Countdown to NBA Tip-Off: Phoenix Suns Season Preview

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LOS ANGELES, USA - NOVEMBER 06 : Devin Booker of Phoenix Suns gestures during a NBA game between Los Angeles Lakers and Phoenix Suns at Staples Center in Los Angeles, USA on November 06, 2016. (Photo by Mintaha Neslihan Eroglu/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Mired in a lengthily rebuilding process (or what is commonly referred to in Phoenix as ‘The Timeline’), the Phoenix Suns showed in 2016-17 that there is in fact light at the end of the tunnel. With numerous flashes of potential, GM Ryan McDonough and the Suns front office saw great strides from many of their young players. Looking ahead to 2017-18, the Suns will hope for continued improvement as ‘The Timeline’ progress.

Countdown to NBA Tip-Off: Phoenix Suns Season Preview

What Worked Last Season

The best news from last season was unequivocally the break out of Devin Booker. Booker’s complete offensive game not only earned him a place in the conversation as one of the NBA’s top rising stars, it also saw him quickly assert himself as one of the best pure scorers currently in the game period. Perhaps most impressive of all, Booker introduced himself to the basketball universe with a number of clutch buckets in big-time moments. It is evident that he possesses that killer instinct – or ‘clutch gene’ if you will – in association with the competitive edge and winning mentality necessary to become one of the NBA’s best.

The rest of the league has begun to take notice. When asked to name a young star on the rise, Finals MVP Kevin Durant chose Booker. Durant was quoted as saying “he’s next, I’m telling you”. Meanwhile, LeBron James echoed a similar sentiment in an extended interview on UNINTERUPTED’s “Open Run” podcast. “If it’s someone who is under the radar right now that I believe is going to be a really, really, really good, all-star player in the league – it’s Devin Booker,” remarked ‘The King’. Pretty high praise coming from the consensus top two players in the world.

Pretty high praise coming from the consensus top two players in the world.

The play of Booker’s backcourt mate Eric Bledsoe was also a major positive. Bledsoe, who is also referred to as “Mini LeBron”, enjoyed a career-best season statistically. With a crowded group of elite players at the point guard spot in the NBA, Bledsoe’s all-around game doesn’t stand out when compared to the offensive flare of many of his counterparts. However, he continues to fly under the radar as one of the most underrated point guards in the game. Bledsoe remains a vocal leader both on and off the court; which is invaluable for a young team. Bledsoe’s work ethic, professionalism, and competitiveness make him an ideal example for the young Suns to follow.

With a crowded group of elite players at the point guard spot in the NBA, Bledsoe’s steady, all-around game doesn’t stand out compared to the offensive flair of many of his counterparts. However, he continues to fly under the radar as one of the most underrated point guards in the game and remains an excellent leader both on and off the court. Bledsoe’s work ethic, professionalism, and competitiveness make him an ideal example for the young Suns to follow.

When Bledsoe was shut down near the end of last season, Tyler Ulis stepped in and displayed impressive proficiency. Running an NBA offence, Ulis averaged 16.1 points and 11.5 assists in 39.4 minutes per game over the Suns final 15 contests of the season. This bodes well for him to take on an increased roll in 2017-18 with Brandon Knight expected to miss the whole season due to a torn ACL. Talent has never been the question with Ulis, but rather his 5’10” stature is what caused him to be passed over in round one of the 2016 NBA Draft until finally the Suns snatched him up in the second round.

What Needs Improvement

Like any inexperienced team, the Suns struggled mightily with consistency a season ago. This was especially problematic at the defensive end. The Suns put forth frequent lax performances just as often as they showed flashes of promise. Phoenix possesses a handful of good athletes at all spots on the floor, so physically the potential is there to be a very strong defensive team. In order to become that, however, Head Coach Earl Watson will need to see far more consistent focus defensively.

