The guard spots for the Phoenix Suns have been polarizing for the past two seasons. In 2013-14 it was the question of what position Eric Bledsoe would play alongside Goran Dragic and how the two would work together. In 2014-15 it was the same question, except the team had to also find time and shots for a very good sixth man in Isaiah Thomas.
It's year three of the Ryan McDonough and Jeff Hornacek era in Phoenix and now the team has clarity at the position, at least in their starting lineup and who will be taking a bulk of the minutes. Yes that's right, there are still questions. They are much more minor though and shouldn't present nearly as many issues as the past ones did. At least you would hope so...
Here's a breakdown of the guards.
I wrote about Bledsoe after media day and that's where you can find the main gist of why I think he's headed for a big year. The short answer is that he has his best fit for a backcourt partner since he got here in Brandon Knight and won't have to worry much about sitting in the corner or wondering when he will get his touches.
The best quality about Bledsoe is his ability to get to the rim and finish as a point guard. However, after a season finishing around the likes of LeBron James, Kevin Durant, and Dwyane Wade in FG% on drives, Bledsoe regressed from 52.7% to 47.7% last season. Draw your own conclusions as to what the issue was there, but I'd expect him to get closer to that 53% number this year.
My view on Bledsoe is that he's a great player and that has a lot to do with the handful of quirks that make him the player he is.Last summer I had a check-in on what those quirks are and they are only going to be strengthened by his supporting cast this season. Brandon Knight is the best three-point shooter he's ever started with, Tyson Chandler is an elite pick-and-roll player, and the glimpses of Markieff Morris's improved three-point shooting would make the duo's pick-and-pop game much more lethal.
There's also what Bledsoe can improve on as a player himself and that comes down to decision making and his three-point shooting. Turnover leaders are usually rubbish because the best players in the universe are mostly at the top of the list, but Bledsoe isn't in that company and yet, he finds himself near the top. He was ninth last year and is much closer to the group on that leaderboard that is unacceptable like Tony Wroten and Michael Carter Williams as opposed to the LeBron James, John Wall and James Harden group.
Whether it's how often he fails to create a good look when a play breaks down, his clock management in crunch time, or occasionally getting out of control, there's some changes that are needed. I personally love his aggression as a passer when he drives, but it's a large source of his turnovers and he's got to get better. Keep an eye on 'em.
His shooting is pretty simple. The Suns need two out of three of Bledsoe, P.J. Tucker, and Morris to be at least league average from deep and one of them probably needs to be Bledsoe. He almost did it in 2013-14 at 36% so he's shown he can get there. His problem is not on open looks either. According to Nylon Calculus, Bledsoe shot 44.2% on three-point attempts when there wasn't a defender within six feet. He's capable of the number.
We can't conclude on Bledsoe without talking about how good of a defender he is. It's important not to overlook the value of having your best perimeter defender at point guard, a position that is absolutely loaded in the NBA right now. Bledsoe will continue to improve and isn't that far away from starting to make a case for at least some All-Defense votes.
Bledsoe is the best player on this team and the Suns come awfully close to a playoff spot if they get an All-Star caliber Bledsoe like we saw in 2013-14. I think that's the player we see this season.
This season, Suns fans should be the most excited for an extended look at Bledsoe and Knight together in the backcourt. Knight only had seven games where he played at least 30 minutes before he got hurt. That wasn't enough time for Knight to get used to this team, his team to get used to him, or for him to develop chemistry with Bledsoe. That's not the case anymore. Bledsoe and Knight have had this summer and preseason to work out the kinks and be ready for the start of the season.
Knight's strengths go together very well with Bledsoe's strengths. Knight's a terrific shooter. He put up a 41% number in Milwaukee last season before the trade. Tyson Chandler admitted on media day that he didn't know how good of a shooter Knight was and it's telling that that was the first thing Chandler brought up when he talked about Knight. Now that it's been eight months and change since the trade, the Suns are going to be able to get more looks like this for Knight.
That clip highlights a strength for Bledsoe, which is his passing. Knight's not the passer that Bledsoe is and that's okay because he's much better at creating his shot out of any situation. Knight can give your team the normal "point guard" duties as a passer, but he has some awful turnovers every now and then that are simply due to accuracy. Once again, that works because he's with Bledsoe in the backcourt.
Despite the numbers, Knight is a very good shot creator and maker. It comes down to creating better looks for himself and doing that more consistently, both of which he seems capable of. Here's an example of the good and bad with Knight in the same game.
That first floater was a horrible decision, but the second one wasn't and he proved that the shot was no problem despite the degree of difficulty. That's also another example of a set that gets Knight the ball in his spots. Not to bash Alex Len as a screen setter, but imagine the improvement you get from having Chandler setting those screens.
What Knight needs to clean up in his game are the long 2's. They are arguably the worst shot in basketball and Knight's handle is good enough to create better shots. Knight took 157 shots in this area last season and failed to shoot even league average in any three of the zones for a very inefficient shot. Here's an example where he squares up D-Wade in order to take the shot.
Having both of your guards unable to create good looks on broken possessions is a huge problem and Knight is the one that's closer to correcting that problem.
That does not agree with the numbers though. Out of the 26 point guards that qualified for the 2014-15 final leaders in FG%, Knight's total season percentage of 42% was 18th, right below Elfrid Payton. The worst part is that's tied for Knight's best percentage of his career. We all know Knight is a better offensive player than that number and should be able to get that number to around 44-46% to be among the likes of Monta Ellis, John Wall, and Bledsoe.
That sounds like a lot of concern, but you want to hear the fun part? He doesn't turn 24 until December. He will improve just like Bledsoe has and like Bledsoe, he's already a good enough defensive player to not require a ton of focus on defense. In mid-March I said he needs to either be better at choosing his shots, playmaking, or attacking the rim. I'm confident that he will continue to grow and like Bledsoe, correct one of his flaws for this season.
