The Suns have returned from the season’s first road trip with a notion of how far they’ve already traveled on a suspected tank. And despite losing twice in three nights, we should acknowledge they’ve covered considerable distance since the organization was being credited with preparing to lose on purpose.
Looking strong in to-the-wire losses in Oklahoma City and San Antonio has to be considered almost as encouraging as the team’s three wins. But here’s some input from another NBA team’s advance scout who recently witnessed the 3-2 Suns:
“They really have more of an idea of what they’re doing on defense than I can remember a Suns team having. And when they make mistakes, they have better athletes to erase some of the errors.
“They really get after it at both ends, too. I’m not sure how the two-point-guards-thing is going to work, though. And however they play it, teams will start to get more of a read on how to stop what they’re doing as the season goes along.
“The key is how they respond if and when they crater for a few games. I think they have the right guy (coach Jeff Hornacek) for that, but we’ll see how the players handle it.”
For the record, the Suns rank seventh among NBA teams in defensive efficiency.
Anyway, with competitive players who could evolve into key participants on the next great Suns team, the future is being ignited. We’ll just have to see if they’ll progress rapidly enough to incinerate the immediate draft future.
With a seemingly high-level coaching staff and the potential to cement that winning culture we keep hearing about, things should work out pretty well. And if the Minnesota Timberwolves remain healthy and the Washington Wizards (with a big boost from Marcin Gortat, they figured out how to win Wednesday night!) improve, a couple of first-round draft assets could be tied into a neat package capable of moving up in the draft order. That pick from the Indiana Pacers will be here, too, but it’s looking like it’ll be very late in Round 1.
None of this season’s losers should be expected to trade out of the top five (or so), but the next draft pool still may provide elite prospects after that.
There are also quite a few positive notions to consider. Really jumping off the TV screen during the most recent three-game demonstration was point guard Eric Bledsoe. With Goran Dragic (ankle) being lost for the trip during the game at OKC, Bledsoe continued delivering clues about his high-level future.
In a limited number of games, the eventual restricted free agent is listed as (statistically) one of the league’s top closers. If he can experience a reasonable hike in shooting accuracy away from the rim (he’s only 26 percent from 3-point range) and remember previous situations with enough clarity to cut down on turnovers (4.4 per game), Bledsoe likely will cost the Suns a lot of loot when matching whatever offer sheet he signs this summer.
But the Suns didn’t exactly have loads of evidence before the actual extension deadline, and extending him early would have put a lot more money on their books than his cap hold will cover when the free-agent market opens. This should enable them — if other cap-clearing measures are worked out — to pursue another player and then re-sign Bledsoe while going over the cap limit.
If nothing else, the last three games strongly suggest what can happen when outstanding athletes are taught how to play. Although Gerald Green and Miles Plumlee weren’t exactly rec-league refugees, those of us who paid attention to them in the past are really impressed by how well they’re playing now.
Green, who’s shooting a blistering 48 percent from 3-point range, is providing more maneuvering room for Bledsoe. And even though the former preps-to-pros prospect shot poorly for the Pacers last season, he’s had decent stretches of marksmanship before.
What he demonstrated against the Spurs — something that hints at work being done behind the scenes — was use Wednesday’s hot shooting to set up Manu Ginobili on a transition slow-and-go, blow-by drive with his left hand. Once he was on the launch pad, the one-time slam-dunk champion elevated to an absurd level and cranked it through the rim with both hands. Unfortunately, in terms of wins and losses, his elevated level of excitement overwhelmed his still-developing feel for the game, leading to some crushing turnovers down the homestretch.
With good situational coaching, a five-against-the-ball focus on defense and talented players taking the learning curve on two wheels, there may be enough games like that to keep the Suns in decent draft position. Those would be exciting skirmishes that leave the Suns just out of the reach of taking down elite teams.
What makes Plumlee — another ex-Pacer now in his second NBA season — so interesting on the prospect list is the implementation of what he’s been working on combined with recognizing a few leftover limitations.
Aside from those two, the roadie left us wondering if the Morris twins are going to be viable future Suns. After offering little in the first three games of the season, Markieff and Marcus suddenly played as if the Curse of Lance Blanks didn’t exist. ’Kieff (23 points on 11-of-13 shooting and 12 rebounds) had his best game as a pro, while Marcus had an 11-point outing that included half a dozen boards. And after strong productivity in Tuesday’s win at New Orleans, the twins have given Suns fans reason to follow their progress.
Another previously dismissed throw-in-type addition is point guard Ish Smith, who simply has the quickness to get to spots Kendall Marshall couldn’t.
Rookies Archie Goodwin and Alex Len (still trying to regain his mobility level after surgery on both ankles) slowly are being escorted into the future when favorable situations arise. Based on a grand total of five evidentiary games, there could be a lot of favorable situations in the future for Suns fans.