Phoenix Suns: Examining The Youngsters 2 Weeks Into 2016-17 Season

Two weeks into the 2016-17 NBA season, here’s an in-depth look at every youngster on the Phoenix Suns’ roster.

Phoenix Suns

Nov 4, 2016; New Orleans, LA, USA; Phoenix Suns guard Devin Booker (1) celebrates with teammates after scoring in overtime of a game against the New Orleans Pelicans at the Smoothie King Center. The Suns defeated the Pelicans 112-111 in overtime. Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

At 3-6, the Phoenix Suns are pretty much exactly who we thought they’d be two weeks into the 2016-17 NBA season: A young team with plenty of promise for the future, but not quite enough talent in the here and now to compete for a playoff spot.

That may be a bit of a downer for fans depressed by the prospect of a seventh straight year without a postseason appearance, but with Phoenix heading toward an inevitable youth movement, playing the youngsters provides far more hope than the win-loss column ever could.

Head coach Earl Watson has not been shy about declaring that the future is now. He moved rookie Marquese Chriss into the starting lineup over Jared Dudley two games ago, has not been afraid to tweak his roster in favor of the youngsters, and regularly acknowledges that players like Devin Booker, T.J. Warren and Alex Len are key to this team contending for a championship one day.

“The formula is simple and I lived it on many teams: You have to let young players play now,” Watson said before the Detroit Pistons game Wednesday night. “You have three years for a player to be molded into a personality the same way as when we have our children, the first five years are so important.”

There’s more to this team than just its youth. Eric Bledsoe is looking like a borderline All-Star player again, Tyson Chandler is gobbling up boards, P.J. Tucker is boosting his trade value now that he’s healthy and the returns of Dudley and Leandro Barbosa are happy stories.

However, there’s no question this season is about development more than anything, and it’s never been more evident when Watson talks about building a family and nurturing a winning culture for the long-term. The younger players have taken centerstage, and rightfully so.

“I’m not afraid to let them fail or succeed,” Watson said. “I believe they can be pretty amazing to be honest with you, and we’re pretty lucky to have all these young guys and the veterans embrace them. The veterans want to fit in. But as veterans try to fit in around them, young guys are constantly developing, so that’s why it’s fluid for us.”

Two weeks and nine games is a very small sample size, but in the interest of evaluating the youth, here’s an in-depth look at what Devin Booker, Alex Len, T.J. Warren, Dragan Bender, Marquese Chriss and Tyler Ulis have shown us thus far in 2016-17.

Phoenix Suns

Nov 4, 2016; New Orleans, LA, USA; Phoenix Suns guard Devin Booker (1) against the New Orleans Pelicans during the second half of a game at the Smoothie King Center. Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

Devin Booker Learning To Embrace His Starring Role

Devin Booker didn’t get off to the hottest of starts in his highly anticipated sophomore season. His 18 points on 8-of-12 shooting in the season opener looked great on paper, but most of it came late in the game in what was essentially garbage time. From there, it was only downhill.

In the second game of the year, Booker hit some late shots against the Oklahoma City Thunder, but finished with 21 points on 25 shots. He followed that up with a seven-point, 3-for-12 dud against the Golden State Warriors, when it was revealed he was dealing with a toe injury.

“I can’t make no excuses, I’m just missing shots,” Booker said afterward. “I’m gonna catch my rhythm. It’s a long season, it’s early in the year. I’m kind of anxious on a lot of my shots but I’m gonna let the game come to me and I’ll be fine.”

Booker missed the following road game against the Clippers, but luckily for the Suns, Booker moving up a shoe size proved his words to be prophetic.

After a ho-hum 15 points on 15 shots in the team’s first win of the season against Portland, Booker finally came to life in New Orleans with a career-high 38 points in a win over the Pelicans.

Despite fouling out, Booker was the catalyst in Phoenix’s overtime victory, going 13-of-22 from the floor, knocking down three of his seven three-pointers and making several big baskets down the stretch in regulation and OT.

“I think he’s closing games better, hitting big shots,” Watson said. “At the same time, he plays with a confidence and a poise. Like the shot in New Orleans, he was not fazed. He was like, ‘Ok overtime, let’s go.’”

Booker drained a three to tie the game up with 12 seconds to play in New Orleans, and as if that weren’t enough, he then made a step-back jumper at the buzzer to tie the score up again and force the extra period.

