Revamped Suns will answer to new leaders

O'Neal, Dudley step forward to fill Suns' leadership void created by departures of Nash, Hill.

PHOENIX – Staring at two crucial on-court vacancies, the Phoenix Suns unleashed their newly established cap space on Goran Dragic and Michael Beasley.
These two additions were quite prominent during Monday’s Media Day, bouncing between seasonably-redundant interviews and formula photo ops. So, with Dragic and Beasley in uniform, Suns fans are pretty clear on which players will be occupying some sizable vacancies at point guard and small forward.
But with Steve Nash and Grant Hill now working in Los Angeles, an important question hanging above the practice floor at U.S. Airways Center like the Sword of Damocles was this:
Who will take over the team's leadership void?
OK, so a seeming bump in talent – teamed up with solid direction from the coaching staff – could keep Phoenix in reasonable contention for a playoff spot. But we’re all pretty convinced that, in team sports, contributors on successful squads often take important cues from a co-worker or two.
For a quick answer on who that should be in Phoenix, let’s go to chatty Suns center Marcin Gortat.
“The main leader in the locker room is going to be Jermaine O’Neal,” The Polish Hammer said in a decisive statement advocating the leadership chops associated with the guy hired to be his backup. “He’s already the guy in charge. I hope to be his right-hand man … help him out in that respect.”
And he’s not kidding. When it comes to identifying the leading candidate to walk whatever talk is attached to Planet Orange, the first name you hear is Jermaine O’Neal.
Now entering his 17th NBA training camp, the 6-foot-11, six-time All-Star definitely has the resume and the resolve.
“In the past, this was a team that had the reputation of one that you could just run through,” said O’Neal, who’s been in town working out for a few weeks with his new teammates, of past gun-slinging Suns outfits. “But that’s going to change.”
Well, OK. The man didn’t sign with Phoenix to become a turnstile. He has the attitude and accompanying sinew to walk that particular talk. But have these Suns already started to embrace this don’t-back-down philosophy?
“This is a good group,” O’Neal said. “But that was one of the things I was concerned with while thinking about where I was going to sign. But it’s all about what you believe. If you tell yourself that’s what you’re going to be, that’s what you’ll become.”
So, with O’Neal as the emotional touchstone, the Suns could be a lot crustier this season. He’s also a feeling a lot better physically than he has in quite a while and should be capable of providing more on the floor than philosophical enforcement.
But Gortat will get the big minutes in the middle, and Luis Scola – another seasoned customer – figures to have considerable burn at power forward. This suggests that in addition to what O’Neal provides, the Suns are going to need an even more significant contributor to speak up at the appropriate time.
Well, being verbal’s never been a problem for swingman Jared Dudley.
“I know that if something needs to be said, me or Jermaine or Scola will say it,” said Dudley, who turned 27 in July, when asked about his potentially increased responsibilities of leadership. “I’m someone where I try to hold people accountable … even when Steve and Grant were here. Someone’s doing wrong, I get on ’em.
“Especially in the weight room, I’m taking the initiative. I’ve always been one of the first five early guys. G and Steve were the first ones … now I’m trying to step into that role.”
With Nash and Hill waving good-bye, eyebrows around the league were arched when one of the Suns’ first July moves was a free-agency commitment to Michael Beasley.
Always celebrated as wildly talented, wildly inconsistent and frequently off the rails, it was postulated that Beasley might be poison to a roster without the two aforementioned veterans.
But beyond adding O’Neal and Scola, Beasley reportedly has made important progress in policing himself. His off-season training regimen included sessions with former L.A. Lakers guard Norm Nixon, who spent more time helping Beasley improve as a person than he did on upgrading Michael as a player.
“He’s grown,” O’Neal said of Beasley, his teammate during a 2009-2010 season they spent with the Miami Heat. “With his talent, he has the potential to become a franchise player.”
If that occurs, NBA-wide uncertainty regarding the Suns’ designs on the postseason might be flipped.
To make it all happen, however, Phoenix will need more than just talent, leadership and technique.
The word offered by Coach Alvin Gentry is belief.
“We believe in ourselves, and we believe in each other,” Gentry said. “When you do that, good things can happen. We’ve seen it happen in this league all the time.”

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