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Phoenix Suns kiddie core still leads league in minutes for 20-and-unders

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While Suns fans fret over rookie playing time, the Suns still give more minutes to their youngest players than any other team.

NBA: Phoenix Suns at Portland Trail Blazers Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

One thing becoming abundantly clear is that, once the ball game tips off, Phoenix Suns head coach Earl Watson loses himself in his competitiveness and insatiable desire to win games.

Watson has great intentions to play his young players, which include two teenagers, three rookies, three players too young to legally drink alcohol in the U.S. (age 21), and eight players too young to rent a convertible in most states (age 25).

But once that ball floats in the air for the opening possession, all bets are off for Watson.

Case in point: down 19 in the third quarter to the Nuggets on Wednesday night should have prompted a kiddie parade. Instead, Watson benched rookies Dragan Bender and Tyler Ulis, and barely played rookie Marquese Chriss, in favor of 30-somethings Jared Dudley, P.J. Tucker, Tyson Chandler and Leandro Barbosa in an ill-fated attempt to close the deficit.

Watson appears to have even tried to outsmart himself by moving three of his young players into the starting lineup. At least Devin Booker (20 years old), T.J. Warren (23) and Marquese Chriss (19) get some guaranteed run before Watson wrings his hands and calls on the vets if things go bad.

He even made Chriss the long-term starter one game after playing him only 2 minutes off the bench.

Watson has fully committed to Booker and Warren, naming each to the starting lineup on a permanent basis ahead of their veteran counterparts (Brandon Knight and P.J. Tucker, respectively). Each is among the top 26 players in the league in minutes played per game at 35.3 and 34.7 minutes per game respectively. Warren’s minutes have dropped a bit recently along with his play, but he’s still getting plenty of run.

The long-term move of Marquese Chriss to the starting lineup ahead of Jared Dudley has not had the same effect on his minutes. He’s averaging 16.3 minutes per game as a starter (5 games) versus 13.1 as a reserve (7 games), but his plus-minus as a starter is an awful -21 points per 100 possessions.

But Chriss is lucky compared to his rookie peers. Dragan Bender and Tyler Ulis have been scrapping for minutes all season so far as Watson scratches his itch to call on veterans from the bench as the game goes along.

Bender’s minutes have been highly inconsistent, ranging from 23 minutes against Portland a week ago to 2 minutes against Denver on Wednesday night. But at least Bender gets into most games. Ulis has gotten minutes in only 5 of the Suns 12 games so far versus Bender’s 9 of 12.

Some of this is Watson’s competitive fire, but some is also just early-season positioning.

Watson can’t just tell his veterans, two weeks into the season, that they are going to spend the next four months riding the bench to watch a series of 20-point losses.

Watson’s already made Knight, Tucker and Dudley bite the bullet to give up their starting jobs. He at least has to give them a chance at solid bench minutes to show their worth to the Suns and the league.

I personally am not going to worry about how many minutes Tucker, Dudley, Knight, Barbosa and Chandler are getting until the trade deadline has come and passed.

As it is, the Suns are losing games anyway. The most likely outcome of this season was a 50+ losses and a high draft pick once again - in a good draft for point guards - and Watson is doing nothing to negatively impact that outcome with unnecessary wins.

By February, I am virtually certain we will see Ulis, Bender and Chriss all joining Booker and Warren for 20+ minutes per game every night. We might even see Derrick Jones Jr. a bit this year too.

Just take this to heart for now:

The Suns ARE playing young players, even though it’s not as much as you want them to.

No team in the NBA has played 20-and-unders more minutes than the Suns’ have played Booker, Bender and Chriss (646 minutes). Note: Tyler Ulis is now 21 years old.

If you make it a 21-and-under comp, the Nuggets (Mudiay, Jokic, Murray, Beasley and Hernangomez) and Timberwolves (Wiggins, Jones, LaVine and Towns) have a ton more minutes than the Suns’ kiddie core, even adding Ulis in.

A 22-and-under threshold adds the Lakers into the mix, with Julius Randle, Brandon Ingram and D’Angelo Russell getting big minutes along with Zubac cameos. Boston also slips in there at the 22-and-under group, playing six guys at least a few minutes this year. Denver jumps up to SEVEN players 22-and-under, adding Harris and Jurkic. And of course Milwaukee has Parker and Giannis at 22. Orlando and the Sixers also get into the more-minutes-than-the-Suns-kids mix at this threshold.

But before you eat your liver, imagine a year from now when the Suns next high draft pick gets minutes along with “veterans” Booker, Ulis, Bender and Chriss in a Suns 21-and-under crew.

Until then, or at least until February, we get to watch just a little too much of 30-somethings trying to win games.