The 2013/14 season was one of the strangest damn things the NBA has seen in recent history. When does nearly an entire team of castoffs and role players suddenly leap to previously unseen levels of production all at once? The Suns featured at least three players who were legitimate candidates for Most Improved Player, and that is excluding Eric Bledsoe, who missed half the season.
Is this a by-product of the system of Jeff Hornacek? If so, who is the next player to make a Sunsian leap? Let's look at the candidates.
Last Season: Archie's rookie season was basically a mulligan as the Suns unexpectedly found themselves in a playoff race and opted to sign veteran Leandro Barbosa on the cheap rather than expose the jittery 19-year-old Goodwin. He still managed decent levels of production despite limited playing time, putting up 13.1 points on .455 from the field with a surprising 5.9 rebounds per 36 minutes.
The Mongoose showed flashes of brilliance when given the opportunity. There were only four games last season in which Goodwin played 19 minutes or more, but in those four games he shot a scalding 27/38 from the floor for 69 points.
What he'll need to improve: Getting older would help. Archie still just turned 20 years old in August. In the meantime, he'll need to add to his boyish frame. He is listed at 198 pounds, which is absurdly generous. Another year with Shot Doctor Hornacek will hopefully improve his scud missile jumpshot -- Goodwin shot a nasty .139 from deep during his rookie year.
His playmaking will also need to improve, specifically his tendency towards tunnel vision when attacking the rim, which resulted in his abysmal 1.6 APG per 36 -- fewer than Channing Frye.
Outlook: This could very well be another redshirt year for Goodwin, especially if Eric Bledsoe returns to our planet and the Suns are able to form the envisioned triple-PG attack with Bled, Goran Dragic and Isaiah Thomas. Also returning will be the incumbent backup 2-guard Gerald Green, who was the team's second leading scorer per 36 and drained 40% from deep last season.
Archie will need a bit of luck to come his way if he's going to find himself a rotation spot in 2014/15, no matter how much progress he may show.
Last Season: Len saw even less time than Goodwin in 2013/14, and during his brief stints of playing time his potential was as tantalizing as his inexperience was obvious. The Suns were extremely cautious with the big Ukrainian's suspect ankles, as Len had appeared in only 4 games as late as January 7th. It also didn't help his cause for playing time that Miles Plumlee, Channing Frye and Markieff Morris only missed three games combined all season.
While he was able to contribute with his paint defense and rebounding (9.8 boards per 36), on offense he was painfully tentative and there was only one game out of his 42 played in which he attempted more than five shots from the field. This contributed to his .423 FG%, which is a trifle embarrassing for a dude that stands over seven feet tall.
What he'll need to improve: Len will need to find his niche on offense and it would make a tremendous difference if he could shoot better than 5/23 from outside 10 feet and 0/8 outside of 16 feet. He seemed to handle himself will from midrange during his time at Maryland and has decent enough form, so expect the jumpers to fall at some point.
On the other end of the court, Len must learn to defend the paint without fouling. As the roster currently stands, the PF spot will be handled by a platoon of Markieff Morris, Marcus Morris and Anthony Tolliver, which means that any hope the Suns have of defending the paint rests upon the shoulders of Len and Plumlee at the center position. If he can cut down on his comical 6.8 fouls per 36 while maximizing the ability he showed at times to protect the rim, the effect it would have on this Suns team cannot be understated.
Outlook: Unlike Goodwin's situation, the stars seem to be aligning for Len. The Suns decision not to enlist any outside help at the center position in light of Channing Frye's departure spoke volumes. It appears that they want to keep a window open for Len, but whether or not he's ready is a different story. The big man has all the tools to be a successful center in the NBA if his ankles permit, but keep in mind that he just celebrated his 21st birthday a mere three months ago. There is a good chance that he just isn't ready yet, even if the Suns are.
Last Season: While Marcus didn't enjoy quite the leap that his twin brother Markieff did, he still posted career highs in virtually every category while establishing himself as a rotation player at either forward spot. A more cynical type might be inclined to call that a polite euphemism for a tweener,but when one knocks down 38% of his three-point attempts as did Mook in 2013/14, it holds less bearing what position one plays.
Not to be a one-trick pony, Mook also shot .486 from 10-16 feet on a healthy 109 attempts, and his 15.9 points per 36 ranked fifth overall on the team.
