Sounds like one of those cliché sound bites every player and their mama says at one point in their career, but after coming off an impressive second half of his rookie season and forcefully grabbing the leagues attention and respect at just 19 years of age, you might want to hear him out.
When the Cleveland Cavaliers won the championship last season after coming back from a 3-1 deficit, they harped on the fact that it was all due to a unified vision of team work - puzzle pieces, to be exact. They had a 16-piece puzzle of the Larry O'Brien trophy in the locker room that represented each individual player and coaching staff's importance. Regardless of stardom, stats, contract, or minutes. LeBron James had one piece. Head coach Tyronn Lue had one piece. James Jones, who goes mostly unnoticed with his role as a leader and supportive team member from the bench, had one piece. Hell, he was the one that came up with the idea in the first place. They weren't the first team to do something like this and they weren't reinventing the wheel by any means, but any successful team has adopted this mentality whether it be intentional, of happenstance.
Eric Watson, second year head coach of the Suns, inherited a lot with this team. Promising young talent. Seasoned and capable veterans. Excellent cap space and a very intelligent front office. Didn't have a team though, at least not in the sense in the word. Injuries, off-court drama, and confusion in the direction of the team and organization have plagued this team the last few seasons. Watson and General Manager Ryan McDonough got to work though. A foundation of family and tough love was laid out through the subtraction and addition of players, team building exercises that ranged from court drills to hiking and yoga, and a defined vision moving forward. A willingness to give and to sacrifice was a must.
That's just the drawing board though. We've barely seen these purple and orange sneakers of this retooled era sniff the court. We're 0-2 right now. We got our asses handed to us opening night. So the fuck what? We saw what we wanted from our youth - shit, the rookies got us back into the first game early in the fourth. Third year T.J. Warren nearly bodied OKC in game two versus Westbrook who had a monster triple double in over time. We're a rebuilding team with a core of young first, second and third year players and knowledgeable, character rich vets. Foundation can only get you so far. At one point you need talent. I think we got that though, in spades. It'll take some time though for everyone to gel and squeeze the most out of themselves and each other.
Regardless, it's like Booker said. Once they start firing on all cylinders, this team will be one to watch.
So all bullshit and happy feelings aside, lets take a look at what we're working with roster wise to start this season...
#35 Dragan Bender
Our number four pick. This draft-day decision took major balls. Bender's a big boi at 7' 1" and 18 years of age - placing him as the second youngest player in the NBA. Debuted in the Euroleague at age 15 and played two years for the Israeli league team Maccabi Tel Aviv before entering the NBA draft. Garnished a few awards along the way, but is still a prospect amongst this league of men. He is extremely agile and quick, given his height. Factor in his length and defensive instincts, Bender is a big problem for opposing wing players. The Suns are looking to exploit this by playing him at the SF position. This makes sense for the immediate future as he still lacks an NBA body that can compete with the PF and C positions. His ability to guard the wing doesn't end there though, as he is very capable of extending his frame vertically at the basket and shutting down players driving to the basket.
Offensively, he fits the mold of today's stretch big with his three point shot. Combined with his very competent passing ability and impressive dribbling skills, he is a force on and off the ball. He is just as comfortable shooting from the arc as he is driving in and laying the ball up. As the Suns become more comfortable with Bender, I can see them utilizing him in the high post on either side, passing the ball to a cutting T.J. Warren. Even better, he will be a fucking menace in the pick n' roll, or pick n' pop with Bledsoe and Booker. Sky's the limit.
His main concerns? Acclimating to the speed of the NBA. Not all foreign players do, unfortunately. He'll have to pack on some muscle to contend with even the bigger SF's of the league, let alone PF's, without sacrificing the agility that makes him special. The Suns will need to grow him and decide where his diverse skillset fits best. Is he just a 3 & D guy? Will he be an elite defensive utility player that does all of the intangibles? Is he an offensive force usable from both the wing and the post, capable of both scoring and playmaking? His ceiling is high and his floor doesn't seem to be something to scoff at. Can't ask for much better odds.
