floor and be effective.
Fellow young big Dragan Bender appeared in just 43 games last season due to an ankle injury and also was limited in his minutes for Croatia at the EuroBasket this summer. There were glimpses last season of the player Bender is capable of being when he became the fourth 18 year old to score in a double digits in a season opener after LeBron James, Dwight Howard and teammate Devin Booker. But the rest of the season was largely disappointing.
Bender has to show more assertiveness on offense if he’s ever going to develop into the type of unicorn big man that the Suns thought they were drafting who could bring the ball up the floor and shoot threes at 7’2”. If he’s able to develop properly those skills combined with his ball moving ability would give the Suns one of the most unique weapons in the league.
That will come with building Bender’s confidence with more opportunities, more minutes and the ability to take the good with the bad that comes with a rebuild.
Another Kentucky alum, Tyler Ulis, will be another second year player to keep an eye on. The guard could find himself with a much bigger role should Eric Bledsoe moved.
His rookie season was rather underwhelming for the most part until he got going with an increased role after the all-star break with 13.2 points, 7.1 assists and 1.1 steals. As a starter it got even better with 16.1 points, 8.1 assists and 1.2 steals. Pretty impressive for a young man that John Calipari once called “the best floor general Kentucky has had since I’ve coached.”
Incredibly high praise for the 5’9” point guard.
Ulis will need to work on his range and become a more effective point shooter than his 26.6% in his rookie year and obviously defense is a concern for the 21 year old with his small stature, but if the rise of Isaiah Thomas has taught us anything it’s that undersized point guards can be effective in the NBA and Ulis may become a long term answer in the back-court for the Suns.
TJ Warren and Jared Dudley will provide some spark and stability on the second unit, but ultimately this team will be all about developing the youth and continuing to follow #TheTimeline.
Phoenix will be worth a watch for their young players – especially Josh Jackson and Devin Booker, but ultimately won’t win a lot of games as they focus on the future which means potentially moving on from Bledsoe and Chandler and focusing on playing young talent and looking for a lottery pick in this year’s top heavy draft as opposed to chasing wins.
The Suns will definitely finish at the bottom of the Western Conference once again and that’s exactly where they should be as they continue to acquire assets and build for the future.
Prediction: 20-62. 15th in the Western Conference.