The Phoenix Suns set an NBA record by playing three teenagers in the same game (and could have played a fourth if he’d been active), and watched Dragan Bender become only the fifth 18-year old to ever score 10+ points in an NBA game.
In the process, the Suns lost by 19 points and looked really bad while doing so.
Earl Watson has a passion for basketball and the psychological side of team-building as head coach of the Phoenix Suns, but he’s still a highly inexperienced coach.
Watson, just two years removed from his playing days, has spent the last several month building relationships among the players and the organization, but coaches and teams are ultimately judged on the scoreboard.
And last night’s franchise-worst 19-point loss was so frustrating that even Watson was immediately ready to upend his expected rotation.
“One thing that is visible is our second unit,” Watson said. “And in the first quarter, 16-1 run is unacceptable. Mix in the young guys in the second half, that is our second unit so now our rotation is down.”
Watson’s season-opening five-man second unit of Brandon Knight, Leandro Barbosa, P.J. Tucker, Marquese Chriss and Alex Len allowed the Kings’ second unit to finish the first quarter on a 16-1 run that had everyone questioning their world view. For the first half, the Suns bench scored only three points while the Kings reserves pumped in 30.
In the second half, Watson replaced Tucker and Barbosa with rookies Dragan Bender and Tyler Ulis for their NBA debuts. Knight, Chriss and Len rounded out the group again. The rookies’ energy on both ends of the court keyed a crowd-sparking 20-4 run, highlighted by Bender’s 8 points, with Knight and Chriss scoring 4 each.
“The momentum changed everything,” Watson said. “Our second unit, we just played young guys, let them play aggressive, let them have fun, be creative. They played with a lot of passion. It was fun to watch.”
Ulis was especially impactful on the court if not on the stat sheet. He had one of everything: one basket, assist, rebound, steal, BLOCK, TO and personal foul. But his full-court defense sparked a defense-to-offense helter-skelter game that got everyone revved up.
“They’ve got a lot of confidence in them,” Eric Bledsoe said later. “They did what they’re supposed to do: come in and change the tempo of the game. I thought Ty (Tyler Ulis) was unbelievable, Marquese, Bender, the whole young nucleus did a great job.”
With Knight, Len and Chriss being the constants in both halves, you might want to conclude that 18-year old Dragan Bender and undersized Tyler Ulis are miles better NBA players than Leandro Barbosa and P.J. Tucker. The rookies keyed a Suns 20-4 run while the vets contributed to a 1-16 run in favor of the Kings. And Watson might have greed with you in the immediate aftermath of the game.
But it’s not that simple, of course. Tucker and Barbosa were bad, to be sure, like real real bad, in that first half. And Ulis and Bender were incredi-sparks in the second half. All true. But it might be premature to jump to conclusions.
The rookies did well because by that time - a 26-point deficit - the offensive and defensive “schemes” were thrown out the window and they just played street ball. You cannot expect crazy-ball to be effective every night in the NBA.
“I just came in and tried to change the game as much as possible,” Ulis said. “I knew they wanted us to get into guys defensively, so I tried to pressure the ball, get steals, and make things happen in transition.”
The larger problem is that the Suns top 10 players - from Booker to Barbosa - looked lost on offense and weak on defense. All the off-ball action was slow-motion, non-committal and too often non-existent (screens and cuts on offense, rotations on defense). And even worse, transition defense was abysmal, mostly due to Suns players too often not even marking their man after a rebound or dead ball as the Kings just passed ahead for an easy layup. Those failures are as much on the coaching staff as on the players.
But let’s pull ourselves back and re-take a 1,000 foot view of this team after one game.
We are watching a team with more under-23s than over-23s, with two teenagers among their top eight players, trying to compete against NBA teams that love to feast on the young.
We are watching a team with a passionate but completely inexperienced coach who has not yet proven he can mold an efficient offense or defense.
We are watching a team that national pundits expected to lose two out of every three games (27-55 record).
So why are we worried about their first of likely 55 losses?
The more important takeaways from this game are:
- A win might have convinced Watson to keep playing 30-somethings Tucker, Chandler and Barbosa more minutes than the rookies and young players
- A loss, coupled with a glance at the upcoming schedule, opens the door to Bender and Ulis getting more playing time earlier in the season
- Bender and Ulis did not shy away from their first NBA action, both providing positive impact with their energy and hustle just like they showed in summer league
- Devin Booker and Marquese Chriss got figurative face-punches back to reality, but had a much better second halves which showed their constitutions are sound.
- The Suns are, as expected, still rebuilding and now it’s even more obvious to play the young guys as much as possible.
And just to remind us all that we don’t actually KNOW everything, and that making conclusions based on reactionary hindsight after each game isn’t always the best way to go...
Witness the Suns “most disappointing” rookie so far, according to most, become one of only a handful of 18-year olds to EVER score double-digits in an NBA game.
What you don’t see here is that, even in a game where he scores 10 points on 4/5 shooting, Bender’s biggest impact on the game is defensively. He can switch from a big onto a perimeter player with ease, can slide his feet well and extend his arms to interrupt passing and driving lanes.
Bender will have good nights and bad nights. Chriss will have good nights and bad nights. So will all of the Suns young guys.
So we should try not to overreact to any single game when it comes to the kids.
Early season is weird.