#0 Marquese Chriss
A potential steal of a draft-day trade, Chriss is what the Valley hopes to be the second incarnation of Stoudemire. An athletic specimen that is raw as fuck but has scary potential. Thank fucking God that the Suns managed to swindle Sacramento into that trade, because this dude is the truth. He has already expelled his main criticisms during pre-season by going from a poor-effort defender and the worst rebounder in NCAA history to an endless energy demon when it comes to finishes, put backs and rebounds. In fact, he and T.J. Warren will frustrate a lot of teams with their ability to leap quickly for the put backs and offensive rebounds. His jump shot from both three point and midrange ain't bad either. There's a reason why he has already earned himself minutes in the rotation and is a strong candidate for 'Rookie Of The Year.'
Chriss will require a little more mentoring than Bender in my opinion. Once he gets frustrated, he tends to become error prone and exudes less effort. This happened twice in pre-season, most notably against Portland's Noah Vonleh when Vonleh abused Chriss on four possessions back to back. He's young though, so the right guidance and leadership from our coach and vets will go a long way.
#8 Tyler Ulis
Tyler Ulis, former Kentucky Wildcat backcourt B.F.F. to Devin Booker, SEC Player of the Year and SEC Defensive Player of the Year, is one of the most composed and crafty point guards I've ever seen. It says a lot as well when John Calipari believes you to be the best point guard he's ever coached.
Ulis was drafted late in the second round after both his height and concerns of a hip injury dropped his draft stock. At 5" 10', he is the second shortest player in his draft class, and also the lightest player ever in draft combine history at 149 pounds. This dude has heart though, and plays as calm and collected as a 12 year vet. Dude is silky smooth with his passes, which are his first and foremost goals akin to the throwback point guards of the past. Nothing is rushed, nothing is forced. He has a capable jump shot and is very aware of both spacing and the need to adjust angles when a shot blocker is nearby. Summer league showed him to be clutch in the fourth as well. Defensively, he is no slouch. What he gives up in height he makes up for in spades with quick and active hands. During summer league and pre-season, he racked up a stupid amount of steals and is fully capable of turning the momentum of a game around via a slick steal and one well aimed assist.
After the first game of the season, it looks like Ulis has already stolen away minutes as the designated back up point guard. His ability to control the pace and set people up will greatly help our bench when all the other players have to do is be in position to catch the ball. Ulis is the kind of player that a coach just feels comfortable with having the reigns. I expect a lot of high-light videos well beyond his age this season.
#10 Derrick Jones Jr.
Derrick squeaked into the 15th spot after Archie Goodwin was waived just before the season started. After going undrafted, Derrick essentially became another one of those players where GM's question if it's worth it to take a flyer due to his 7" wingspan and 41' vertical. Skinny as fuck, but athletic as fuck. Dude can get up there and has a nice wing player height of 6" 7' to accentuate it.
He'll be the new Suns project after Archie Goodwin didn't quite pan out in time, and most likely needed further minutes on a team less guard heavy to grow. We'll stash Derrick in the D-League for a bit to let him get his minutes and fill out his frame a bit.
#3 Jared "Junkyard Dog" Dudley
Mr. Most Athletic Hands Ever. Dudley will play a much different role than what fans witnessed with his previous run with the Suns. He's reinvented himself as a stretch four and while his physical stats and previous role as a hustle SF would lead others to believe something different, his advanced metrics show that he is a net gain on the court in this role. Don't get it twisted - Dudley isn't our answer at the PF spot. What he is though is an immaculate locker room presence and the definition of a veteran personality that will deliver professionalism and effort. He'll hit the three, make hustle plays and help steer the youth in the direction. I ain't mad at this signing.
#19 Leandro "BeepBeep" Barbosa
Continuing the trip down memory (what's the over/under on when we bring back Nash in some way? Jason Richardson got fat, we can probably get him on the low?), we have the "Brazilian Blur" Leandor Barbosa.
Barbosa is now on his third stint with the Suns. He was signed to provide some stability in the back court should injuries, trades, or both take place. As mentioned earlier, Ulis has already stolen Barbosa's minutes apparently. I highly doubt Barbosa gives a shit though. Homie won a championship with Golden State and has acrued a healthy chunk of change over the years. I'm pretty sure he is going to enjoy the AZ weather and be a positive locker room presence in between providing veteran minutes here and there. If we don't see a lot of him on the court, it means the team is doing alright.
Guess Who's Back, Back, Back Again...