(It's worth noting here that I see Sonny Weems as a two-guard and the first guard off the bench for the beginning of this season. Sam did a terrific job of covering him in the wings section. I still have him as a shooting guard though, so keep that in mind when I evaluate on these next three players.)
I think Devin Booker will be a key part of the rotation by the end of the season. He's the youngest player in the NBA right now, but he doesn't play like one. It's not like all second-generation players are fantastic, but Booker seems like a natural when ti comes to floor movement and court presence. He understands where to go and how the ball should move.
Here was my mega-dive on Booker's summer league. Yes, it's just summer league, but Booker showed us what he's all about. He's a tremendous shooter in any situation, knows where to be at all times, and has fantastic instincts with the ball that never appear to have him panic.
The battle for Booker and is playing time is going to be defense. He's a player that oozes basketball IQ, but that can only get you so far in your rookie year. Booker projects to be at least a solid defender. This isn't his prime though and even if he is a below average defender in his rookie year, he is still going to hit the dreaded "rookie wall" and it's going to hit him hard.
When it comes to his chances of playing, none of that really matters. What matters is that Booker can shoot the absolute lights out of the ball. Still not sure on that?
You with me now? The main factor for playing time here is that Booker is competing for minutes with two guys that present question marks. I'm a Sonny Weems guy, but how much of his all-around game is going to transfer to the NBA and what if he isn't at least an average defender? Wouldn't you rather have Booker making an occasional mistake on defense while providing maximum spacing and making his shots instead of Weems's contributing where he can?
Then there's Archie Goodwin and his elite skill of slashing. That simply doesn't come close to the impact of Booker's shooting and doesn't match with either point guard. When Brandon Knight is commanding his own offense with Eric Bledsoe on the bench, does it really work to have him off the ball again with a guy who gets to the rim? Eric Bledsoe needs spacing to get to the rim, so how does that work with Goodwin? What about the spacing for Goodwin when he's with Bledsoe?
Even with Weems getting a good chunk of minutes, there's still time for Booker to get on the floor. Hornacek showed off a potential stagger in the first preseason game against the Sacramento Kings when he brought Weems in for Bledsoe towards the end of the first quarter, and then brought Booker and Bledsoe in for Knight and Weems. He even played Weems and Booker together with Booker at small forward. That can work for Booker on certain nights defensively and that's what a coach like Hornacek will look for and take advantage of.
The bottom line is that Booker is going to play. Don't expect it to be right away, but don't forget about him either.
Last summer I asked if Archie Goodwin was ready for the rotation. This summer Goodwin didn't receive a good report card due to a lack of improvement and even had us bringing up his contract status. It's not that fair because Goodwin is only 21 years old and the Suns drafted him knowing that he would take some time.
As it turns out, this year's draft turned out the way it did and now Goodwin is potentially buried in the rotation during the season he should start making significant appearances.
Like I said in the report card, Goodwin's ability to attack the rim did not fall off in his transition to the NBA and even with teams knowing that's what he's going to do. He's a phenomenal attacker and nothing is going to change about that.
The evolution of him as a player is the next step for him to make an impact for the Suns and at the start of year three, it looks like we are still going to be waiting on that. He still looks too clueless to play point guard, sometimes struggles with basic plays so much that they become turnovers, and still only has one speed. He had some of the worst FG% and AST/TO numbers in the NBA last season.
That's not even touching on his defense or his shooting and that's why it's time to sound the alarm and panic. I don't think anyone doubts Goodwin's potential. NBA teams should be calling McDonough to see if he's ready to let Goodwin go. There's too much talent and development time left for his career to be in question yet. It's just been at too slow of a pace for him to make a solid NBA rotation right now and keep up with a team trying to rise to a playoff spot this season.
Booker's selection in the draft really cemented this. My take on the selection was that the Suns didn't look at Booker in the draft and say "what about Archie?" and even more so, didn't ask "well where does Archie go when Bogdan arrives, wins 9 championships, and they name the state after him?" For me personally, It looks like it's the end and not all of that is on Goodwin, which is the biggest blow. He should still see some minutes though so who knows, maybe this is the year.
How much we see of Ronnie Price is going to depend on how Hornacek staggers his two starting point guards. It looks like Hornacek will use the same stagger as last season: Bledsoe will come out first and Knight will run the offense for the remainder of the first quarter and then Bledsoe will take back the wheel at the start of the second quarter.
That staggering does not require Ronnie Price to play if Hornacek gets creative with his wings. How much Goodwin and Booker play depends on this. That means we will probably see Price every now and then, but it should not be for longer than 8-12 minutes per game.
As far as a player like Price goes, that's fine because of the players he will be playing with. Alex Len will be playing against someone he is better than basketball at most of the time he comes off the bench, T.J. Warren is a scoring machine who deserves the ball, and Mirza Teletovic and Markieff Morris are capable offensive players. Price isn't the type of player to not look for his own shot, but he has the offensive weapons around him if he so chooses.
That's still not asking too much of Price. It's what should be a minor role and shouldn't influence the game much either. Being a veteran and a persistent defender should make that true.
The most important part of Price's time on the team is his locker room presence. His teammates spoke highly of him on media day and he's just one of those people who has a positive presence. That fits right alongside Tyson Chandler's veteran role on the team and those two should really do wonders for his team's chemistry.
For me, the defining image of the preseason was seeing the entire Suns bench not only engaged, but extremely active in their cheering from the bench against the Kings. That's not something you saw much from this team unless their was a big play or it was late in the game and Suns fans should expect more of it. That's what a guy like Price brings with his energy.