Fifteen games into the 2016-17 NBA season, what have we learned about the struggling Phoenix Suns? Here are the five biggest takeaways.
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Nov 16, 2016; Denver, CO, USA; Phoenix Suns guard Devin Booker (1) walks off the court after being ejected from the game during the second half against the Denver Nuggets at Pepsi Center. The Nuggets won 120-104. Mandatory Credit: Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports
About one month into the 2016-17 NBA season, the Phoenix Suns haven’t thrown many surprises our way. Projected to win fewer than 30 games after winning just 23 in 2015-16, this young team and its rookie head coach were primarily concerned with developing the youth rather than chasing a bottom-rung playoff spot.
After 15 games, it’s safe to say the 4-11 Suns don’t need to worry about the 2017 NBA Playoffs; they’re almost certainly heading for a seventh straight season in the draft lottery.
But even with such lowered expectations, there’s a reason they don’t call them “growing pleasures,” since the early growing pains of this team haven’t been easy to stomach.
Whether it’s the young players not playing enough, the returns of Eric Bledsoe and Brandon Knight yielding very few victories, or the early struggles of future franchise cornerstones, the Suns have been about as hard to watch as anyone expected.
It’s not all bad news, but as we head into the second month of the NBA calendar, it’s time to take a look at the five biggest early season takeaways for the Phoenix Suns and their ongoing youth movement.
Oct 3, 2016; Phoenix, AZ, USA; Phoenix Suns forward Dragan Bender (35) shoots over San Antonio Spurs forward Kyle Anderson (1) during the first half at Talking Stick Resort Arena. Mandatory Credit: Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports
5. Watson Needs To Unleash The Dragan
When the Suns made Earl Watson their head coach, they were criticized for not doing their due diligence, especially with names like Tom Thibodeau and Scott Brooks floating around on the market. The move was justified by the sense of family and culture Watson was instilling in a franchise that had lost its way, especially as it inched closer toward a youth movement.
Expectations weren’t high entering the 2016-17 NBA season, so Phoenix’s current 4-11 record isn’t even that big a deal. But after watching Luke Walton extract a .500 record out of a similarly talented Los Angeles Lakers team, and in the wake of rookie Dragan Bender‘s complete lack of playing time, it’s hard to feel very optimistic about the Watson hire just yet.
Earl Watson played Chandler, Dudley, Tucker, Barbosa 84 minutes to lose by double digits.
These things take time. Young franchise players, most of whom are 23 years or younger, don’t develop overnight, especially under a rookie head coach.
However, the Suns’ stagnant, iso-heavy offense, coupled with a porous defense that surrendered at least 100 points in 25 consecutive games until last Friday, has been a pretty clear indicator Watson’s value doesn’t lie in the X’s and O’s.
But with sparing minutes being given to Bender, the No. 4 overall pick and youngest player in the league, wasn’t this where his value was supposed to lie? In giving the youngsters confidence and ample opportunities to develop?
I love seeing Alan Williams play, but Dragan Bender getting zero first half minutes on a night where Tyson Chandler is out? Nonsensical.
In his NBA debut, Bender was a bright spot off the bench for a Suns team that came out half asleep. He put up 10 points in 12 minutes, went 4-for-5 from the field and even got the home crowd back into the game with a made corner three and followup celebration.
Since then, he’s reached double-digit minutes in just three of Phoenix’s 14 games, which seems borderline unfair given his competence on the defensive end, his somewhat efficient three-point shooting and the fact that he’s supposed to be a future franchise cornerstone.
Moving Marquese Chriss into the starting lineup over Jared Dudley, not to mention keeping T.J. Warren in the starting lineup over P.J. Tucker, were moves that came far sooner than expected, so Watson deserves kudos there. The only problem is, Dudley and Tucker are soaking up far more frontcourt minutes than necessary off the bench, even compared to the starter Chriss.
Also you're going to have a hard time convincing me that Bender shouldn't start over Chriss (they both should be playing)
Bender is in a bit of a bind, since he hasn’t looked as NBA-ready as Chriss (offensively, at least). With Dudley, Chriss and Tucker playing the 4, not to mention Tyson Chandler and Alex Len at the 5 and Warren, Tucker, Dudley and Devin Booker all capable of playing the 3, Bender’s inconsistent minutes have come at various positions of need based on whoever’s available.
That being said, there’s no excuse for Bender playing just 9.6 minutes per game on the season. There’s no excuse for him being a healthy scratch in five of the team’s 14 games.
