The Phoenix Suns franchise is once again at a crossroads. Almost lost in all the shuffle of players and coaches over the last several years is that the current team has some intriguing young talent that will get a good chance to shine for the rest of the season.
When you're 12-21, it's time to play the kids.
Back in 2013, that meant giving more time to rookie Kendall Marshall (21), second year player Markieff Morris (23) and the pair of castoffs from other teams: Michael Beasley (23) and Wesley Johnson (25). That's what youth the 2013 Suns had when they fired Alvin Gentry with a 13-28 record in mid-January. Of that group, none were considered future stars or even NBA starters. Only Markieff Morris developed into a strong NBA player. Marshall, Beasley and Johnson were all released or traded that summer in a roster purge.
This time, the Suns have more developing youth on the roster. Using age 24 as a cutoff (sorry Cory Jefferson), the Suns have Brandon Knight (just turned 24), Alex Len (22), T.J. Warren (22), Archie Goodwin (21) and Devin Booker (19). Three are now starters, and all but Goodwin have regular rotation spots sewn up.
"It's still a loss," coach Hornacek said after the game. "But it's encouraging that we're without Eric, we're out there a lot of the time with Alex and Devin and TJ, some of our young guys, that's a good effort. You can't fault that."
In last night's close loss to the Cavaliers - that could have been a win if Tyson Chandler hadn't been called for a moving screen on Knight's three with 46 seconds left - the kids played well.
Brandon Knight makes a lot of knucklehead plays at the end of games, to be sure, and shoots the ball too often. But at a young age, he's already a 20-point scorer in the NBA and will get the chance to lead the Suns as the primary point guard for the next few months.
Last night, he scored 18 points (on 18 shots) and had 4 assists as the primary scoring threat on the floor most of the time and nearly made the game-deciding three. But he also missed a layup and kicked a loose ball out of bounds in the closing seconds too.
Let's remember he's still developing as an NBA player. Knight is still one of only 4 NBA players in the past five seasons to put up his numbers at such a young age (only Russell Westbrook, James Harden and Stephen Curry were 24 or younger).
The young center is now the regular starter and getting better every month. He's still got good nights and bad nights, but he learning and shows the skillset of a future NBA starter. Still just 22, Len has a long career ahead of him.
Last night, he was only 1-5 from the field but grabbed 7 rebounds and made 3-4 FTs to help the Suns win the board game.
On the season, he's outplayed Tyson Chandler and will continue to get the bulk of the minutes especially when he's engaged and active.
T.J. Warren was aggressive from the moment he stepped onto the court. He was the Suns leading scorer in the second quarter (10 points) and fourth quarter (13 points) when the game hung in the balance.
"I just wanted to come out and be aggressive," he said. "Been a little up and down recently so I just wanted to get back into my rhythm and just continue to be aggressive when I'm out there and continue to play hard."
Overall, he made 9 of 15 shots, including 4 of 5 threes, to give the Suns a chance to win the game. Warren is a prolific scorer who just needs to learn to play better defense to get more minutes and become an eventual NBA starter.
"I thought he was aggressive going for rebounds," Hornacek said of Warren. "He got a couple offensive rebounds, he's got great hands, so when he can get those balls tipped up there. He'll continue to get better on the defensive end."
But it's the offense that the Suns need the most.
"That's what we think TJ can do for us," Hornacek said. "He can be that kind of scorer who can get you some buckets and drive a guy. And a lot of times, that looks like a wild shot, but that's like a normal shot for him."
Here's his post game interview.
I've got to tell you, it's possible that Devin Booker becomes the best of these young players in the very near future. He's got a high bar to meet with Knight on the same team, but Booker just oozes potential every minute he's on the court.
In his first regular start replacing Eric Bledsoe for the next two months, Booker made three quick shots to open the game and then let the game come to him the rest of the time.
Teams are already realizing you can't leave Booker out there alone on the perimeter, a key to helping the Suns space and pace game.
"He's trying to make the right plays," Hornacek said of Booker after the game. "There were a couple of them that we tried to run for him, but they're a smart team. The guy's made a few shots, they're going to try to blast through the screen and not let him get one off. I thought he made the right play. He came off once, and made a nice pass to the open man, and that's what we're looking for."
Booker made 5 of 6 shots on the night and made some really heady plays on offense, but he's got a long way to go on defense. The Cavaliers guard lit him up much of the night from deep, especially J.R. Smith who looked like he made all 18 of the Cavaliers' threes.
Not sure what's going on here, but Archie Goodwin is just simply not in the Suns plans. Hornacek got Sonny Weems regular minutes the last two games, and talked about getting Bryce Cotton into the game, but never mentioned Archie.
Archie has certainly been passed up by Booker, but it seems that he could play good minutes in place of Sonny Weems at the least. Weems has been a non-factor in his minutes this season. I'm sure Hornacek is hoping for some veteran predictability from Weems (29) behind Booker, but Weems has to step up his productivity to keep his role.
Hornacek and Tucker
We close this aftermath with some comments from coach Hornacek and forward P.J. Tucker, who were the most downtrodden of everyone after that Sixers loss on Saturday night if you recall.
Watch their post-Cavs interviews and you'll see some encouraging reactions.
Hornacek was particularly pleased with the engagement of the fans at the game. While many were Cavaliers fans, the Suns faithful were just as loud at the end of the game as any time in the past couple of years. On Knight's three (later waved off) to put the Suns up, the crowd went wild. And even before that, they were cheering and loud throughout the second half.
"The fans have always been great for us and they want us to do well," Hornacek said. "They saw the guys playing hard and having a chance to win, and they were into it for that reason. That's nice to see that they're still behind the guys."
And now P.J. Tucker. This interview is an exclusive for Bright Side. (ie. no one joined me when I grabbed Tucker in the locker room)
Tucker was encouraged that the Suns played the right way, passing the ball and getting good shots all night long. He said the changes that really need to be made are by the players, playing for each other and playing the right way going forward.
After scoring 10 points and grabbing 7 rebounds against the Sixers, Tucker had 14 points, 6 rebounds, 3 steals and 2 assists against the Cavaliers. He was a bundle of energy and helped the Suns stay in the game.