It was his only great performance of the season to that point, but Booker followed it up by setting a new career-high the following game, dropping 39 points on the Los Angeles Lakers.

That put him in pretty prestigious company as the first Phoenix Sun to score at least 35 points in back-to-back games since Amar’e Stoudemire in 2006-07.

The Suns lost that disappointing road contest, but Booker went 13-for-29 from the floor, 3-for-7 from deep and even added seven assists for good measure.

He added another 23 points against the Blazers on Tuesday before coming back down to earth Wednesday night. Even after missing his second potential game-tying desperation three of the season in Portland and sputtering to 11 points against Detroit, it’s safe to say that Devin Booker is back in business.

He’s now averaging 21.5 points per game on 43.7 percent shooting from the field and 31 percent shooting from downtown on the season, and although his efficiency could improve, his form still looks pure. If the Suns can provide him with some better looks, those shooting numbers should rise.

“He just turned 20, he’s ahead of his time,” Watson said. “I’m not surprised at all to be honest with you. We talked about this two summers ago, the process of getting there for him was just the opportunity to have that experience. So he has some experience under his belt, he’s only gonna get better but at the same time, you know he has to get better in other areas of the game.”

Phoenix Suns

October 31, 2016; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Phoenix Suns center Alex Len (21) moves to the basket against the defense of Los Angeles Clippers center Marreese Speights (5) during the second half at Staples Center. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Contract Year Alex Len

Alex Len is entering a pivotal year, not only because he’s rarely shown signs of being worthy of a top-5 pick back in 2013, but because he didn’t earn a contract extension before the October deadline and will be a restricted free agent this summer.

As a rookie, injuries held him back. In his second season, it was more injuries, Miles Plumlee‘s unexpected emergence and a lack of experience that limited him. Last year, it was the arrival of Tyson Chandler. This season, there’s a staggering, unspoken amount of pressure on Len to prove himself as Chandler’s successor and the Suns’ long-term solution at center.

So far in 2016-17, the results have been mixed. He’s only shooting 42.9 percent from the field — a dismal percentage for a seven-footer. His midrange jumper has been lacking, his running hook through the lane rarely finds its target despite being unblockable, and his impact off the bench has been up and down in limited minutes.

However, it’s too soon to give up on the 23-year-old center just yet. In their first win of the season, Len was the stabilizing force for the Suns in the first half, going to work against Meyers Leonard all night long. He finished with 18 points, six rebounds and three blocks in the win.

“For me, the story of this game was Alex,” P.J. Tucker said of a game that featured an Eric Bledsoe buzzer-beater in overtime. “When he’s aggressive like that one-on-one in the paint, I don’t think anybody — especially any backups — can stop him in the league.”

Watson has continuously preached simplifying the game to Len, asking him to focus on the basics: going up strong, finishing, rebounding and protecting the rim.

In his finest game of the season against the Pistons on Wednesday, Len notched his first double-double of the 2016-17 campaign with 16 points and 14 rebounds. He went toe-to-toe with Andre Drummond all game, playing physical basketball and outplaying the Pistons behemoth despite his 18 points and 14 boards.

“He’s also 23,” Watson reminded everyone. “Remember how strong we were at 23, we weren’t strong enough. Coming into this league, the center position is a man’s game. You get hit, you get elbowed, you get pushed, all game.”

Len’s offense still leaves something to be desired, but in the last four games, he has hauled in 10, 11, nine and 14 rebounds — despite only starting in two of those games and playing more than 20 minutes in only one of them.

Tyson Chandler’s monster start to the season (at least from a rebounding perspective, at 13.3 boards per game) has limited Len’s minutes, but with the team giving in to the youth movement, this is Len’s best opportunity to prove himself as a long-term starter. Now he’s just got to continue improving on his 8.6 points, 7.8 rebounds and 1.0 blocks in 21.1 minutes per game.

Phoenix Suns

Oct 28, 2016; Oklahoma City, OK, USA; Phoenix Suns forward T.J. Warren (12) drives to the basket in front of Oklahoma City Thunder guard Victor Oladipo (5) during the fourth quarter at Chesapeake Energy Arena. Mandatory Credit: Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

T.J. Warren, The Not-So-Forgotten Man

Through the first two weeks of the season, T.J. Warren has probably been the Suns’ best player overall, or at least their most consistent.

