Brandon Knight’s tenure with the Phoenix Suns has been about as pleasant as walking around with a Samsung Galaxy Note 7 in your front pocket.
He arrived in Phoenix amid the rancor surrounding Goran Dragic’s exit from the franchise in February 2015, went down with an ankle injury that required surgery just as it appeared he was finding his groove with his new teammates, and lost a significant portion of the following season to a sports hernia, first suffered in December.
Unfortunately for Knight, he has not come close during his time in Phoenix to replicating his Milwaukee play that had him firmly on the All-Star bubble. That inability to routinely be the player he was touted as, due in no small part to health issues and chemistry woes, has made him the designated whipping boy amongst fans over the last year and a half, and now he enters this season shoehorned into a role that is altogether foreign to him — sixth man.
When it was announced at the outset of preseason that Knight would come off the bench in favor of Devin Booker, coach Earl Watson made sure to call Knight the team’s “most important player” and has since been stumping for Knight in the Sixth Man of the Year race. Still, for a player who has been a reserve for just 13 of his 328 career games and is just 24 years old, it is a difficult transition to make, saying of the move, “It’s definitely a sacrifice.”
How Knight handles the new role — both on the court and in his own mind — will be paramount in determining whether the Suns exceed expectations this season or simply set another dumpster ablaze.
Through the first three preseason games, Knight has been okay, averaging 13 points, 3.7 rebounds, and 2.3 assists in 22.7 minutes. That would put him at 17.2 points per game with a regular-season workload of 30 minutes per contest. He is also shooting 42.9 percent from the field and 40 percent (on just five attempts) from 3 — improvements over his Phoenix shooting numbers from both 2014-15 and 2015-16 but a bit of a mixed bag when compared to his first 10 games from last season (44.8 percent from the field, 38.2 percent from 3).
Just as important as his scoring, though, will be how he orchestrates the offense while in the game. The intention in moving Knight to a sixth man role was not to give him free rein to put on his best Kobe Bryant performance every night at the expense of four teammates; it was to give Knight more freedom with the ball while he acted as a stabilizer for a very young second unit. Sharing the backcourt with scoring-centric Leandro Barbosa only amplifies the need for Knight to create scoring opportunities for his teammates, but the early returns haven’t been very promising, with Knight posting an assist-to-turnover ratio of 1.0.
In Knight’s defense, the team as a whole has struggled running offense outside of Booker’s recent one-man show against Portland or Marquese Chriss’ dunks, with 41.1 percent shooting from the field and 29.4 percent from 3.
But if Knight accepts and even thrives in his new role as Phoenix’s super-sub, then far and away the issue most central in determining the outcome of his season is health. Knight has been dogged by lower body injuries during his brief Suns tenure — a nightmare for a player who relies on quickness rather than physicality on the court — and putting together a healthy season would go a long way towards revitalizing his stock as a player.
Commenting on the team getting healthy from last season’s injury fest, general manager Ryan McDonough said of Knight, “It’s the best Brandon’s looked since we’ve had him” during Media Day.
Earlier in the summer, McDonough said in another interview that “I feel like Suns fans haven’t seen the real Brandon Knight.”
“I don’t think he’s performed as well as he would like here in Phoenix, but I think everyone should be patient with him,” said McDonough. “He’s a talented young guy who works extremely hard in his game. I think he’s finally healthy.”
When right, Knight has shown himself capable of very good games and, occasionally, spectacular ones. But he has also shown himself capable of squandering the goodwill that engenders by making ill-advised decisions on the court (shot selection, turnovers) that go on to overshadow the good things he does.
He was the team’s second-leading scorer last season with a career-high 19.6 points per game as he fought through his sports hernia, but he also shot an inefficient 41.5 percent from the field and averaged 3.4 turnovers per game for just 5.1 assists. In franchise history, only Truck Robinson, Alvan Adams, and Walter Davis (twice) have had seasons with more than 3.4 turnovers per game and fewer than 5.1 assists per game.
This is what Knight enters the 2016-17 season fighting against. Can he finally let his talent shine through without obscuring it with costly errors? Can he effectively lead an inexperienced second unit while simultaneously feasting on lesser opponents in his sixth man role? Can he manage a season with Phoenix that doesn’t require placing an injury asterisk next to it?
Knight has a lot of questions to answer and a lot of responsibility heaped on his shoulders. How he responds will go a long way in determining his place with the team as it plans for the future. But one thing is certain: With trade rumors swirling, it is fair to characterize the 2016-17 season as a pivotal one for him in the Valley of the Sun.