As Vegas runners-up, Suns set tone for new regime

Suns finish second in Vegas league; McDonough impressed by Goodwin, Hornacek.

The Phoenix Suns are salutatorians of NBA summer school, Las Vegas campus.

Monday night’s 91-77 loss to a group of Golden State Warriors understudies in the inaugural championship tilt of the Vegas league was their only loss in seven games.

“It’s fun, it exciting,” Suns general manager Ryan McDonough said in a phone interview 30 minutes before tipoff. “People say it’s just summer league, but I’ve been impressed with how our guys have prepared.”

By "our guys," McDonough was referring to the new coaching staff and a group of players who had enough skill and experience to come within one game of a July championship.

“This is an important first step,” McDonough, the architect of the latest Suns culture change, said of a successful run that was produced by a percentage of roster players that was high relative to the competition.

“I’ve been really impressed with the effort,” he said. “Everybody’s accepted their role and everybody has bought in.”

But how much should Suns fans be buying after the Morris twins, P.J. Tucker and rookie Archie Goodwin pushed Phoenix to 6-1?

Well, the takeaways are open to interpretation.

For example, Markieff and Marcus Morris frequently overwhelmed opposing baselines that featured very few players ticketed for rotation work in the NBA. During Monday’s loss to Golden State, the Warriors’ "bigs" were Dwayne Jones and Lance Goulbourne.

Based on the superlatives lobbed into a microphone by NBA TV analyst Greg Anthony, the Morris twins should be expected to become above-average winter-time players. A lot of chatter was reserved for their seemingly expanded perimeter chops, but prudent observers are advised to proceed cautiously when embracing the twins’ future.

Before turbo-charging the bandwagon, let’s wait to see if Markieff and Marcus can handle a steady diet of real NBA players. While elevating their summer stock, they worked at the Suns’ starting post positions against players who were bigger and too slow to stay with them defensively, but they lacked sufficient skill to take advantage of this size advantage at the other end.

But McDonough did have nice things to say about both twins.

“Markieff has been really good and was able to show his all-around game,” the new GM said, “and Marcus has done well playing some three.”

McDonough also had high praise for veteran P.J. Tucker, a part-time starter on last year’s Suns A-team.

“He doesn’t have to be here,” McDonough said of the rugged small forward. “He really set a great tone for us.”

OK, while it’s nice to see three experienced Suns playing hard, playing to win and implementing the strategies of first-year head coach Jeff Hornacek, the biggest interest any of us had in the summer team was attached to the 18-year-old Goodwin.

While inspiring positive feedback from several national observers, Goodwin was third on the Suns in scoring (13.1), made 50 percent of his shots from the field and logged the most minutes (24 per game).

“Archie has had a very good tournament,” McDonough said of the player he traded up from No. 30 to No. 29 in the draft to nab last month. “Given his age, he’s done very well.”

After an uneven freshman season at Kentucky that included an out-of-position run at point guard, Goodwin has looked more comfortable in the wide-open spaces and outside-the-box positioning of NBA structure.

“That actually helps some guys,” McDonough said when asked about the lane-clearing properties of the NBA’s defensive-three-seconds format as compared to congested college alignments. “Of course, the competition in the NBA is higher -- the players are bigger, stronger and quicker. But the court is also spaced better.”

And for a player with Goodwin’ first step and solid hesitation dribble move (especially with his off hand), wider driving lanes can seem like a freeway on Sunday morning.

In seven games, young Archie was obliged to get into the lane as a direct route to 48 free-throw attempts. To the bad, he struggled from the line until, later in the proceedings, he started to keep his elbow under the ball and released the shot higher.

Goodwin, who scored 16 of his team-high 18 points in Monday’s first half, was 5 of 6 at the line against the Warriors.

“If you get to the free-throw line at an early age,” McDonough said, “that’s usually something that translates at higher levels. And he (Goodwin) gets there because he has an innate knack for getting by his defender.”

Against Golden State, that resulted in some acrobatic finishes ... and a couple of wild attempts. Even though Goodwin undoubtedly will make some out-of-control basket journeys as a rookie, he did display improvement in recognizing when to leave the floor off of one foot and when to keep his dribble alive and his feet on the floor.

“From the end of his freshman season to the time he worked out for us, I saw quite a bit of improvement,” McDonough said of Goodwin. “And he’s just going to keep getting better.

“What I was really impressed with (in Vegas) was his shooting. He’s shot it a lot better than a lot of people thought he could.”

Including Monday’s 1-for-3 performance from 3-point range, Goodwin was 8 of 14 from distance in Las Vegas.

“When he came in and worked out for us before the draft, he shot it well from the NBA 3,” McDonough said. “Once he gets stronger and is able to absorb some contact and finish, he’ll be tough to contain.”

Point guard Kendall Marshall, last year’s first-round pick and the other virtual summer lock for winter duty, was credited by McDonough with finding open teammates and being more aggressive in looking for shot opportunities.

But, aside from Goodwin, the most interesting summer Suns employee was Hornacek.

“I have to give our coaching staff a lot of credit,” McDonough said. “They prepared like these games were regular-season games.

“He (Horancek) notices a lot of subtle things. And he has a great way of communicating things to the players without having to yell all the time.”

Although summer leagues do more to remind us of which players can’t player instead of assuring us of who can, the work of the 2013 summer Suns suggests more noise at US Airways Center than we heard last season.