Averaging 20.2 points, 5.4 rebounds and 1.8 steals per game on .458/.333/.810 shooting splits, Warren is leading the team in steals, while also being second in scoring. He’s playing efficient, smart basketball, using his undeniable knack for putting the ball in the hole to capitalize on Phoenix’s lack of a true offensive system.

“Talented offensive players can play in any offense,” Watson said. “They just find a way to score and get it going. I think you see T.J. Warren taking that big jump that was a great gift for us and we embrace that totally.”

Against Phoenix’s toughest competition, Warren has consistently shown up to play. He dropped a career-high 30 points in the team’s OT loss to the Thunder, and backed that up with 26 points against the Warriors.

With his bigger frame, midrange game and “sneaky” athleticism, Warren’s game has been compared to Paul Pierce numerous times this season by Watson. He was something of a forgotten man coming off a season-ending foot injury, but his growth has been a main story for the Suns early on.

Warren has quickly proven himself as a 20 points per game kind of scorer, and he’s also flashed a developing three-point shot and improved defense.

Even on nights where Booker has taken centerstage, Warren has contributed with double-digit scoring in every game, like his 18-points-on-17-shots performance in New Orleans where he provided the game-winner in OT, a brilliant backdoor cut for the dunk:

The question is, where does he go from here? Will he be more than just a scorer putting up empty stats on a bad team?

“Next thing of his growth that he has to be able to do is, he’s gonna get a lot of shots, is he gonna make other guys better?” Jared Dudley said. “That’s something I’ve worked on with him is him driving and getting two defenders, Tyson [Chandler] for lobs, myself for threes. He’s one of our best scorers so we know he can do that, we know he’s effective, just now it’s the next part of his game.”

Between Booker and the 23-year-old Warren, there’s no question the Suns will have go-to scorers in their future. The question is whether that duo can improve enough defensively to lead to lasting team success.

Phoenix Suns

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

How To Train Your Dragan (Bender)

With P.J. Tucker returning to full health and the frontcourt already at least two deep at each position, Dragan Bender really hasn’t gotten as much run as he should’ve early in 2016-17.

His mere 10.1 minutes per game have been disappointingly low, especially Bender came out and dropped 10 points on 4-of-5 shooting in the team’s season opener.

Unfortunately, Bender went scoreless in 17 minutes over his next six games, playing zero minutes in three of them, until he scored another 10 points in a career-high 23 minutes against the Portland Trail Blazers.

With the youngest player in the league unafraid to shoot the ball and displaying some real versatility on the defensive end for a seven-footer, it appears as though this 18-year-old deserves more minutes than he’s been getting.

“High motor,” Watson said of Bender’s performance in Portland. “Anytime you have a seven-footer with the motor of a point guard or a small forward, you have something special. His motor is unique. He guards the pick-and-roll very well. I always say he’s a gamer, he’s not afraid to let it fly and I’m not gonna stop him. If he’s open, shoot, I love his aggressiveness.”

The Croatian rookie struggled in Phoenix’s last game against the Pistons, going 0-for-4 in eight minutes, but the more the team loses and the more he shows flashes in his limited minutes, the more time he’ll earn.

“For me, I just have to be able to hit those open shots and being able to stay out there for practice and work on the arc and everything to translate myself to this three-point line as quickly as possible is something I need to do,” Bender said.

Phoenix Suns

Nov 2, 2016; Phoenix, AZ, USA; Phoenix Suns forward Marquese Chriss (0) boxes out Portland Trail Blazers forward Meyers Leonard (11) and guard Evan Turner (1) during the first half at Talking Stick Resort Arena. Mandatory Credit: Jennifer Stewart-USA TODAY Sports

Marquese Chriss, Starting Power Forward

Like Bender, Marquese Chriss is a work in progress, and his development should be treated as such. Unlike Bender, Chriss has been given more opportunity to log the kind of minutes necessary for growth — without being completely thrown to the wolves.

Through Phoenix’s first nine games, the fourth youngest player in the NBA is only averaging 4.9 points and 3.2 rebounds in 14.0 minutes per game, but he’s also seen the floor in all nine games.

Now that Watson has promoted Chriss to the starting job at the 4 and moved veteran Jared Dudley into a bench role, Chriss’ minutes, role and overall skill level will only increase.

“My role is the same starting or on the bench, I can do both,” Dudley said. “I was here to be a bridge for Marquese, try to help him and the second unit was suffering. I think this is a good space for us, but the starters slowly need to get a little more chemistry for us to take that next step.”

