It happens almost every year. There is usually one player who seemingly comes out of nowhere and ends up playing a bigger role on the Phoenix Suns than analysts and fans ever thought possible.
Last year that player was a projected third-string center; a second-year "rookie" who registered only 55 minutes of playing time in his first season...Miles Plumlee.
I don't need to tell you how that story played out. Miles exceeded even the loftiest of expectations last year to become the starting center, and a fan favorite in Phoenix. Nobody expected any of this to happen.
Could a similar story emerge this season?
Shavlik Randolph is probably the most overlooked player on the Phoenix Suns roster. On a team that is loaded with top-end talent, quality role players, and promising young rookies, Randolph is one of only a few veteran players who doesn't seem to have a clearly defined role as of yet, or a guaranteed spot in the rotation.
But could that change?
Late last season, Shavlik first arrived in Phoenix after the Suns waived Slava Kravtsov on March 1st, in order to sign Randolph to the roster as a back up center.
Back then, Shavlik was signed to provide some extra depth at the center position, and his ability to rebound. Ryan McDonough, who was the assistant GM in Boston when Shavlik played for the Celtics in 2012-13, was obviously impressed enough with his performance during his limited minutes that he decided to bring him to Phoenix as a free agent.
Suns president Lon Babby talked about that connection and a few others after Randolph was signed. "Ryan knew him from Boston, as did Mike Logabardi. And we were careful in the moves we didn't take at the trade deadline. But in his case, he had a relationship with P.J. Tucker; they grew up together in Raleigh...We felt comfortable that he would be welcomed here, and he sure has been"
Babby then went on to describe what he brings to the team. "He's a terrific rebounder. He's a veteran. I think we felt like we needed some veteran presence there. So it was a very positive move, and I think he's going to help us out down the stretch."
Shavlik only played in 14 games last season. Although he didn't play poorly, he certainly didn't have much of an impact either...Not that much was expected from him behind players like Miles Plumlee, Channing Frye, and Alex Len.
With a contract that would only be guaranteed if the Suns chose to keep him past the July 17th deadline, most assumed the Suns would release him. But they didn't.
Instead, the Suns chose to keep Randolph and guarantee his contract for the 2014-15 season with a $1.22 million salary.
This seemed to indicate that the Suns viewed Randolph as being someone they thought could help contribute to the team in at least some respect this coming season.
Did the Suns think he could actually be a part of the rotation, or was he just insurance in case of an injury to Plumlee or Len? Having already lost Channing Frye to free agency, it seemed the latter was more likely.
I caught up with Shavlik during the Suns media day to ask him about what he's been working on over the off-season, and what he thought his role would be on this year's team.
"I tried to work on my outside shot a little bit more." Randolph continued, "I tried to keep my conditioning up and work on some back to the basket stuff and some outside range shooting."
Shavlik also mentioned that he wasn't satisfied with his overall shape and conditioning last season. "I felt like I wasn't in as good of condition when I came in last year." He continued, "It was circumstantial because I got hurt (while playing) in China."
I did notice he seemed a little leaner than last season, not that he was in bad shape before. But, it did look like and sound like he'd been taking his potential role on the team seriously.
"I was thrilled to death when they brought me back," he said. "This was a place I wanted to be a part of. It was one of the most fun (times) I've had in my eight years in the league. I look forward to trying to build on that this season."
I then asked Shavlik what he thought his role would be on the team this year. He responded, "I'm a guy that can play both the four and the five and just fit in wherever I can." He continued, "If Alex or Miles get in foul trouble...If they need someone to spell the four I can do it, if they need someone to spell the five I can do it."
This would probably be the end of the story if I hadn't watched the Suns' scrimmage in Flagstaff on Saturday.
Shavlik's Surprising Play
Dave King, Jim Coughenhour, and I took a road trip to watch the game, in what would be our first look at the new team.
On the way up north, we all talked about who we were looking forward to watching, and our predictions about who we thought would have the most surprising performance this year.
In other words, who would be this year's Miles Plumlee of the intra-squad scrimmage?
We all had our predictions--Alex Len, Archie Goodwin, T.J. Warren, etc...But who would actually have the most surprising performance when it was all said and done was still anyone's guess.
When we first arrived at the Skydome and began watching the players before the scrimmage, I remarked to Dave how I had been watching Randolph warming up behind the arc and how he kept draining shot after shot. In fact, I even tweeted it.
One thing of note is that Shavlik Randolph has been nailing jumpers from above arc during war ups, 1 after the other. pic.twitter.com/9kkvLi1rcn— BrightSideoftheSun (@BrightSideSun) October 4, 2014
Randolph wasn't kidding when he said he had been working on his outside shot this off-season, he looked almost automatic. But still...this was only warm-ups, and Randolph had only hit one three-point shot in his entire eight-year NBA career.
When Randolph entered the game, I noticed him hanging around the arc on offense...that was certainly different from last year. His first shot was also a three, and he nailed it.
He also got inside for a few more baskets, grabbed a bunch of rebounds, and hit another three before it was all said and done. Randolph ended up going two-for-two from beyond the arc, while scoring 13 points in all...along with a team high 9 rebounds.
Nobody saw that coming.
So Now What?
Of course, this was only a scrimmage. You cannot take anything you see in a scrimmage as an indication of expected performance during the season. Everyone is playing loose, rotations are all over the place, and nothing counts. It's the perfect time and place to experiment without repercussions.
However, with Randolph talking about working on his shot as his main focus during the off-season, and the way he looked in warm-ups and the scrimmage, it's not out of the realm of possibility that he could get a chance to play this season in a new role.
So, could he end up being this year's Miles Plumlee, and playing a major role with the team?
No. Even Shavlik himself understands that his role will be much more limited than that.
As he told me at Suns' media day, "I know that there are two centers ahead of me that they want to develop, young centers that have the ability to be elite." He continued, "It's the same thing as last year, I just have to stay ready...Whether I play or I don't play, I just have to keep a good veteran presence and a good attitude in the locker room and when my number's called to be ready to go out and do what I do."
But, if he does get a chance to at least crack the rotation as a back-up four/five--in order to provide spacing, help rebound, or complement certain line-ups--he may just surprise some people with the improvements he's made to his game.
Regardless of what happens, you can bet that Shavlik will be ready to help in whatever way he is needed.