A definite positive for the Suns was the strong rookie campaign of Marquese Chriss. This becomes even more impressive considering he played the entire season at just 19 years of age. Most notably, Chriss stood out with an infectious energy that fueled his fearless style of play. Proving himself to be a two-way player, Chriss both attacked the basket and protected the rim adequately. However, Chriss also allowed his emotions to get the better of him at times and was charged with the 9th most technical fouls in the NBA as a result. Chriss has admitted the need to keep his emotions in check, while still providing the same positive spark at both ends. Striking that happy medium will be the challenge for Chriss in his sophomore season.

Staying in the frontcourt, the Suns are also excited by the versatility of 2016 fourth overall pick Dragan Bender. The agile 7’1” forward out of Croatia played limited minutes in his first pro season in North America. Bender is expected to challenge Tyson Chandler and Alex Len for an increased roll in 2017-18. With a year of experience underneath him, Bender will look to display his rare skill set reminiscent of the New York KnicksKristaps Porzingis and Denver NuggetsNikola Jokic.

Off-Season Changes

The most important off-season moves for the Suns this past summer were the ones they didn’t make. Sure, it would have been easy for McDonough and company to dig into their deep pool of assets – which includes a number of high draft picks and talented young players – in order to land a legitimate star that would help them right now. But despite showing interest in a handful of enticing options such as Porzingis, Paul George, Jimmy ButlerKyrie Irving, and Kevin Love, McDonough elected to stay the course which will prove beneficial in the long run.

The Suns snagged explosive two-way stud Josh Jackson out of Kansas with the fourth overall pick. Jackson can be expected to make an immediate impact on the wing. As a player who some considered to be the best in the draft, Jackson also gives Phoenix precisely what they were lacking: versatility. Jackson’s versatility will aid the Suns’ aforementioned defensive struggles, while his athleticism will also add another dimension to the Suns’ attack in transition. Given his physical gifts and high ceiling, Jackson has a very real shot at being the best player in his draft class if he can polish his offensive game.

The Suns also selected Miami Hurricanes guard Davon Reed and Valparaiso Crusaders forward Alec Peters in the second round of the 2017 NBA Draft. An under-the-radar move adding further depth and youth off the bench. Reed, however, has since suffered a torn meniscus and will be sidelined for four-to-six months, leaving the backup two-guard role up for grabs in training camp between Elijah Millsap and Peter Jok.

The other notable move in an otherwise quiet off-season was the re-signing of fan favorite Alan Williams. Loved by his teammates, ‘Big Sauce’ will once again bring energy and hustle on the boards whenever he’s given the chance on the court, plus a wide array of glorious bench reactions such as this one when he’s off of it.

2017-18 Predictions

The 2017-18 season will be all about baby steps for the Suns. Booker may have some off-shooting nights as he deals with increased attention from opposing defences. Jackson will go through the same inevitable rough patches all rookies face while adjusting to the NBA level; especially as he develops the offensive side of his game. Chriss may still lose the battle with his emotions every now and then as he continues the learning process of handling certain situations. But as slow as the progress may seem, it is important to keep in mind the bigger picture.

The Suns last made the playoffs in 2009-10, and have finished over .500 only once since then. Suffice to say, it’s taken a while for Phoenix to put a team together that is capable of competing in the West. This one isn’t at that point yet, but the Suns now finally have in place what many believe to be a young core on a potential championship-contending trajectory. The task this season will be to develop that core both individually and collectively. Progress might not be reflected by a substantial increase in the win column right away, but it doesn’t have to for their 2017-18 campaign to be considered a success. With a plethora of youthful energy, talent, and athleticism, the upcoming season of Suns basketball isn’t going to be a dull one in the desert.

The task this season will be to develop that core both individually and collectively. Progress might not be reflected by a substantial increase in the win column right away, but it doesn’t have to for their 2017-18 campaign to be considered a success. With a plethora of youthful energy, talent, and athleticism, the upcoming season of Suns basketball isn’t going to be a dull one in the desert.

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