Although the Phoenix Suns are going to depend on the play of their guards to carry the load offensively this season, the play of their centers may be what ultimately determines their overall success.
There's no doubt that the Suns have scary talent and potential at the guard position, but they will also need significant contributions from their big men inside. Not just to score, but more importantly, to defend the rim and grab rebounds...something the Suns simply cannot rely on their guards to do...no matter how talented they are.
Here's a look at who the Suns will be using at the center position this season, and how they will be depended upon.
Miles Plumlee, 6'11" 255 lbs, Center
2013/14 Per-Game Averages: 24.6 min, 8.1 pts, 7.8 rbs, 1.1 blks, 51.7 FG%
After trading Marcin Gortat to the Washington Wizards just before the start of the regular season, Miles Plumlee became the starting center for the Phoenix Suns last year. While most thought of Plumlee as the third string center upon his arrival, he quickly proved to be much more than that with the athleticism, hustle, and defense he provided on the court. Phoenix let go of one of the better centers in the league as part of the rebuilding process and handed the reigns to Miles, who proved to be more than adequate in the starting role for the Suns last year.
So what can we expect from Miles this season?
Although Miles has been working on his offensive game, including his hook shots, his post moves, and even his free throws and jumpers, I don't expect a big jump in either scoring of efficiency from Plumlee this season. While I think Miles is more than capable of providing the Suns with adequate scoring in the post, especially in the pick-and-roll, he is still limited in this regard, and will not be one of the main options in the Suns offense. Instead, Miles will continue to score opportunistically on tip-ins, and dunks/lay-ups when open and rolling to the basket.
Plumlee's main job in the Suns' system is to provide defense...and this is where I believe he will continue to make the biggest difference on the court. Miles is an excellent rim protector in the post, and is very skilled at challenging the opponent and blocking shots while remaining vertical. His presence on the court completely changes the way in which the opposing team attacks the basket. He changes and alters shots with his athleticism and ability to time his jumps just right, causing the opposition to often miss their shot even when he isn't able to block it.
One area I would like to see Miles improve in this season is his rebounding. Miles has always been one of the most athletic players in the post, so it is a natural habit for him to go after the rebound rather than box-out the players around him. This still worked for him pretty well last season, when he averaged 7.8 rebounds per game, but if he could improve on boxing out his man when the shot goes up, it will not only give himself a better chance to get the ball, but allow his teammates to help grab loose balls that bounce out of his reach.
Alex Len, 7'1" 265 lbs, C
2013/14 Per-Game Averages: 8.6 min, 2.0pts, 2.4rbs, 42.3 FG%
Alex Len is by far the biggest question mark going into the season...not only for the center position...but on the team as a whole. Len was the Suns' fifth overall pick last year in the 2013 NBA draft. Phoenix drafted him because of his potential to become an elite starting center in the NBA. Len has the rare combination of true-center size at 7'1" with a body that can support the added bulk needed to defend against NBA big men, and also the mobility and agility to play on a fast-tempo team who likes to run up and down the court. This is truly a rare commodity among big men in the league, and there is no question that Alex is one of the very few big men in the league who possess these highly sought-after traits.
However, at least so far, Len's professional career has been hampered by injuries which have stifled his development and prevented him from contributing. Before the beginning of last season, Alex underwent minor surgeries on both of his ankles to fix small fractures that could become bigger issues later on if they weren't addressed. The good news was, the Suns doctors believed Len would make a full recovery and have no lingering effects from the procedures, and that his ankles would be as good as new. Although this prevented him from playing most of last season, and adding the strength and weight he had planned on, the Suns didn't mind being patient, and viewed Len as a long term investment who would reap the benefits of having a red-shirt season in the NBA and taking his time to learn the system.
Len participated in the Suns' summer league where he performed fairly well overall in his first game, but suffered a small fracture in his right pinkie when it got caught in another players jersey. The good news was, it wasn't a major injury and would be healed in plenty of time for training camp to start. Over the off-season, Alex was finally able to commit to a workout regimen that would have him gain 15 lbs of muscle, and give him the NBA body he needed to compete with the big boys. As I detailed in my article here, both Len and the Suns' coaching staff were excited and encouraged by his progress, and expected big things from him this season.
Before the first preseason game, news broke that Alex once again fractured the same pinkie on the same hand, but in a different location, while going up for a dunk during a scrimmage in practice. Although this sounds like another minor setback, it's beginning to seem as though Len is a bit snake-bitten when it comes to injuries. Len is expected to fully recover and be able to participate by the beginning of the regular season, and pwrhaps in preseason games as well, but the amount of injuries that have plagued Len's very short career are starting to become a concern.
The Suns need Len to stay healthy this season, above all else. Whatever Alex can contribute to the team while getting playing time and backing up Miles at the center position this year will be a big boost to the team. Right now, Phoenix is relatively thin at the center position. Having Alex Len as an option at the five suddenly gives the Suns a legit big man to help defend the bigger post players in the league, and a quality back-up to help spell Plumlee. Len could be one of the more important complementary players on the team this season, if he can avoid injury.
Shavlik Randolph, 6'10" 240 lbs, PF/C
2013/14 Per-Game Averages: 6.8 min, 1.4 pts, 1.8 rbs, 50.0 FG%
Randolph was brought back to the Suns this season in order to provide depth at the center and power forward positions. Although Randolph came to the Suns late last season, and was used sparingly as a reserve, his veteran presence, hustle, and ability to rebound are all characteristics the Suns covet.
Shavlik worked on his game in the off-season to increase his range, and improve on his shooting. The former high-school blue chip prospect who played for Duke was no stranger to scoring when he was younger, so the ability is still there. However, he had settled into his role in the NBA as a post player who was needed for rebounding and defense, so scoring hasn't been an area of his game he has focused much on.
Although he will still be used in a back-up role this season, Shavlik understands that in the Suns offense' big men are expected to shoot. I don't expect him to play big minutes this season, and neither does he. In fact, at the moment he is in direct competition with Earl Barron to even stay on the roster. However, if he does make the final roster, his versatility and dependability could see him play spot minutes at either the four or the five whenever the Suns need him. Shavlik will be ready when or if his number is called.
Earl Barron, 7'0" 245 lbs, C
2012/13 (Not in NBA for 2013/14) Per-Game Averages: 13.3 min, 3.3 pts, 5.1 rbs, 35.3 FG%
Earl Barron wasn't part of the plan going into training camp. The Suns had already signed the maximum number of players, 15, to guaranteed contracts prior to preseason starting, so it was assumed that their four invitees--Earl Barron, Jamil Wilson, Casey Prather, and Joe Jackson--would only be on the roster for the short term.
However, after Alex Len was sidelined with yet another minor injury, Earl Barron was given a regular spot in the preseason rotation, and has been outplaying the presumed third-string center, Shavlik Randolph. It now seems very possible that Barron could get a spot on the roster and that Randolph could be released.
The competition is certainly real at this point, and it will almost certainly come down to the Suns keeping one or the other...They simply will not be able to keep both. However, if the Suns decide to keep Barron, I expect him to continue doing the same things he has for the Suns during preseason. He likely won't see many minutes, but if he is called upon to play, he needs to help defend the post, and most importantly, help rebound. I think Earl has shown that he is capable of both as a reserve.