Suns are Shining this Summer


In the midst of this NBA off-season, the Phoenix Suns probably had the best stretch for their franchise in a couple of years. That may tell you more about the Suns’ recent past more than anything. But the turnaround for struggling teams has to start somewhere. For the Phoenix Suns, we may remember July 2018 as the month it all started to turn around.

First, the first overall pick from the 2018 draft, Deandre Ayton, took his talents to Las Vegas for the Summer League. He was solid with some electric glimpses of athleticism and strength. Ayton didn’t take over or dominate any of the games, but he did show us that he truly belongs. His rim-running, athletic dunks on lobs, offensive rebounding, and even jump shots were all some serious eye-candy for discerning Suns fans.

We do not want to put too much stock in Summer League, but it can reveal some specific characteristics of the rookies. Dominant performances and huge numbers in the summer can be fool’s gold. On the flip side, we should be careful not to overreact to inconsistent shooting or unimpressive numbers. With that said, Summer League is not a bad spot to see the overall makeup and NBA-readiness of a rookie. For instance, it’s always a good thing if the rookie looks like he belongs. If he looks lost, slow or timid amongst his fellow rookies, you should be concerned. That could mean he has a long way to go or may possibly never reach the promised land. On the other hand, if he can hang with the talent on the court, show some athleticism, strength, grit and toughness, fans can walk away with hope.

Deandre Ayton definitely showed us most if not all of the key ingredients. That’s exciting to see for the league in general and the Phoenix Suns in particular. What makes Ayton’s performance impressive is it’s hard for big men to shine in the Summer League. It is bad basketball for the most part with half-baked offensive schemes cobbled together to be run by a random collection of talent, almost all of it very young, with minimal coaching. Add to that the fact that some guys are fighting for their NBA lives. You can easily imagine how the games are a lot more guard oriented by default. Guys who can dribble, drive, and shoot can dominate a lot more than big guys like Ayton. Bigs are dependent on their teammates and sensible schemes to shine on offense by design.

Given all the realities of the Summer League, solid performances by Ayton and some of the other bigs from the first round of the draft are indeed very encouraging to their respective fan bases. When it was all said and done, Ayton averaged a double-double in 4 games – 14.5 points on 60% shooting with 10.5 boards. He did have a bad outing against the 76ers in the elimination game. The 76ers forced him into turnovers and also exposed him a bit on defense against their ball handlers. All of that sums up the three major takeaways form Ayton’s performances – he has potential, but he needs to be more decisive in the low post with some added aggression and he needs to get better defensively. A grade of A- is fair to slap on him at this point.

The other rookie for the Suns, Mikal Bridges also had a decent Summer League. He is one of the more polished prospects coming in and is also older than the average rookie. Bridges looked and played that part real well. He didn’t sweep us off our collective feet either, but showed glimpses of what’s to come. The small forward position for the Suns is going to be a crowded space next season. They have lottery-pick Josh Jackson, the always-productive T.J Warren, and now the respected veteran Trevor Ariza. There will still be a spot for Bridges to make an impact, however. He looks like somebody who can contribute right away off the bench.

Bridges and Zhaire Smith from the Philadelphia 76ers were part of a trade on draft night and will always be compared to each other. This will constantly be another side story of both their NBA lives for the foreseeable future. They battled for the first time when the 76ers eliminated the Suns in the Summer League playoffs. Too soon to say anything about that trade, but both have had a decent stint in Las Vegas. All we can look for at this stage is a solid start to their NBA careers and we got that.

While all eyes were on Ayton, Bridges, and the fellow rookies, the Suns’ management made another strong move. They did the smart thing in extending Devin Booker by inking him to a five-year, max deal (worth $158 million and change), locking him up in the valley of the sun through 2024. You could argue that he can’t be the alpha dog on a championship team, but he is definitely capable of being part of a big-3, if not the second option, in a championship roster. The core of Booker, Ayton, and Jackson holds a lot of promise. Booker was here first and scores the most points at this stage of their respective careers. It was critical both symbolically and practically to lock him up so they can usher in a new era in Phoenix. This also shuts the door on other teams luring him in free agency next summer.

More importantly, this shows all of us some commitment from Suns’ owner Robert Sarver to building a winner. Nice job by the boss to loosen up the purse strings. Suns fans have always been suspicious of their owner on that front. Some NBA aficionados do question Booker’s numbers and doubt if he is one of those “good numbers in a bad team” guy. Experts also tend to dissect Booker’s effective field goal percentage of 50.1%, mediocre defense and high turnovers. Many Suns fans share those concerns as well, but the guy is not even 22 years of age yet. He has improved every year he has been in the league. If Booker keeps this trend up, there is no reason why he can’t fix some of those deficiencies. He has all the tools to become a legitimate first or second option on a winning team.

Signing Booker was the the only path forward for the Phoenix Suns. They just could not let him walk away. Now, they can focus on the young core and new head coach Igor Kokoskov, hoping it all comes together around Booker. Sarver and the fans want them to make the playoffs as soon as possible, but that might be tough this upcoming season in a brutal Western conference. What the Suns do need to show is development and a clear path forward towards playoff contention in the short term. That should then tie into visions of even loftier goals in the long term.




About Aravind Srinivasan

Aravind loves two things- the NBA and writing. He has been a long-time Phoenix Suns fans since the Charles Barkley-Kevin Johnson era of the mid-90’s. He now lives in the Golden State and follows the Warriors closely. An avid sports and NBA blogger since the early days of blogging, he is now a Suns and Dubs writer for TLSM. His favourite Sun is Steve Nash and his favourite Warrior is Steph Curry. Twitter: @15cent

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