As a seasoned 31-year-old veteran, most guys in Dudley’s position might be angered by such an early season demotion. But the Suns fan favorite was actually grateful, saying it saves his legs while recounting a similar situation he had with the Milwaukee Bucks during his time there.

“After 20 games I told Jason Kidd to start Giannis [Antetokounmpo] and I thought Giannis was ready,” he said. “I don’t know if Marquese is ready right now 100 percent, but that doesn’t mean he can’t learn on the fly and he has the tools so overall, playing is the best equalizer.”

Chriss has yet to reach double figures in the scoring column, he hasn’t recorded more than five rebounds in a game and his season-high in minutes so far is the 22 he logged in the season opener. More than likely, Dudley and/or Tucker will still see as many minutes off the bench if not more.

However, Chriss was shooting 50 percent from the field before Wednesday’s 0-for-4 dud. He’s shown confidence shooting the three-ball, though he’s only made one of his seven attempts so far. He’s a freak athlete and so far, he’s looked like the most NBA-ready rookie on the roster.

However, his competitive nature have gotten the better of him at times. Watching him throw a seasoned pro like Andrew Bogut to the ground in preseason or talk trash after a big dunk is fun to watch from a 19-year-old, but that kind of behavior has also earned him two technicals in nine games.

That competitive fire can fuel a team’s engine if harnessed correctly, but as such a young age, it could also burn everything in its path if it’s not stoked properly.

“A lot of times he clutches his fist, but I’d rather him speak instead of swing,” Watson said after Chriss’ first technical. “So it’s give and take, but when you come into this league and you’re young and you’re the playing top teams, sometimes you have to let them know who you are. [Given the] time and score we don’t want it, but I’d rather have a guy that I have to bring back than a guy I have to push forward.”

Chriss certainly doesn’t need any help in that regard. His perimeter shot and defensive awareness clearly do, but again, he’s only 19 years old.

Watson, never one to back down from making NBA comparisons, said when the Suns first worked Chriss out in the pre-draft process, his dual nature as a completely nice kid off the court paired with a cutthroat mentality on it reminded him of Russell Westbrook. Draymond Green‘s name also came up.

“Draymond Green came to the scorer’s table in the middle of the [Warriors] game and said, ‘Man he reminds me of me,’” Watson recalled. “I said, ‘Yeah, good call.’ He said, ‘I like him.’ I said, ‘We love him.’”

Phoenix Suns

Oct 26, 2016; Phoenix, AZ, USA; Sacramento Kings guard Garrett Temple (17) handles the ball against Phoenix Suns guard Tyler Ulis (8) during the second half at Talking Stick Resort Arena. The Kings defeated the Suns 113-94. Mandatory Credit: Jennifer Stewart-USA TODAY Sports

Tyler Ulis Trying To Find His Way Off The Bench

Despite being the most NBA-ready rookie of the Suns’ trio, Tyler Ulis has been unable to crack Earl Watson’s rotation in its earliest stages. The backup guard has played a grand total 34 minutes over four appearances, averaging 2.0 points, 2.0 assists and 1.0 steals per game in that limited time.

He hasn’t seen action in the team’s last five games, racking up the DNP-CDs behind a crowded backcourt rotation of Bledsoe, Booker, Knight and Leandro Barbosa.

In the season opener, however, he spearheaded a strong effort by the rookies to help get Phoenix get back into what was an early blowout, providing far more value than his two points, one assist, one steal, one rebound and one block indicated on the stat sheet.

He also flashed his potential in a season-high 18 minutes against the Clippers, putting up four points, six assists, two rebounds and two steals despite 1-of-5 shooting.

“I’m getting a chance,” he said after the season opener. “[Watson] threw me in the game, we’re down 20 but you have to play like it’s 0-0. That’s something Devin talked to me about and we just had a conversation at dinner about that. I just come in and try to do what I can.”

As the season progresses, Watson will hopefully be able to find time for an intelligent, hard-working rookie who was the total package in college. His 5’10” frame will probably prevent him from ever being a star, but all the Suns really need is a competent backup for the future.

If he can be that player, use his high basketball IQ to overcome his size disadvantage, play annoyingly persistent defense and manage the offense when the starters need a breather, this 20-year-old rookie will be able to fill a long-term role in Phoenix.

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