Phoenix Phan Chronicles 3: The "rookie wall" is here, and the Suns don't have much time to get over or around it
The Suns are fresh off of a defeat, in overtime, to the New York Knicks which brought a road campaign to 1-4. As always, they fought valiantly but came up short against Melo and company.
Targaryen Dragic was again, sensational when he could actually breathe, scorching the Knicks for 28 points before eventually running out of fuel. Leandro Barbosa came to Dragic's aid, blitzing the Knicks for 21 points, before he too fell victim to exhaustion.
The rest of the team, well, didn't play so hot. No reason to attach the stats to this game, because you could actually go back over the course of this road trip and apply what happened in New York to any of those games.
The Suns were better than all 4 of the teams they lost to over this stretch. That issue is unquestioned. The Suns outside of Dragon have played pretty poorly and have been right there at the end of every game. If a few more shots were made; if a few more rebounds and / or loose balls were controlled, this trip could've easily been 4-1 in the Suns favor with the only real loss coming as a result of weather in Chicago.
So, why are the Suns coming up short? Why are shots suddenly not falling? Why is the defense a little less stout? Does it have anything to do with Bledsoe being out? Perhaps, but not as much as you think.
The "Rookie Wall" is upon the Valley.
KEY 'NON-POINT' STATS FOR DECEMBER
- 45.6 FG% / 37.9 3P% / 46.2RPG / 9SPG / 6.1BPG
KEY 'NON-POINT' STATS FOR JANUARY
40.9 FG% / 33.3 3P% / 43.6RPG / 8SPG / 4.3BPG
Sometimes, things just can't be helped. Rookies who play big roles on basketball teams almost always hit that mid-year slump. The jump from college, DLeague, or even Europe can exhaust the young players quicker for many reasons.
Length of season, physical toll of games, length of games, increased role in said games, etc. Many teams have one or two of these types of players on a team in any one season. When you take a look at what Phoenix is doing with the personnel they have, you begin to understand.
MILES PLUMLEE played an hour of live basketball in his rookie season for the Indiana Pacers. GM Ryan McDonough makes a trade for him and Gerald Green, and just like that he's the starting PF / C for the Phoenix Suns. He is the rim protector, main rebounder, and offensive rim attacker for Jeff Hornacek. Think about that. That is A LOT of responsibility, (which demands A LOT of energy), for a player who is basically a rookie still.
CHANNING FRYE didn't play at all last season due to an enlarged heart. He is just now playing himself into basketball shape, while at the same time wearing himself out without the benefits of continued conditioning of a previous season. Just as his feet are getting under him, the grind of an NBA season might be pulling them out from under him.
He's playing around 8 minutes more per game in January vs. December, averaging 15.7PPG (versus 11.2 in DEC) but his FG% is beginning to slide, (41.1 vs. 45.0 in DEC) and an absolute dismal night against the Knicks on top of it.
The Morri and Gerald Green have also seen their effectiveness slide over the course of this month. Keef has the double duty of being the first big off the bench while also learning a new role under coach Hornacek. Gerald Green went from minimal usage in Indiana to being the Suns' version of Jamal Crawford. As of now, I'm of the opinion that Marcus Morris isn't very good at basketball currently, so I won't go into his woes in detail.
You can see the shots are either short or long, (legs). You can see the slippage in defensive attention to detail. You can see the effort dipping just a touch on those 50/50 balls. This is what happens to rookies over the long NBA season; we just happen to have a lot of players who fit into that scenario playing huge roles for the Suns currently.
The Dragon-Drain Effect
DECEMBER: 18.8PPG / 4.5APG / 49.1FG% / 36.2 3PG
JANUARY: 22.7PPG / 6.3APG / 47.8FG% / 50%3PG
Goran Dragic is above the wall. He flies over it. He #DRAGONSTEPs around it. He charges through it. As a singular entity, Dragic could care less about the wall. He's already been there and done that.
The problem for him is that while the rest of his contributing teammates struggle with it, he is forced to shoulder the load while they make strides to overcome it. Tonight reminded everybody of the potential importance Leandro Barbosa has, but his conditioning is still behind a lot of Suns as he works himself back from that knee injury. He couldn't go in OT vs. the Knicks because he, too, was sucking air.
The Wall, as a side-effect, has left Dragic exhausted even though the phenomenon itself hasn't gotten to him. With Eric Bledsoe out indefinitely, The Suns are going to have to "take turns" assisting Dragon in carrying the load.
The question is, however, will they be able to? How long will it take them to get their second wind? The Suns have a 5-game home stand coming up. This will be a good barometer for the team in terms of how players are individually handling the wall in front of them. This might be the perfect opportunity for the young, (and heavily rested legs) of Alex Len and Archie Goodwin to offer some support in the middle of games. The Suns are going to need help from every avenue.
The Suns aren't a bad team, they're just a young team with a lot of young players or players with unique circumstances. They're going to have to get over this wall the same way they've gotten by a lot of opponents early this season - together.