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Going Gorilla: Phoenix Suns rookies face prospect of getting squeezed out of rotation

While Suns fans have already witnessed some flashes of potential from rookie T.J. Warren and some... of Tyler Ennis, don't be surprised if you don't see much of them once the regular season rolls around.

Try to keep him on the bench.
Try to keep him on the bench.
Image provided by Dustin Watson

Earning playing time in the NBA is tough.

Unless a player is a high lottery pick and comes into a situation where he is gifted minutes on a bad team it's going to take a relentless assault. It's a very tough battle for a rookie trying to crack a rotation on a team vying for a playoff spot.

In an article I wrote at the beginning of the summer I detailed how only nine rookies in the last six season played at least 1,000 minutes for Western Conference playoff teams. Last season only Steven Adams from the Oklahoma City Thunder managed the feat. He actually played more minutes (1,197) than all three rookies on the Suns combined (Alex Len, Archie Goodwin, Dionte Christmas - 1,093).

Yes, Christmas officially counted as a rookie.

Mike D'Antoni never played rookies.

In 2004-05 Yuta Tabuse and Jackson Vroman combined to play 74 minutes. In 2005-06 Dijon Thompson and Sharrod Ford managed 56. 2006-07 was a donut hole. In 2007-08 D.J. Strawberry and Alando Tucker actually combined to play 318 minutes, a number that is both staggeringly deviant, in comparison, while frustratingly diminutive. Strawberry, with 270 minutes played, not only won the rookie minutes played award in the D'Antoni era... but actually ran a victory lap.

Extra points to anyone who remembers that Dijon Thompson was actually a Sun.

Next season (2008-09) ushered in the hapless Terry Porter experiment, but also marked a shift in the vicissitudes of team draft trends. Some guy named Goran Dragic garnered 732 minutes, an average of 13.2 over 55 games, from the aforementioned defensive coaching wizard and more player friendly Alvin Gentry. Robin Lopez also notched 614 minutes and seven spot starts that season. Sean Singletary, 122 minutes, never factored into the team's plans.

The 2009-10 season saw Dragic and Lopez's roles further expanded, but late lottery pick Earl Clark, 383 minutes, and the inimitable Taylor Griffin, 32, struggled to make an impact. The 2010-11 class provided the motley crew of Zabian Dowdell, Gani Lawal and Garrett Siler. The trio combined for just 395 minutes. Lawal headlined with two minutes played, which ended up being the only of his career.

Gentry's last full season as head coach was the inception of the Markieff Morris era (that's what we're calling this, right?), who was just involved in one of the most bizarre contract negotiations in recent history. Markieff played in 63 of the 66 games in the lockout season (always remember it was a lockout, not a strike - especially when the owners try to screw the players out of a fair share of the new $100 gazillion dollar tv deal), averaging 19.5 per game for a total of 1,227 minutes. This, despite the fact that after a sizzling start Morris just flat out wasn't very good that year.

The next season (2012-13) was marred by a perfidious imbroglio that included the ouster of Gentry and the introduction of the "esteemed" Lindsey Hunter. Feel free to insert a different word for esteemed at your discretion. Out of the misery of that season came the impetus for change, which in retrospect seems an acceptable amount of pain for the prodigious growth since that summer. Still, amid the futility of a lost season lottery pick Kendall Marshall only saw 702 minutes of live action. Fellow rookies Diante Garrett and Luke "one of the best shooters in the world" Zeller combined for just 207 more. It's astounding that Lance Blanks managed to say so many stupid things despite being so conspicuously and habitually absent...

Enter Jeff Hornacek and the beginning of a new strategy of making multiple first round picks. The first such iteration landed the Suns Alex Len and Archie Goodwin. However, due in part to injuries (Len) and in part to youth neither of the players made any real impact. Archie played just 533 minutes last season and Alex a mere 362. Dionte Christmas also dazzled fans for 198 minutes of holiday joy.

Maybe it wasn't just D'Antoni that didn't play rookies. That's a decade worth of draft picks and only Markieff Morris eked out more than 732 minutes in his first season. That includes six more seasons, of mostly forgettable basketball, after Mike D left for browner pastures. Watch your step, Mike, that's not grass...

Now the Suns roster is replete with precocious players that may perpetuate the proclivity of paltry playing time. Because p.

There was a reason the Suns implemented the draft and stash strategy with their selection of Bogdan Bogdanovic #27 overall in the draft. They know there is already a disproportionate amount of youth to available minutes on the team.

