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New Phoenix Suns assistant Nate Bjorkgren talks Warren, Goodwin, Hornacek

The Phoenix Suns added a high energy player development coordinator this season in Nate Bjorkgren, who talks to Bright Side about young players Archie Goodwin and T.J. Warren.

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This offseason, the Phoenix Suns retooled their coaching staff a bit, including promoting last year's head coach of the Bakersfield Jam to the big club.

"He's got a lot of energy," coach Jeff Hornacek said of Bjorkgren this summer.

"It's great to be with coach Hornacek and his players and his staff," Bjorkgren said to Bright Side. "It's an outstanding place to be and I couldn't be happier."

You might not be familiar with Nate, one of the new assistant coaches for the Phoenix Suns this season, but he is quite familiar with us. Nate tells me we do good work here on Bright Side, and he checks the site daily.

Bjorkgren is a high energy coach who led the Jam to a 34-16 record last year using the Suns playbook to make the transition between the Jam and the Suns easier for players. Archie Goodwin, T.J. Warren, Tyler Ennis, Reggie Bullock, Earl Barron and Jerel McNeal all played for both teams last season.

Bjorkgren was signed to the Suns staff soon after the season ended, and led the Summer Suns to a 5-2 record behind the efforts of Goodwin, Warren, Alex Len and rookie Devin Booker. They made the SL Championship game, coming up just short to the Spurs entry.

On the Suns, Bjorkgren loves that he's not restricted to just working with young players.

"Coach does a good job of getting all of his assistants involved in many different things," he said. "He does a good job of letting his assistants grow. Just like he does with the players. You know, player development, coaching development. He'll give us assistants a taste of everything, offensively, defensively."

But to be sure, his primary focus has not changed.

"My biggest focus is player development," Bjorkgren said, "And keeping track of what these guys are doing before practice, during practice, after practice, preseason, before games. It's a lot of fun. We go in great detail on how to get these guys better."

After his coaching career ends, or even during the off season, Bjorkgren could make a good living as a motivational speaker. He's entirely focused on the conversation at hand, dialed in to what he's saying, and talks at a brisk but completely coherent pace.

Certainly, Hornacek is getting what he wanted when he brought in Bjorkgren and some of the other assistants.

"The enthusiasm from those guys - Nate, Earl (Watson) and Jason (Fraser) - keeps these guys going," Hornacek said this week to Paul Coro. "One of the big things from last year was the communications with players but maybe the coaches too. The more talking, the better."

Nate and I talked specifically about the players with whom he'd spent the most time this past year, Archie Goodwin and T.J. Warren. I focused on those two because recent talk has been consumed with many of the other roster players, including Len and Booker, but little has been said about Warren and Goodwin lately.

On Archie Goodwin

"He's still very young, going into his third year," Bjorkgren said of Goodwin, who just turned 21 years old. "His confidence, his demeanor keeps getting better and better and both those guys (Goodwin and Warren) have put in a lot of time this summer."

He said there's one thing he goes back to when asked about Goodwin, a sign of what Bjorkgren looks for in players to give him a glimpse of their potential success.

"He always did everything I asked of him," Bjorkgren said, with emphasis on always and everything. "He's very coachable. And he plays hard."

Of course, with any young player, consistency is the key to getting playing time.

"There's times he can really, really turn it up," Bjorkgren said. "He is super-athletic, super long and athletic for his position. He's excellent in the open floor. Even in summer league, I thought he shot it at a really good percentage. Our team was winning games and he was a big part of that."

Goodwin averaged 15.9 points per game, along with 4.7 rebounds and 2.1 assists from the shooting guard position. Coach Hornacek has made it clear that he's going to ask Goodwin to focus on his strengths this year (slashing, attacking, defending), rather than try to turn him into something he's not (long range shooter, point guard).

Goodwin will need to maximize those strengths if he's going to get playing time behind starter Brandon Knight. He will have to beat out veteran Sonny Weems, who the team loves but hasn't really proven anything as a shooting guard yet, and Devin Booker, the sweet shooting rookie people can't stop raving about but is only 18 years old.

"I know he's hungry this year," Bjorkgren said. "He's hungry to come out here to battle and fight for a position."

On T.J. Warren

The accolades come a bit easier for Warren, simply because his on-court skills are more refined. Where Goodwin gets tons of praise for his work ethic and effort, Warren's best skills can be easily seen on a highlight reel.

"He has that feel, that instinct, at a very high level," Bjorkgren said with a smile. "You know, T.J. has just an unbelievable feel for the game. I noticed it the very first day in Bakersfield last year and of course all the way through summer league."

Warren can score in the half court against anybody with a variety of dips and shifts and side-steps, and is great in the open court on the fast break. He made first-team All-NBA Summer League, putting up nearly 18 points per game despite playing through a pulled hammy the last two games.

"We got Tony Buckets," Eric Bledsoe said when I asked how they were going to improve the offense this year with largely the same offensive cast.

You don't need a Warren scoring lesson, but here's a highlight reel in case you're hankerin for a bit of Tony Buckets.

I asked Nate about Warren's development on defense, and he was ready to address the obvious in a very Bjorkgren way.

"He's got a great feel, a great nose for the ball," Bjorkgren said. "And that's both sides of the ball. You know, his defense has been great as well. T.J. has shown, with teams playing smaller now, he can guard 1 through 4. He's a great guy that if you need to switch a ball screen he can guard multiple positions. he's done a good job getting deflections, getting his hands in the passing lanes."

Coach Hornacek has talked about Warren's defensive abilities since he was drafted, but the on-court facts are that Warren needs to raise his level of consistency in that area. He doesn't stay focused on every possession unless his man has the ball, a bad trait both Warren and Goodwin share.

Bjorkgren will use positive reinforcement and coaching to tease that out of Warren, leaving the sharp retorts to his fellow players like P.J. Tucker and Tyson Chandler.

"And like I said that offensive feel and nose for the ball on the offensive end, it carries over defensively," Bjorkgren continued. "He has a great read of where that ball might be coming off the rim."

Warren might have a great read on where the ball will bounce, but his rebounding numbers have been disappointing so far. In summer league, he averaged only 3.6 rebounds per game despite playing a lot of power forward in their small-ball attack with Goodwin and Booker on the wings. As a rookie, his 7.6% rebound rate was 14th on the team out of 23 players who took the floor last year. Even worse, his 7.9% defensive rebound rate was a paltry 20th.

But Warren has a bright future nonetheless. He's clearly slotted into the backup small forward position this year, just like Alex Len was handed the backup center position a year ago. The small forward log jam is long gone, with Tucker and Warren as the only regular small forwards on the roster. Weems and Booker might be able to spend time there if needed, but Warren's minutes are his to lose.

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