What? I had to break up the monotonous. #SlimMufuckinShady
#2 Eric Bledsoe
Feeling a bit of Deja Vu coming on. Bledsoe is back from injury (there it goes again) and looking to lead the team as the starting point guard. Bledsoe's role and image changes about as quickly as a Kardashian goes through, well, NBA players. Brought on as an athletic, young, hungry guard specimen. Still a steal of a trade in hindsight, by the way. Produces, then is injured. Comes back after a fat ass contract and is thrown shade by fans for his stoic and reserved demeanor. Produces, then is injured. Develops a media personality. Comes back, produces, then is injured - but, now has a fan-winning smile.
Not trying to diminish Bledsoe's ability here. Despite his numerous knee injuries, the dude is still explosive and has improved his game every year. He's become more patient and controlled as a passer, while improving his midrange and set three point jump shot game enough to keep defenders honest. His driving ability is still more than what most defenders can handle, which will help in kicking the ball out to Devin Booker for a three, or to a slashing T.J. Warren. As of now, he is still our more than adequate and best option at the point guard position. Look for him to average 17/5/4 by the time he is in mid season form.
#1 Devin Booker
General Manager Ryan McDonough faces toward Mecca every morning and gives whispers a prayer and a thank you to the basketball gods in return for drafting Devin Booker. I don't have to say much on this one. Devin Booker is by all accounts the truth and will continue to improve into one of the premier shooting guards of the league. He has remarkable agility, is light off the foot, incredibly poised and cerebral, has a wickedly smooth jump shot, reads the court like a picture book and has a mature, winning attitude well beyond his years.
Booker has the ability to torch the court any given night. He earned early comparisons as a Klay Thompson 2.0, but that is most likely the media just grasping for comparisons of another light skinned brotha' that can shoot. Booker lacks the defensive skills of Thompson, but makes up for it with vastly superior playmaking and an offensive repertoire that is scarily complete for someone his age. He's a three point threat, has a nasty step back jumper, launches a ridiculously smooth floater and is cat like on his drives to the basket. Dude contorts his body like no other.
What he has to deal with this season is an improved scouting report against him and the inevitable sophomore slump. It's never questioned though whether, or not, great players will encounter hurdles. It's how they react to adversity. All things considered, he's well ahead of what any of us imagined when he was drafted. Not a bad spot to be at just as you turn 20. What's that Yeezy? Oh yeah. Walkin' livin' legend, man I feel like Kobe.
#4 Tyson Chandler
While now fairly removed from his former years of earning an NBA championship with the Mavs and Defensive Player of the Year with the Knicks, Tyson is aging into a still quality role player. Defense, screens, rebounds, blocks, putbacks and lobs are his assignments - in that order as well. Oh yeah, and mentoring the lost and confused Alex Len. Although if you want my opinion (which you do, if you're reading this), Chandler may have stunted Len's growth purely do to the inconsistent minutes and roles that signing Chandler brought upon Len.
Chandler is valuable in the same sense that Bledsoe is valuable. They are both known commodities with particular abilities that they specialize in. Roleplayers. The situation right now is a catch 22. Have Chandler on the team so you can have consistency (disregarding potential injuries) and in return stunt Len's growth and confidence. Trade Chandler away and you have the potential of Len shitting the bed. I guess this is getting to be too much of a Len story at this point, sooooo moving on.
#23 John Jenkins
Who? I know, right. Jenkins is a 25 year old shooter that has bounced around a few teams in the league. We picked him up last season and decided to retain him. He is one of those players that if you ran the PER 36 stat metrics on them would possibly show their potential, but for whatever reason they haven't been allowed to play consistently. This, based off of his previous teams, has a lot to do with players that are infront of him in the rotation, but hey...had he outplayed them in practice he'd be getting more minutes. Regardless, he can hit the three at a servicable clip.
#11 Brandon Knight
Oh, Brandon. High (book wise) IQ. Talented enough shooter and driver. Impressive work ethic. Quality teammate. Good kid.
Piss poor decision maker. Shit finisher. Below average passer. Occasional chucker. Average handles.
I just, I don't get it. I'm torn. Knight has a lot of promise, but fails to deliver. I don't know if it's the system, or him. Some nights he looks amazing, while costing us the game the rest of them. He's the designated sixth man this year for us. With a right eyebrow raised and a left eye squinted, I wonder if this is to appease a player that is about to be traded, or if he is actually willing to accept a role that is not one he has invisioned. If the former doesn't work out though, expect him to be traded in an effort to not have this team disrupted like in past seasons. What's that Yeezy? Oh yeah. Beggars can't be choosers, bitch this ain't Chipotle.