There’s no excuse for him to be giving up frontcourt minutes to Alan Williams (fun as they were) on nights where Chandler is out, nor is there one for Dudley (26.9 MPG in his eight games off the bench) and Tucker (21.7 MPG) to be playing so much for a 4-11 team.
This season is about player development. Tyler Ulis (11.4 MPG) and Chriss (15.0 MPG) could also stand to see their minutes increase, which should happen as the L’s continue to pile up, but it’s a little worrisome how little run Bender has gotten when he could wind up being the most versatile player of the three.
Nov 9, 2016; Phoenix, AZ, USA; Phoenix Suns forward Jared Dudley (3) celebrates in the fourth quarter against the Detroit Pistons at Talking Stick Resort Arena. The Suns defeated the Pistons 107-100. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
4. Dudley And Knight Getting Acclimated In Bench Roles
The two most important bench players for the Phoenix Suns have been Jared Dudley and Brandon Knight of late, with one embracing the role wholeheartedly and the other taking a little more time to adjust. That being said, both are really thriving in the second unit now.
Most expected the 19-year-old Marquese Chriss to eventually take over the starting power forward job, maybe sometime in December or January. It took a grand total of seven games for head coach Earl Watson to make that change, but in typical Dudley fashion, the move to bench duty has gotten nothing but positive feedback.
“Nah, overall it saves my legs, saves my career!” he joked. “The whole thing was to groom Marquese and I can still groom him [from the bench].”
Even better, Dudley’s move to bench duty has actually made him a far more effective weapon on the offense. Through the first seven games as a starter, Dudley averaged 6.4 points and 3.0 rebounds per game on 44.1 percent shooting from the floor and 44.4 percent shooting from three-point range.
No one was expecting All-Star numbers from J-Dudz in a starting role, but his 10.9 points and 4.1 rebounds per game on .516/.441/.667 shooting splits off the bench have been one of the few bright spots for the Suns over their last eight games.
As for Knight, his acceptance of a bench role has been much more gradual, but he’s starting to look more acclimated.
In his first seven appearances, Knight averaged 11.6 points and 2.6 assists per game on dismal shooting splits of .326/.240/.950. In his last eight, he’s put up 13.3 points and 3.8 assists per game on improved .422/.385/.833 shooting.
He’s reached double figures in four of his last five games, including a season-high 32 points in Denver, which just so happened to top every other bench player’s single-game scoring high so far in 2016-17.
Knight is still a net negative and it seems highly unlikely he’s put his inconsistency behind him for good, but at least all those shots he’s taking off the bench are, you know, going in the basket now.
Nov 2, 2016; Phoenix, AZ, USA; Phoenix Suns guard Brandon Knight (11) high fives guard Eric Bledsoe (2) during the second half of the game against the Portland Trail Blazers at Talking Stick Resort Arena. The Suns defeated the Trail Blazers 118-115. Mandatory Credit: Jennifer Stewart-USA TODAY Sports
3. The Offense Is Severely Flawed
Surrendering 106.3 points per 100 possessions, the Suns currently rank 25th in the NBA in defensive rating. However, that’s to be expected when half your team is under the age of 23, your starting center is an aging 34-year-old and hardly any of your players are defensive stalwarts.
The more concerning problem in Phoenix is an offense that operates under the guise of being fast-paced and high-powered. Sure, the Suns rank eighth in points per game (107.9), but it’s only because they’re leading the league in pace (104.78).
Dig a little deeper and you’ll notice that the Suns’ offense isn’t very potent at all. Phoenix ranks 21st in offensive rating (101.3 points per 100 possessions) and 18th in field goal percentage (44.5 percent).
One of the underlying reasons? Watson has yet to install an actual offense that doesn’t just rely on the shot creation of so many ball-dominant scorers. There’s a reason the Suns rank 29th in assist percentage (47.8 percent), 29th in assist-to-turnover ratio (1.23) and 27th in assists (a measly 19.3 per game).
Eric Bledsoe and Brandon Knight have always been scoring point guards, Devin Booker’s up-and-down sophomore season has been primarily due to the Suns giving him the ball and clearing out to let him do his best Kobe Bryant impression, and T.J. Warren is another midrange aficionado.
Despite having so many “capable” shooters, the Suns are also trending away from the direction of a league that demands floor spacing and three-point threats. Phoenix ranks 28th in three-point shooting (31.5 percent), 26th in three-point attempts (22.4 per game) and 29th in three-point makes (7.1 per game).
