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Suns playing rookies less in favor of wins

The Phoenix Suns only two wins this season have come with rookies largely watching from the sidelines. Does that mean they are buried now?

NBA: Preseason-Phoenix Suns at Utah Jazz Chris Nicoll-USA TODAY Sports

Less than two weeks into the 2016-17 season, Suns coach Earl Watson is already developing a reputation among the fans of being more interested in wins than player development.

In their first wins of the season, a pair of overtime thrillers, Watson leaned heavily on veterans at the expense of his rookies. P.J. Tucker played more minutes (53) than all three promising rookies combined (25). In fact, Dragan Bender and Tyler Ulis did not even take off their warmups in either game.

Watson has talked all summer and fall about the Suns being ready to win games right now while at the same time developing the youngsters enough to build a sustainable model for future winning seasons as well.

For most NBA coaches, the mantra to play for now while also building for the future is an impossible task and often one that gets you fired for failure.

To some, it appears that Watson has taken the easier road of playing his win-now players while benching most of the kiddie core.

But is that perception correct?

On some level, of course it is. He gave out DNP-CDs to two of his rookies in each of the last two games while Marquese Chriss has only averaged 12.5 minutes.

But that’s the way of the NBA. NBA teams want to put their best foot forward. Later in the season, showcasing the young players of the future. But early in the season, all teams want to win as many games as possible.

In that light, coach Watson might not be “holding back” his rookies and young players quite as much as some of you might think.

  • On opening night, the Suns set an NBA record by playing three teenagers in the same game. No NBA team had ever put three players under 20 years old on the court in a single NBA game.
  • In fact, no team had ever played three teenagers in the same SEASON before. The Suns have already done that, and still have a chance to pad their lead by calling up 19-year old Derrick Jones Jr. sometime before spring to play in a game when inevitable injuries hit.

Even factoring in the DNP-CDs for Bender and Ulis the last two games, the Suns still play their rookies more than most any other team:

  • Only Memphis (159 minutes to Wade Baldwin and Deyonta Davis) and Toronto (154 minutes to Pascal Siakam and Jakob Poeltl) have given more minutes to rookies to open the season than the Suns (153 minutes to Marquese Chriss, Dragan Bender and Tyler Ulis)
  • No other team has played three rookies at all
  • Marquese Chriss is 7th among all rookies in total minutes (90 minutes)
  • Tyler Ulis is 14th (34 minutes)
  • Dragan Bender is 15th (29 minutes)
  • All three players are also top-15 in total game appearances to start the season (6, 4 and 4 respectively)

The point I’m trying to make is that teams don’t generally start out a season with their rookies playing big minutes.

Last year, Devin Booker took a DNP-CD in three of his first six games. The year before, T.J. Warren was inactive for 8 of his first 10 NBA games and got a DNP-CD in one of the other two. It’s hard to argue that starting their NBA careers watching from the bench held either of these two back from an excellent NBA career. Warren (23) and Booker (20) are the Suns’ leading scorers early this season.

Let’s go back to comparing the Suns rookies to THIS season, across the entire NBA.

The rookie with the most playing time this season is Wade Baldwin (Memphis) at 125 minutes of court time, and the only one as young as Marquese Chriss with more court time is #2 overall pick Brandon Ingram (Lakers) with 112 minutes. Chriss is 3rd among all rookies in total rebounds and 4th in points scored. Bender and Ulis are 14th and 15th in total points scored so far.

Maybe don’t light Earl Watson on fire quite yet, at least in regards to him playing the rookies. Wait till January on that.

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