#21 Alex Len
Len is one of my favorite prospects for this team. Even saying that does him a disservice, because by now he should be making the same strides as Rudy Gobert of the Jazz and Steven Adams of OKC. Both of those former players were thrown into starting positions due to a lack of better competition. Len didn't have the benefit of either light competition, or that of a coach that was willing to play youth. Not to say that he earned the starting spot and minutes early on due to frequent injuries and inconcistent play, but if any of us were pulled away from our jobs due to mistakes and other seasoned pro's being available, we would never prosper.
Straight up, I like Len's game. He's aggressive and acrobatic. With that being said, he rushes any and all offensive moves other than put backs while being foul prone. I feel this is a result of him trying to prove himself enough each game just so that he doesn't earn bare minimum minutes the following game. He is a talented rebounder, shot blocker both weak side and at the basket, and a very capable passer. He has decent hands in the pick and roll and has developed a midranged shot. When he goes up to defend the basket, he stays vertical. That's half the battle.
He's fucking young. Give him a break fanbase. He is the 31st highest paid center in the league. He's much better than his salary would say, so give him the benefit of the doubt and understand that big men take more time and require more consistency than what this team has given him.
#17 P.J. Tucker
Tucker's that Vet - and put some respec' on that name youngin'. He'll motivate the youngsters and be that vocal leader on and off the court. He'll hustle every night to the capability of his physicality ... and that's sort of the extent of the matter. Tucker is valuable and can be a legit 3 & D as a back up on any championship team. On this team, he is better suited as a bench role model that tutors during practice and lets other shine on the main stage.
The Sun's organization have placed a lot of value on Tucker throughout the last few years. Shit, he made his case known through us. He's had a few off season mishaps, but he's always been 100% supportive of the team. I don't feel that he's as the point where he wants to just ride the pine for the rest of his career; trade him to a team that can utilize him.
#12 T.J. Warren
Brush your shoulder off young one, you deserve it. T.J. Warren - excuse me, 'Tony Buckets' - is a short time, long time coming. He is our SF of the future and scores in bunches. His next best ability? Offensive put backs. I mentioned it earlier in this article, but he and Chriss will cause opponents fits with their relentless attacks on the boards.
Before I was hopping on the Devin Booker bandwagon, I was on that Warren-Wagon. Still am, and I couldn't have been any more validated than this game against OKC. Warren will translate into wins. He has an elite midrange game, including the floater, and has done his due diligence when it comes to hitting the set three. His most beneficial attribute is his ability to move off of the ball, which really comes into place when our guards cut into the paint and dish off to him as he cuts from the base line.
Pusha T is what I want to call the young homie when it comes to his smoothness and out of the ordinary basketball self...feel the song then check the highlights.
I want to call him our next Marion, but he lacks the defensive instincts and energy that Marion had. What he is though is out clear 1b option, or our second option on offense. I love that he can create his own offense without plays being drawn up for him. This kid will excel as the starting SF and there will be no looking back as long as there are starting teammates that can cover his initiate defensive liabilities. Dude is a terminator though and heavily motivated, so don't expect his defensive lapses to continue.
#15 Alan "Big Sauce" Williams
A feel good story for the PHX fans and fam. Home town high school kid, home town player, and now home town team member. "Big Sauce" is our third string big man. He has roots here in Phoenix and after going undrafted and playing in the CNBA, signed a 10 day contract with the Suns in the previous season which resulted in him clinching a roster spot for this season. He showed his ability to rebound and get easy buckets around the rim in summer league. This could potentially end up useful further into the season should Chandler, or Len, end up injured. The dude is the ultimate bench hype man as well, which we've needed ever sense Robin Lopez left.
So what can we expect from this season? Some intense, close games where we look legit and some serious fucking headaches. It'll happen, we're not there yet as a team. My personal wish for this team is to win at least 30 games and stay competitive while giving the young players some serious burn. Look, nothing can be worse than a few years ago when we were relying on Michael Beasley and Wesley Johnson to revive us. Oh, oh god, I thought I had blocked that out...it's all, it's all coming back...
So relax and enjoy the season people. We're not in that bad a spot, despite what our W-L columns look like. The world did not end in 2012 and neither did the Suns. Insert some cliché line about the sun rising here. Yeah...uber cheesy, I know.