In an offseason when Chris Paul, Paul George, Carmelo Anthony, Kyrie Irving and Jimmy Butler changed teams, the Phoenix Suns are an afterthought.
After winning 23 games in 2016-17, the Suns did not make any major acquisitions (though the rumors were plenty). As teams load up to try to take down the Golden State Warriors, the Suns focused on what the internet has dubbed #TheTimeline, re-signing their own players, drafting and continuing to rely on the development of their young group.
With so much youth and little chance of a winning season, many might not see the Suns as a team worth keeping an eye on. However, the Suns will likely still be fun, even if they don’t make many appearances in the win column. Who on this young team can and will evolve is an interesting question.
While they lack big names or high-level talent, the Suns do have fun players who appear to be scrappy. As they continue to develop and build a system with head coach Earl Watson, here are a few things in particular to look for.
Younger players mean fresher legs, and the Suns have six players 21 years old or younger. These young guns will be out to prove themselves to the rest of the NBA. At the end of last season, even when resting Tyson Chandler and Eric Bledsoe, the Suns were a scrappy bunch. This season, they’ll be even more hungry.
On top of their youth, the Suns have a handful of athletically gifted players. Marquese Chriss, measuring in at 6-foot-10, was one of the most exciting players on the Suns’ roster last season. Now, as a sophomore in the NBA, Chriss will try to build on last season, when he averaged about nine points and four rebounds per game.
In college with Washington, Chriss showed his leaping ability on both ends of the floor. In his rookie season, he worked well as a target for alley-oops and a clean-up man for missed baskets:
With Alan Williams sidelined with a meniscus tear and Alex Len’s spot in the rotation less than certain, Chriss will get more run at center this season, giving the Suns more opportunities to play small and quickly. It’ll also give Chriss the chance to show how a few months of training have enhanced his physical and mental ability.
Another exciting dunker on the team is Derrick Jones Jr. The former UNLV Running Rebel became a rotation player late last season, appearing in 32 games. He caught some eyes when he played, shooting 56 percent from the floor and attacking the rim fiercely. Even before he had a chance to show what he could do in games, he made the dunk contest based off footage during warmups:
Jones earned the nickname Airplane Mode for his vertical prowess, and is likely to produce more highlights this season as a bona fide project for the team.
While not as young as his contemporaries, the most athletic member of the Suns is starting point guard Eric Bledsoe. He played 66 games last season and was certainly Phoenix’s best player. He put up 21 points, six assists and five rebounds per game, along with 1.4 steals and 0.5 blocks.
Bledsoe can not only reach the rim for dunks, but he’s fast, powerful when he attacks the rim, and can body up on the defensive end. The downside for viewers is that he may not be a Sun forever. Rumors about an impending Bledsoe trade have been constant for the last several seasons. If the Suns really want to go young, trading Bledsoe is a likely outcome.
At 27, Bledsoe is in his athletic prime, and will continue to wow fans with his abilities. Along with his younger teammates, any team the Suns play should check to make sure the rims are tight.
Development of Youth
The most interesting young player in Phoenix is rookie Josh Jackson. The Kansas forward was the fourth pick by the Suns in the 2017 draft. Known for his defensive ability and competitive spirit, Jackson is already drawing praise for his work in practice and the preseason.
He had 14 points in his first preseason game, including a 3-pointer:
Jackson has drawn comparisons to Kawhi Leonard from the Suns’ staff. While that’s a high bar to expect of any player, especially one so young, the stylistic similarities are there. Jackson has the potential to be an elite defender at multiple positions thanks to his length and instincts.
Offensively, Jackson’s shot isn’t there yet, but he has the ability to score in close and keep the ball moving. How his game translates to the NBA on that end will be quite interesting.
The rookie is not the only player worth watching. The Suns also had the fourth pick last season, taking big man Dragan Bender. Ankle injuries cut Bender’s rookie season in half. Now it seems he’s been forgotten when Suns fans list the young core.
Bender certainly brings some intriguing tools to the table. He moves well around the floor and has a high basketball IQ, but needs to show the physical and mental aggression necessary to capitalize on his talent. European bigs seem to be boom-or-bust picks, and which direction Bender trends makes the Suns worth keeping an eye on.
Other players — Tyler Ulis and Williams (when he returns) — will also show what a few months of training have done to follow impressive stretches last season. However, there is one player whose name stands out.
How much Devin Booker contributes to winning right now (and in the future) is a polarizing question. While his actual efficacy is worthy of discussion, the young Kentucky product knows how to put on a good show.
Last season Booker put up 22 points per game, crowned by a 70-point explosion against the Boston Celtics. This season, Booker’s offensive game will be even more refined, so expect even more wild scoring outbursts and smooth shooting.
Beyond the fun factor, Booker certainly has something to prove, and NBA followers will certainly be interested by how that goes. Booker has shown more ability to play at the basket and dribble the ball, but he is an inconsistent decision-maker and a very poor defender.
Booker also can grow as a leader. His fame and ability already give him a voice in the locker room. Now, he has to use that voice to push the rebuilding project forward.
Booker is a controversial player with clear flaws yet enormous upside. Undoubtedly, the most interesting storyline to follow in the Valley is what path his career takes in his third season.
That alone makes the Suns worth tuning into.
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