T.J. Warren just turned 21 (9/5/1993) and Tyler Ennis turned 20 just before him (8/24/1994). That means Goodwin, who was born August 17, 1994 is no longer the youngest player on the team, with Tyler edging him out by seven days. The 21 year old Alex Len (6/16/1993) is the elder statesman of the group.

Len doesn't seem to face the crunch (insert bone joke here), though, as he will seemingly be given time unless he plays his way out of it. The Suns are thin up front and are counting on the second year player to pay dividends. Goodwin, on the other hand, isn't in as auspicious of a position. Playing behind Goran Dragic, Eric Bledsoe, Isaiah Thomas and Gerald Green makes earning playing time a daunting task.

That's why I basically put Archie in the same uphill battle position as the two newest first round picks.

He knows he's facing a fierce struggle. It was common knowledge that Goodwin was a regular around the Suns facilities this summer, even running sprints with the players that came in for pre-draft workouts.

"It was just being here. Being here is always good to let the coaches see that you're working and that you're dedicated," Goodwin said about his time in Phoenix this summer. "It helped me become a better player. Becoming more of a consistent knock down shooter and making better decisions offensively. Also becoming more solid defensively and getting stronger."

Ennis also reported to Phoenix for early workouts at the beginning of September to get his feet wet and work on his game.

"I've been working on the NBA three, getting my feet set. I think I've made a lot of progress with that," said Ennis. "Also, finishing around the basket. This is a new level, there are bigger stronger guys here. Conditioning wise I think I'm at a level I've never been at before.

"We have a lot of guards that play the one and the two, myself included, so I think I'm fighting everyone for minutes," continued Tyler. "Regardless of whether you're more of a scorer or more of a passer I think as long as you're doing what it takes for the team to win the coach will put you out there. I look at it as a positive. I have three really good point guards on this team that I can learn from and ask questions and get adjusted to the NBA game."

Not only that, but Ennis is most likely fighting for sixth on the guard depth chart with Zoran Dragic (who is actually a rookie in his own right), below second year Goodwin.

The Suns may already face problems finding players consistent minutes before Goodwin, Warren and Ennis are even considered. Dragic, Bledsoe, Thomas, Green, P.J. Tucker, Markieff and Marcus Morris, Anthony Tolliver, Miles Plumlee and Len all figure to be ahead of them on the depth chart as of now in training camp. That's 10 players. The Suns even experimented with Tolliver starting in their last game, a 97-89 win against the Denver Nuggets. The team is looking for a stretch four and Tolliver hit three from long range in 18 minutes.

Still, staying prepared is of paramount importance as a spot in the rotation may just be a trade or injury away.

Could part of that preparation include honing their skills in the developmental league?

Ennis doesn't seem too enamored with the prospect of playing on the Suns D-League affiliate Bakersfield Jam this upcoming season, despite trying to say the right things.

After a long pause... "At this point I'm really just listening to whatever the coaches say," said Ennis. "Whatever the coaching staff thinks is best for me, best for my development, that's what I'm going to do."

As I wrote above, there was a long pause. Read into that what you want, but these guys are obviously competitors.

The always succinct Warren didn't seem as conflicted with the prospect.

"It would be great," responded T.J. to my query. "It's basketball. Anytime there's basketball to play I'm ready to go."

Of course Warren is still concentrating on becoming a forcible presence on the Suns.

"I'm sharpening up the offensive stuff I do. Staying confident. Learning the offensive system and defensive rotations. I'm just trying to work hard and play the underdog role. The way the team wants to score fits my game very well."

T.J. didn't appear to lack aplomb this summer, as he dazzled with his ability to put the ball in the basket.

"I knew there was an opportunity for me to be aggressive and help my team. The guards did a great job of finding me in the open floor to get me going," commented T.J. on his performance.

Warren also just went for 10 points and six rebounds in the Suns last preseason game. Will those chances still be there, though, during the regular season when he's fighting for playing time with Marcus, P.J. and the four fingered assassin?

Positional battles abound for the Suns youngsters this season, but they are ready for the challenge.

"I don't fear anyone on our roster," said Goodwin with tangible boldness. "I feel like I can compete with anyone. I feel like I can be a really good player and contribute to this team."

Unfortunately for Archie, on this deep team being a really good player may not necessarily translate into an opportunity to contribute much.

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