What he'll need to improve: While Marcus' scoring earned him a spot in the rotation and a career-high 22 minutes per game, he'll need to round out the rest of his game if he wants to have a chance at a starting gig during his career. Per 36 minutes he ranked 9th in rebounding, 8th in assists, 12th in blocks and 10th in free-throw attempts among his teammates.
While he managed to not embarrass himself on defense, he also didn't exactly lock anyone down on the perimeter and had an unfortunate tendency to play smaller than his 6'9 frame suggests when battling down low. While his scoring was steady and reliable, he has been particularly unspectacular throughout his career. Last season he managed only a pair of 20+ point games -- in both games he went for 22, and they were six months apart. He has only registered double-digit rebounds one time (January 2013, with Houston) and has never had a double-double.
While the progress that Marcus has made shouldn't be sold short, he simply needs to find more ways to leave his mark on the court.
Outlook: The sky is the limit for Marcus. With Frye's departure the door is open for someone, anyone, to step into those stretchy shoes. If Marcus can find a way to play a bit bigger down low while maintaining his shooting from deep, he'll find himself a vital cog in the system of Jeff Hornacek, and right in time for his 2014 payday.
Last Season: After a lackluster stint with Atlanta, Tolliver rediscovered his shooting touch in 2013/14 with the Horncats, torching the nets to the tune of a career high .413 from deep. While the Horncats employed him mainly at small forward, he'll be returning to his more natural 4-spot with the Suns as they saw in Tolliver a low-risk opportunity to replace the void left by Channing Frye. Like Frye, Tolliver does a good deal of damage from above the break, which is a crucial ingredient to the Suns' offense.
What he'll need to improve: In Tolliver we have a particularly cut-and-dried case. He is on the floor to shoot and specifically to make defenses pay for collapsing in the paint. With Dragic, Thomas, and hopefully Bledsoe in tow, that paint will be collapsing a lot. If Tolliver can replicate Frye's ability to not just spot up and knock down open shots, but also to set the pick and trigger the attack, he'll be pure gravy for the Suns.
With his unimposing 6'8, 240 pound frame, don't expect the A-Train to hold down the paint or sweep the boards. I suppose there's always a chance that he can defy conventional wisdom and have a sudden epiphany at 29 years of age at either of these areas, but don't count on it.
Outlook: As with Marcus, in this offense the door is always open for those who can hit from downtown -- bonus points if they can do it from the frontline. Tolliver might be a bit too one-dimensional to have what can be called a breakout year, especially as he begins what is likely the back-half of his career, but dammit if this guy wasn't born to be a Phoenix Sun.
Last Season: Plumlee already had what can easily be argued as a breakout season in 2013/14, coming out of nowhere to begin the season as the starting center for the Suns. Due to his impact on defense and as an athletic finisher he did just enough to hold onto his starting spot throughout the season, even as he seemingly ran out of gas about halfway through.
What he'll need to improve: The Plumster desperately needs to add something to his offensive repertoire besides easy dunks and hustle points. The Plum Diary only made 18 shots outside of 10 feet all year. He converted only 38% of his hookshots, which didn't deter him from attempting them 166 times.
The Plum of all Fears will also need to prove that last season's uninspiring second half was an aberration and possibly a product of the grind of his first NBA season.
Outlook: The Plumdinger will surely be feeling a bit squeezed if backup center Alex Len shows any development. The Suns have invested a fifth overall draft pick in Len, and unless he either proves totally incompetent or his ankles explode, he'll get his crack at the starting lineup at some point. There is no time like the present for Plumsauce to show that he belongs as a starting center in the NBA, and is more than just a poor man's DeAndre Jordan with nothing but emphatic dunks that are still only worth two points and average rim protection.
He has a full year under his belt now and should be just entering his prime, so don't be surprised if he staves off the burgeoning Ukrainian and makes some hay in 2014/15.
Who's your guy?
Drop a vote in the poll and let us know why in the comments -- who is the next Phoenix Sun to take a leap in 2014/15? And lest you think I'm all sunshine and roses, stay tuned for the upcoming counter-post when I'll be nominating a handful of candidates on this Suns team that might be crashing back to Earth this year.