The Suns’ defensive woes have been just as problematic in their 4-11 start, which is to be expected of such a young team. But a quick glance over to a similarly inexperienced group in L.A. finding early success serves as a painful reminder that Phoenix probably didn’t hire Watson for the X’s and O’s.
October 31, 2016; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Phoenix Suns forward T.J. Warren (12) grabs a rebound against the Los Angeles Clippers during the first half at Staples Center. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports
2. Warren Ready To Break Out
Out of all that chaos on the offensive end, the Suns are lucky to have a player capable of thriving under those conditions like T.J. Warren.
Through the first 15 games of the season, Warren has probably been Phoenix’s best and/or most consistent player, mostly because of his ability to get buckets outside of any discernible, organized offense.
His 17.7 points per game ranks third behind Booker and Bledsoe, but he’s shooting a more efficient 45.8 percent from the field and 30.8 percent from long range. His numbers have tailed off these past two or three games due to illness, but make no mistake about it: Warren is quietly submitting his case for the NBA’s Most Improved Player of the Year Award.
Aside from an 18-minute performance in a blowout loss in Denver and a nine-minute outing in Indiana where he was sidelined by illness, Warren has scored in double figures in every single game for the Suns. He’s taken over the starting small forward job, and even if Phoenix was thinking about boosting Tucker’s trade value, Warren won’t relinquish his new job anytime soon.
Devin Booker is the future franchise star, and Suns fans should be cautiously optimistic about their new trio of rookies. Alex Len is in the middle of a big year and has been playing well of late, leaving the quiet, understated Warren to continue going about his business.
Coming off a season-ending foot surgery, Warren was kind of the forgotten man entering the 2016-17 campaign. If games like his career-high 30 points against the Thunder or his 27-point performance against the Blazers have shown us anything, it’s that this 23-year-old could very well be a main staple on the Suns for years to come.
November 13, 2016; Oakland, CA, USA; Phoenix Suns guard Devin Booker (1) against Golden State Warriors guard Klay Thompson (11) during the first quarter at Oracle Arena. The Warriors defeated the Suns 133-120. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports
1. Booker Adjusting To Being A Franchise Player
Eric Bledsoe’s return, Brandon Knight’s adjustment to sixth man duty, Jared Dudley’s role as mentor, Alex Len’s contract year, T.J. Warren’s hot start and the new rookies have all been Suns storylines to keep an eye on early in 2016-17. But let’s be honest: Devin Booker is really the reason to watch this team night in and night out.
After such a remarkable rookie year that earned him verbal and non-verbal compliments from the likes of Dwyane Wade, LeBron James, the USA Basketball Select Team and Drake, Booker’s early numbers would indicate to the outside world that a sophomore slump is coming.
Fortunately, as off as he’s looked at times early in 2016-17, that’s not the entire story.
Only players with 9+ 30-point games in their first 90 games since 2004-05:
Through 15 games, Booker is leading Phoenix in scoring with 19.9 points per game, but he’s shot only 41.9 percent from the floor and 32.9 percent from three-point range. Keep in mind, the 13th overall pick in last year’s draft was supposed to be the best shooter in his rookie class.
But even if Booker’s long range efficiency has been surprisingly underwhelming, the couple of rough nights he had early in the season could be attributed to the toe injury he was playing through, aside from the obvious fact that he’s only 20 freaking years old and his head coach is not exactly putting him in position to succeed with easy looks.
Booker is rapidly becoming a dangerous post-up option thanks to his 6’7″ frame and footwork/shot release that’s growing eerily reminiscent of Kobe.
Games like his clutch 38-point performance in an overtime win over the Pelicans, a 39-point outing the following game in Los Angeles, and another 30-point night in Washington on Monday show just how advanced he is for his age. It’s only a matter of time before he’s an elite scorer in this league, but it’s not going to happen overnight either.
There will still be growing pains, such as his 5-for-18 shooting night in a loss to Brooklyn, his 6-for-18 performance in a loss to the Warriors and his 4-for-13 outing in a loss to the lowly Sixers.
But those struggles are to be expected from a 20-year-old growing accustomed to being a full-time starter and trying to fill some pretty big shoes as the next savior of the franchise.
As long as he continues to stay healthy, string together big-time performances with a little more consistency and, most important of all, put in more effort on the defensive end, Booker will be just fine in the long run — even if the outside world makes the mistake of calling this a “sophomore slump.”