Suns head to camp with optimism but many questions
PHOENIX -- With the countdown to camp nearing crescendo levels, let’s take some time to recall where the Suns were at this time last year.
Well, they were still physically here, but some -- let’s call 'em puzzling -- maneuvers didn’t exactly provoke giddy camp anticipation among fans. The team had added two or three veteran, uniformed employees who -- in theory -- might have enabled the Suns to fight their way out of the NBA Draft Lottery.
That marginal dread seems pretty amusing now.
Anyway, despite more predicted doom from national hoop observers, locals who follow the Suns generally seem more eager to embrace this year’s players and the organization’s long-range plan.
“There’s no dissonance about it,” Suns president of basketball operations Lon Babby said in regard to the current state of the team’s rebuilding tactics. “I think our fan base and community are embracing it.”
With camp opening next week in Flagstaff, the perceptually exciting Suns are equipped to provide more compelling moments than we’ve seen around here recently while not winning enough to sabotage positioning. And we’re all aware the 2014 talent haul could reach "mother lode" status.
After hiring Ryan McDonough away from the Boston Celtics as the Suns’ general manager, Babby now is presiding over a basketball enterprise with a transparent plan.
When asked to contrast how he feels on the cusp of camp this year with the prevailing tone one year ago, he said, “I’m feeling like we’re in a good place. I think our path is clear.
"We’re younger ... we have five draft choices -- first-round draft choices -- in the next two years."
Yeah, life -- in regard to what may be found around the corner -- is pretty good, even though a national magazine ranking of North American professional team sport franchises lists the Suns 118th out of 122 eligible organizations. That ranking process includes recent in-game successes, quality of facilities and other variables beyond the realm of future cap space and draft picks.
But we’re in no position to skip ahead to next spring’s draft lottery preamble, wondering if the Suns will be able to land Andrew Wiggins or Julius Randle or Jabari Parker.
No, the players on this year’s team have evoked a measure of happiness in fans because they are young, talented and (for the most part) combative. And with new coach Jeff Hornacek cutting his teeth as the lead strategist, nobody in these capacities wants the Suns to have a really high draft pick (of their own doing) next June.
So, with real basketball to be played, what issues need to be reconciled or followed in the coming days?
After missing last season with an enlarged heart -- a revelation tacked onto his rehab for a repaired shoulder -- the court-spacing power forward has received clearance to resume basketball-playing preparations.
The clearance, however, was not provided by medical experts employed by the Suns. With media day scheduled for Monday, some official explanation of where things stand may be forthcoming.
“Not yet,” Babby said Thursday morning when asked if anything regarding Frye could be revealed for public consumption.
Even if Frye is allowed to begin training camp with the team, it would seem unlikely that he could reach game-sufficient condition until much of the season is over.
As the rock star of Slovenian basketball, Suns point guard Goran Dragic was quite visible during Eurobasket play earlier this month. In typical Dragic fashion, he pushed the pace and attacked the rim in mythical-beast mode but also failed to convert a large percentage of his perimeter shots.
While Suns fans follow their team’s alignment in mock drafts, Dragic’s ability to blend with newcomer Eric Bledsoe might be the most interesting element of the coming season.
Bledsoe, acquired over the summer in a three-team trade that sent Jared Dudley to the Clippers, has one more season on his initial NBA deal.
Although he’s demonstrated great potential as Chris Paul’s stunt double, questions about just how good he’ll become remain. Caron Butler -- also part of that trade and since moved to Milwaukee -- predicts stardom for Bledsoe, who also picked up an endorsement for a strong future from LeBron James.
The Suns can contractually extend Bledsoe with a deal that must occur before Oct. 31, or they can wait and see how good he really is playing alongside Goran Dragic and pay him accordingly next summer.
Despite the love from respected members of the NBA’s rank and file, Bledsoe hasn’t done nearly enough to justify a sweet deal now. Even though his stock could rise commensurate with his basket attacks in the coming months, the Suns might be wise to join Bledsoe in waiting.
If he plays well enough to generate a substantial deal, cutting into future cap space could be worth it; in that scenario, a sought-after star of the future already would be here.
And they’d still have those beloved draft picks to keep building.
The Suns are hoping the lower extremities of 7-foot-1 center Alex Len, the fifth overall pick in last June’s draft, will be strong enough to handle the attending load of hope.
We’re not using the word "expectation," because the Suns (even though McDonough has been tracking this kid for years and had him at the top of the team's board) are not predicting Len will dominate the league in the near future.
But it’s really crucial that -- once he’s able to handle a full workload and competing against the world’s best post players -- the length, agility and skill are converted into well-above-average production. Early returns from pre-camp workouts at US Airways Center have been encouraging.
We can at least double that for Archie Goodwin, the 19-year-old guard from Kentucky whose eye-popping potential inspired the Suns to move up one spot from No. 30 as they watched him slip on draft night.
Shooting worries at UK were temporarily assuaged by some high-level perimeter marksmanship during summer-league play in Las Vegas, where Goodwin looked predictably sharp defending and attacking the basket.
Other issues, such as what to do when certain situations arise along the path to the rim, remain works in progress (hopefully).
Once camp kicks in and practice games begin, we’ll find out if Archie can barge into a perimeter rotation that -- beyond Dragic and Bledsoe -- is begging for someone to step forward.
Well, center Marcin Gortat, who's entering the final year on his current contract, is returning from a disappointing Eurobasket result. As the star of an overmatched Team Poland, Gortat didn’t exactly boost future NBA contractual interest or trade value in his small sample.
He can rehabilitate both with a strong season in Phoenix, where -- unless some team is preparing a fine trade offer based on his previous work -- The Polish Machine/Hammer could hold down the middle until Len is fully prepared to take over.
But with Miles Plumlee and Slava Kravtsov (part of the deal that sent Butler to the Bucks) on the roster, a Phoenix team not expected to suiting up past April might feel it has enough to proceed.
It’ll be interesting to follow the candid Gortat through as many phases of this Suns season as he’s obligated to participate in.