A lot of talk surrounding the Phoenix Suns this early season focuses on coach Earl Watson’s perceived over-reliance on grizzlied veterans at the expense of trotting out bright shiny new rookies.
Fans bristle over box scores with P.J. Tucker playing 40+ minutes in a loss, compared to rookie Dragan Bender’s 10 or fewer.
Or they growl over old man
Leandro Barbosa Brandon Knight’s 30+ minutes while rookie Tyler Ulis can’t get off the bench.
Over the past 10 games, three of the Suns top seven minutes-getters are 30+ year old veterans Jared Dudley, P.J. Tucker and Tyson Chandler with 80 combined minutes a game. “Old
men news” Eric Bledsoe (27) and Brandon Knight (just turned 25 this week) play 56 minutes a game as well.
At the same time, scintillating rookies Ulis, Bender and Marquese Chriss combine for less than 40. And that’s when Ulis and Bender even get off the bench (Ulis has played in 7 of the last 10 games, while Bender has played in 8 of them).
Fans complain that Watson won’t let his youngest players sink-or-swim in a rebuilding year.
Yet we should not overlook the youth that Watson IS playing.
Watson has put a lot of eggs in a basket of 20-year old Devin Booker, 19-year old Marquese Chriss and a pair of 23-year olds T.J. Warren and Alex Len.
Booker leads the team in minutes per game this season, even while nursing turf toe and ankle injuries. T.J. Warren is 3rd. Len is 7th. And Chriss is the earliest rookie starter for the franchise in many, many years.
When Watson played the youngest starting lineup in the 49-year Suns franchise history earlier this season, barely a nod was made. Bledsoe, Booker, Warren, Len and Chriss combined to average 22.4 years old.
A closer look at the rookie
years months of Chriss, Bender and Ulis is illustrative of why rookies tend to need a little time to fully acclimate to the NBA speed and power.
In October, most of us agreed that Marquese Chriss was more ready for NBA minutes than the even-younger Dragan Bender.
Chriss averaged 12.2 points and 5.5 rebounds in 25 minutes per game in preseason, while Bender produced 4 points and 4 rebounds in 22 minutes. Fans, coaches and opponents lauded Chriss’ moxie and competitiveness at such a young age.
“We’re not worried about Marquese in any type of battle, whether it’s physical or it’s basketball,” Suns coach Earl Watson said in preseason. “Marquese can hold his own. He’s a mature 19-year-old, physically and mentally.”
Chriss opened the regular season on the bench, but still produced a strong 7 points and 4 rebounds in 13 minutes per game the first two weeks before being moved unexpectedly into the starting lineup.
Since joining the starting lineup, though, Chriss has stumbled. While onlookers grumble over short minutes given to Bender and Ulis, the struggles of Chriss should provide illustration that bigger roles might not be ideal for rookies at the beginning of the career.
As a starter, Chriss has the ability to earn long minutes. If he plays well, he can stay out there. But playing well against the league’s best power forwards is not as easy as it sounds.
His minutes as a starter have vacillated from 11 to 23, with statistical highs of 16 points in 18 minutes in a bad loss to Brooklyn and 6 rebounds (against 6 fouls) in a loss to Golden State. Overall, he is averaging 6.4 points, 2.8 rebounds and 3 fouls in 16 minutes per game, for a net-rating of -16 points per 100 possessions.
“When you go to that starting five, the talent is the best in the world,” Watson said. “Marquese is getting that experience now. We feel like he’s mentally tough enough to get into that top five, and play in it every night, and mentally tough enough to get through it and overcome adversity.”
But 19 year olds aren’t always in control of their emotions. Chriss has been benched for bad decisions in the last two Suns games.
Last Sunday, Watson benched Chriss for the rest of the game after Chriss drew a technical foul for arguing. From the bench. Chriss had already collected five fouls in 10 minutes of play against Kenneth Faried and Denver’s bigs, while scoring only two points and grabbing no rebounds.
“The last game was a tough game for him,” Watson said before Wednesday’s game against Atlanta. “He had a technical that I wasn’t really pleased of. He understands the conversation we had. He gets it. He understands how to move forward and be a professional.”
Then on Wednesday, Chriss had 7 points, 2 rebounds and a steal in 13 minutes but didn’t play the rest of the game after he launched a pair of ill-advised three pointers from the angles.
“Marquese Chriss didn’t play the rest of the game because he shot an arc three,” Watson offered post game. “He’s open for a reason. He understands his role is not to shoot arc threes.”
Watson knows that the NBA is a learning experience, and that it’s up to the coach to help his players play the game the right way.
“We are not trying to build guys who have success where it’s in the moment without longevity,” Watson said. “So we want him to play a certain way, be a certain way, present himself a certain way and just play. Without any antics. That’s a part of having young guys.”
To recap. Booker, Chriss, Len and Warren (when he’s healthy) are getting all the run they can handle.
Rookies Bender and Ulis should definitely get more minutes too. Some of their limited run has to do with the roster. Ulis is blocked at the moment by Bledsoe, Knight and (to an extent) Booker and Barbosa. Bender is blocked by Tucker, Warren, Dudley and Chriss. By February, the roster could look a lot different.
But the plight of Marquese Chriss should be a lesson for them in the meantime.
“Marquese is just 19. He’s playing at a level where you’re playing the top players in the world, in the starting five,” Watson said. “It’s hard to explain until actually live it. But when you come off the bench and you play against second-tier guys, the talent is just maybe one step down. And sometimes you have one or two guys who could start in that starting five.”
Chriss played better than either of the other rookies when he was going against second units. Now getting a bigger role shows he needs time to adjust. Bender and Ulis would need adjustment time too, if given bigger roles.
It’s a long season. All the young players will get their turn. In the meantime, Watson is finding time for guys where he can.