Suns

New Era of Suns Basketball Has Arrived

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It’s mid-October and only starting to climb down from 100 degrees in Phoenix, Arizona. But it’s no bother to the number one draft pick, center Deandre Ayton, who’s called the Sonoran Desert home since high school. Ayton went to Hillcrest Prep Academy in Phoenix followed by the University of Arizona for one year.

It’s the hometown boy playing for his hometown team. What could be a better start to the redemption of a long-celebrated franchise?

To the non-Phoenix NBA crowd, I know, the Suns may seem unorchestrated and rivaled only by the Kings, Magic or Hawks in ineptitude. As an optimist, I’d say that was all part of ex-General Manager Ryan McDonough’s plan in an attempt to collect draft picks. We had to go through the tragic trials and tribulations of Isaiah Thomas, Goran Dragic, The Morrii, Eric Bledsoe and (Interim) Coach Earl Watson to get where we are now. And then, owner Robert Sarver gives McDonough the axe on the fly ’cause that’s just how he rolls. Right as it felt like everyone—players, coaches, management—were on the same page. But, what happens on the court can bear little resemblance to front office mishap.

It’s been a messy few seasons for Phoenix. All that horrendous double-digit losing resulted in a net of prospects: the team’s last few top-ten draft picks have been Alex Len (who now does his weird bunny-hop dunk for the Atlanta Hawks), Marquese Chriss (traded to the Houston Rockets), Dragan Bender (who seems to have lost his footing so far *fingers crossed it’s temporary*), and the most promising, Josh Jackson. This year, after a 21-win season, Ayton comes in as the franchise’s first number one draft pick.

And still, hard at work, McDonough swept even more in the door on draft night with the tenth pick Mikal Bridges (via trade with Philly), the French bolt Elie Okobo and small forward George King. Now with a core of Mr. 70 Devin Booker, Jackson and Ayton, —and an outer layer of TJ Warren, Bender and Bridges—the Suns look poised to start reversing this slide into redundant, hair-pulling mediocrity.

Suns’ 2018 draft picks: King, Bridges, Ayton and Okobo. Photo by Rob Schumacher/The AZ Republic.

With all due respect to Marcin Gortat and Tyson Chandler, the Suns just haven’t been known for their centers (despite getting Shaqtus to lumber down court). Their two iconic modern bigmen, Amar’e Stoudemire and Charles Barkley, were really more power forwards in nature. With the sun god Deandre Ayton this year, that changes.

The focus will be heavy on Ayton, the Bahamian palm tree under the basket. At 7’1’’, he will be the gravitational force in the center giving Booker, Bridges, Troy Daniels, Trevor Ariza and Ryan Anderson open looks. A few jukes and he’s got an easy oop. He enters the league young, but ready to play for gold and has shown the willingness to focus and work hard, having already brushed away the social media tauntings of Joel Embiid. Having the wisdom of Chandler in his ear will be huge for his development. With his size and agility, Ayton has the capacity to really integrate the new-look NBA into his skillset. Like Giannis, but with a more dominant post-up game. Like Embiid, but with a better handle on the ball. He’s got a turnaround Dirk-style shot that even in its infancy looks automatic.

Summer League was definitely a feel-out period for Ayton, as the team swirled around him, but he still averaged a double-double (14.5 PPG, 10.5 RPG) on a team that went 3-0 in Vegas. Already this week in Ayton’s first official NBA game against the Mavericks, he posted 18 points, 10 rebounds, six assists, one block and one steal. Now that’s no slouch! As he starts to gain weight, muscle and a defensive edge against the other pro centers, he can only get better. My spine shakes thinking about it.

This offseason found the Suns making meticulous moves and avoiding any big splashes. Ariza replaces the veteran presence lost with the Jared Dudley trade and joins Chandler in the champions’ circle. Tyler Ulis (on GS), Len and Alan Williams (on BK), the third-stringer fan favorites, were all let go. Richaun Holmes was picked up from the 76ers for a burst of energy when Ayton sits down. In August, Marquese Chriss and Brandon Knight were traded to the Houston Rockets for three-point shooting power forward Ryan Anderson and rookie De’Anthony Melton. Jamal Crawford was picked up on the veteran’s minimum for another easy scoring option. Guards Davon Reed and Shaquille Harrison played their way into the roster at Summer League but were cut in the final days. Isaiah Canaan returns from a disgusting ankle injury last season, but looks poised to take the reigns as starting ball director.

The general consensus is the Suns’ weak spot is at point guard. But, I’m willing to be patient and see what kind of unlocked comeback potential Canaan can bring. With this current lineup, he can be the pass-first guard to push and kick out to a bouquet of shooters. Rotating out the position will be Okobo and Melton, and who knows, maybe Booker or Crawford, hell, even Jackson could play point in some lineups.

There could be a logjam at the small forward position with Jackson, Warren, Bridges and Ariza all ready to play big minutes, (though so far Warren at the four doesn’t sound so crazy). Fans will expect huge improvements from Bender and Jackson and while new coach Igor Kokoskov has decades of coaching experience internationally and in the NBA, he is still a first-time head coach. There will certainly be growing pains. But overall, the line-up is coming into form.

Photo from NBA.com

After seven long springs of not only missing the playoffs, but laying down early in March, the best-case scenario for Phoenix this year is pushing into that fight for the eighth seed at season’s end. With the Warriors most probably at the top, there will be no tears shed if we end up ninth, tenth or eleventh– just better than the Kings, please. This crew simply needs experience and cohesion on and off the court. And it’ll come; hopefully right on schedule, as the legend of the Warriors begins to erode. Even basketball empires must fall, and when Golden State does, the seedlings set this season by Phoenix should be in a full-bloom maturation, climbing to competitive relevancy.

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About Eli Jace

Eli Jace is from Arizona.

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