Just how young ARE this year’s Phoenix Suns?
They have to be pretty young, right?
The Phoenix Suns have four of the league’s 13 youngest players on their roster. Dragan Bender is the league’s youngest, having just turned 19 last month. He is the youngest player to enter the league since the Greek Freak in 2013, and second-youngest since the league raised the minimum age in 2007.
Marquese Chriss is 4th youngest in the league this year, and second-year guard Devin Booker is still 13th youngest at just over 20 years old. 15th man Derrick Jones Jr., who doesn’t turn 20 until next month, gives the Suns four of the league’s youngest 13 players.
And we haven’t even talked about just-turned 21 year old point guard Tyler Ulis, last year’s SEC Player of the Year, SEC Defensive Player of the Year and consensus first team All-American, or 23-year “old” rotational starters T.J. Warren and Alex Len.
That’s more than half the roster dedicated to some of the league’s youngest players.
Yet somehow, the Suns are still old.
They are only the league’s 11th youngest team based average age of players on the roster and, worse yet, play a good bit “older” than that.
Many fans have lamented coach Watson relying too much on his veterans early this season at the expense of the younger players, yet not getting the wins out of it that playing the older guys would justify. The Suns now sit at 8 wins against 20 losses, the 4th worst record in the league.
A look at the Suns’ playing age, the age of players on the roster weighted by minutes played, shows that Watson is indeed putting his eggs in an old basket.
Despite giving 20-year old Booker the second-most minutes on the team, these Suns are the oldest team the franchise has fielded in many years.
Five of the top seven minutes-getters are 25 or older. Sure, T.J. Warren’s injury has compounded the problem. After leading the Suns in minutes out of the gate this season, Warren has missed nearly half his team’s games with a minor head injury.
Making the team older is the presence of Tyson Chandler, Leandro Barbosa, P.J. Tucker and Jared Dudley. As an average, the team has more NBA experience than any Suns team in recent memory, but it’s all concentrated in four guys that rarely share the court as a foursome.
As of December 13 when I looked at the stats, Barbosa, Dudley and Tucker have played 119 minutes together for a +34 on the scoreboard. That was the most minutes given to any three-man combo among those four 30+ year old guys at that point.
Watson is trying to mix and match his oldest, but most predictable, players with the younger guys to try to keep the team competitive while playing 2-3 kids at a time. Booker appears in all the most-used lineups this year. Warren would as well, except for his injury, and Chriss is now a full-time starter.
Obviously, Eric Bledsoe and Brandon Knight break these themes. They are the only true mid-career veterans (27 and 25 years old, respectively) on the team with 5+ years in the NBA and 5+ peak years left.
A quick look at the playing rotation from the three prior years of the McDonough era shows that the Suns are not getting any younger on the court.
Every one of those prior teams had a better record than this year’s team as of mid-December.
Watson often laments his young team needing more experience closing out games, yet isn’t playing any younger than Hornacek’s teams. This year’s Suns have more playing experience, collectively, than any iteration of a McDonough team in recent memory.
Let’s compare the Suns’ average “playing age” to that of the league’s four youngest rosters.
The Wolves are clearly the youngest team in terms of “playing age”, boosted by their three top minutes-getters being 21 year olds, including two recent #1 overall picks.
The surprise team among the four youngest rosters would be the way-above-500 Thunder, but that’s been true for many years in OKC thanks to young stars in Westbrook, Ibaka and Durant. This year, the Thunder reloaded with youth when Kevin Durant left, and have given more minutes to their three rookies than the Suns have given their own, and yet still have a winning record thanks almost entirely to one player: Russell Westbrook.
Two other Western Conference teams get regularly discussed as having young rosters, but similarly are giving a bulk of playing time to older players as well. Three of the Nuggets top minute-getters, and 5 of the top 7 overall, are 27 or older while youth struggles for minutes. The Lakers play four 30+ year old players among their top 8 in minutes.
Yet still, both teams are playing younger than the Suns so far.
Turning the tide
The Suns are likely to go younger as the season goes along. The question is when.
“Let’s not bury Dragan Bender and Marquese Chriss and play the veterans 40 minutes a night to get it,” GM McDonough told Bright Side of them trying to win enough games to stay in the playoff hunt.
I noted yesterday that McDonough thinks playoff-bound teams will be picking up reinforcements early this year. Could Tucker and others be gone soon?
Giving significant minutes to Tyler Ulis and Dragan Bender would require some roster subtractions, but should be done to allow the Suns to see if these guys can be part of a future core together as a team or if they need to be split up.
We don’t know yet if Ulis and Booker can survive in a back court in the NBA together. Or if Bender and Chriss can play the big positions together in a winning formula. And can all four of them play together?
We need to know the answers to these questions by the end of this year, and the sooner we get started the better.
But that doesn’t mean just throwing 40 minutes a night at each of them. While the Suns have clearly decided to rebuild through the draft, it feels like this young core is a year away from being a year away. Bender, Chriss and Jones are all 19, and Booker is only 20. The Wolves, whose best players are all 21 years old, are still losing way too many games at 8-19 overall - only a half-game better than these Suns.
The Suns don’t want to kill these players’ competitive spirit by saying it’s okay to play like a 19 year old, it’s okay to make mistake after mistake, and we’ll bench the pros so you can do that. Because then they get used to losing. Some of the Sixers’ and Magic’s problems are that their young players are used to the process. They are used to getting minutes without producing wins. And they haven’t had enough veteran influences around them to show them how to do that.
McDonough sums up the team’s 2016-17 hopes and dreams in one sentence.
“If we can have those young players develop and improve,” McDonough said to Bright Side, “and also make the playoffs or hang in the playoff race until the end so they’re playing meaningful games and playing valuable minutes in pressurized situations, we view that as a good thing long term and short term.”
The Suns want these kids to succeed. But to the Suns, succeeding means being competitive and learning how to excel in a pressure situation rather than while losing by 20+ points every night.
The recent changes to the Collective Bargaining Agreement have even further solidified the need to get the draft right, and then develop those kids right. You need that nucleus first, and then you can supplement through free agency. Not the other way around. All those loopholes have been largely filled in now. The league has made it much, much more likely to keep your drafted players as long as you want them, rather than see them bolt in free agency.
Do the Suns have the makings of that nucleus right now? Who knows. They need to find a way to get experience for these teenagers without killing their spirit or getting them inured to losing.
“I think you’ll see a lot better team in April than you do today,” McDonough said of the Suns’ thinking. He knows that only happens if the kids develop properly.
Head coach Earl Watson knows it too.
“Our veterans are who they are,” Watson told Zach Lowe recently. “The only room to grow is through the young guys. Their development is better than a trade. It can happen at any time. Dragan [Bender] is getting better. Marquese [Chriss] is getting better. Tyler Ulis ... we just have too many guys.”
McDonough needs to clear the roster just a little bit, for all of our sakes.
And at some point, Watson needs to shift the minutes distribution a little more to the young side.