Remodeled Suns look to surprise in post-Nash era
Five players return from last year, and only two - center Marcin Gortat and guard Jared Dudley - figure to start.
The newcomers include a pair of former high draft picks, Michael Beasley and Wesley Johnson, looking to thrive with a clean slate.
In Beasley's case, the second overall pick in 2008 insists his marijuana-related issues are behind him. Johnson, the fourth overall pick in 2010, looks to be a designated sharpshooter off the bench for the Suns.
Phoenix also landed Luis Scola, a 6-foot-9 Argentine who gives the team a steady power forward, something they've lacked since All-Star Amar'e Stoudemire packed his bags for New York.
The most significant addition isn't new to the Suns at all. Somebody had to replace Nash, and the Suns coaxed his former understudy, Goran Dragic, back to the desert.
Phoenix, dissatisfied with Dragic's play at the time, shipped him to Houston for point guard Aaron Brooks in February 2010. Brooks was a disappointment in Phoenix and last season, when he moved into the Rockets' starting lineup, Dragic flourished.
Dudley noticed the difference between this Dragic and the one who was traded away.
"I thought him leaving, going to Houston and starting has helped his confidence, helped his maturity," Dudley said. "He definitely is the face of the franchise now. It's his show."
Dragic, always popular with his teammates and the fans, knows that following Nash, one of the best playmakers the game has known, is a daunting challenge.
"My confidence is huge," he said. "I feel awesome. I feel great. I'm in shape now. I just try to find the open guys and just be myself."
Standing 6-foot-3 with long arms and a dynamic, aggressive playing style, the Slovenian playmaker knows the spotlight will be on him.
"I never have avoided that. That's part of the business," he said. "Every night I'm going to go out there and give my hundred percent, try to play as hard as possible, then see what's going to happen. I'm not afraid. I'm comfortable with that role. I was talking with coach and my teammates. They trust me and I trust them."
Coach Alvin Gentry enters his fourth full season with the Suns, but first without Nash. He is counting on effort as a crucial component of this mostly young bunch.
Gentry said that in practices and preseason games, he's been impressed by the "level of intensity and overall competitiveness at every position."
Dudley has been with the Suns since 2008, longer than any other current member of the team. He figures to start at shooting guard and can slide to small forward. The other longtime Sun, forward Channing Frye, is out for the season for treatment of an enlarged heart.
The team will look to Beasley to provide a bulk of the offense, giving the exceptionally talented player a clean slate in a new setting.
The 6-foot-10 forward signed a three-year, $18 million contract with Phoenix after the Minnesota Timberwolves decided to let him go. It's the third team for Beasley since he was drafted so high by the Miami Heat.
The contract was not that big for someone who was expected to be so good. He brings a 15.1-point career scoring average but also carries the baggage of off-the-court issues.
Beasley was ticketed for possessing marijuana and speeding in a Minneapolis suburb in June 2011 and has acknowledged that while playing for Miami, he twice violated the NBA's drug policy and entered a treatment facility in 2009. At the news conference introducing him in Phoenix, Beasley said he realized his drug issues were holding him back.
"I realize 10 minutes of feeling good is not really worth putting my life and my career and my legacy in jeopardy," he said at the time, "so I'm confident to say that that part of my career, that part of my life, is over and won't be coming back."
Gortat will surely miss the pick-and-rolls with Nash that gave him so much success on offense, but he will still often be the target in the Suns' system, which will remain up-tempo but with the ability to play a half-court style when necessary.
As for depth, streak-shooting Shannon Brown will be the backup shooting guard. Markieff Morris, a first-round draft pick a year ago, will back up Scola. At center, Phoenix brought in 34-year-old Jermaine O'Neal to play behind Gortat.
Phoenix's first-round draft pick, Kendall Marshall out of North Carolina, will have to fight his way into the rotation. Sebastian Telfair, who played the best basketball of his career for the Suns last season, opens this season as Dragic's backup.
It's not a cast that can stand up to the powerhouses in the West - Oklahoma City, the two teams in Los Angeles, and San Antonio.
Competing for one of the last spots in the playoffs may be a more realistic goal.
"I think that we will be competitive and we will try to play the right way and we will play unselfishly," Gentry said. "If we can put those three things together, anything that happens we will accept."
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