After one day one thing is quite clear: Earl Watson is not Jeff Hornacek. And the Phoenix Suns players, at least in the short-term, totally bought in to what Earl brings to the table.
Watson is admittedly inexperienced on the sidelines. He's only two years removed from a 13-year career as a backup point guard. But after less than two seasons on the periphery of coaching (D-League assistant, then player development coach), Watson finds himself leading a young Suns team for the final 33 games of the season.
Watson has decided clearly that his contribution will be to make the Suns a family atmosphere.
"It's not really physical with our team," Watson said after the game. "It's more mental and mental toughness is a fragile, unique path that you have to take. I think for our team we have to build it slowly, build it with love, and nurturing because we have been through a lot this year."
Listen to Watson's first post game news conference.
True, the Suns have shown some weaknesses in the area of mental fortitude.
Hornacek's biggest problem was an inability to adjust to, and feed, the fragile nature of his players' psyches. Hornacek just expected his players to have their own drive, and rarely coddled them. Apparently, they needed coddling all along.
Markieff Morris, shooting only 40% this season and generally playing like his shoes were injected with concrete, came out last night looking like he'd been shot out of a cannon. Morris had 14 points and 5 rebounds in the first quarter alone, ending with 30 points (season high), 11 rebounds and 6 assists for the game.
"He is the main focus of our offense moving forward, we know that," Watson said of Morris, who'd spent more time on the bench than on the floor all year. "That's part of talking about your role with this team, he went out there every play and that was his role, to lead us. He accepted that."
"It's a tough situation for him," Watson continued. "But as the coach and the teacher of the team, I love him. So I love him, we nurture him, we embrace him, we help him grow even while he is here no matter what and the thing about when you lead teams, it becomes lifelong relationships so it's bigger than basketball for me."
All this sounds great, and yes players need to buy into the team, the scheme and their franchise in order to play with a clear mind and heart. When you're playing with a clear mind, you're going to be successful.
Morris seemed happy about it, though I didn't get to talk to him myself because the entire team waited more than 30 minutes after Watson's presser to even leave the shower area. When you're putting Markieff Morris in charge of the locker room as a leader, you're going to get this kind of behavior.
When we were all still standing there in an empty locker room after the clock rolled past 10pm, while the PR folks were mumbling and shaking their heads in frustration and apologizing to us, and knowing that once they DID come out they'd take another 10-15 minutes to dress just to make us wait as long as possible, I decided it wasn't in my best interest to coddle to that. I've got a job to wake up to first thing in the morning. So I left.
But thankfully, Paul Coro and others stayed, and got a chance to talk to the man of the hour who went from doghouse to castle in 24 hours. And, the awesome Suns PR staff transcribed and sent me and the other media snippets of interviews so I can at least cobble together this recap.
Let's hear Markieff Morris on Watson's approach.
"I think I heard over 20 times today how much faith he had in me," he said of Watson.
On appreciating how Watson went to him first.
"Just putting it out there," Morris said. "I think that's as it should be: addressing that from the get-go. He's a brand new coach, it's his first game and that was one of the first things he did. He addressed everybody's roles and let everybody know what was going to happen."
And now let's hear about how Markieff feels about being the focal point.
"I feel like my confidence is always there," Morris said. "We changed the offense a little bit. Coach (Watson) told me that we were going to me a lot more, so I kind of knew where I was going to get the ball at and I was picking my spots well."
Shooting guard Devin Booker confirmed the change in the team's focal point.
"Playing through Markieff a lot," he said of the new offense. "We have a couple of sets, a lot of different options off of it. We're just trying to play the game, but we're still learning and practice tomorrow is going to be good for us."
How did Earl Watson decide Markieff was his bread and butter?
"I don't know how I pick a lot of things," Watson said of his decision to lean on Morris. "It's just a feel and I had a feeling if I gave him positive encouragement and let him know that no matter what we love him no matter what happens beyond basketball and give him an opportunity to play and let him know he is going to play, he is going to play big minutes. Just kind of communicate with him and just... You know, some things are bigger than basketball so when you reach out beyond basketball players tend to respond well."
Enough on Morris.
Let's turn to the Sun with the brightest future: Devin Booker. New coach Earl Watson is leaning heavily on Booker as well.
"I told him he is going to be our second option," Watson said of Booker. "And he needed to step up and he came and he stepped up. He hit some big shots, took some big shots, took some questionable shots, but that's the evolution of Devin Booker."
Booker understood the pressure and scored 27 points, including 18 on three-pointers alone, along with grabbing 5 rebounds.
"It means a lot that Coach (Watson) has confidence like that," Booker said. "Markieff is our dominant scorer, you've seen that tonight. Markieff is really talented. I like playing through him also, so he's not only a good scorer but he's really unselfish. He gets everybody involved also. We were just out there; we changed up the offense a lot. We're still learning but most importantly, we just got to come out there and play with energy."
Booker iterated that the changes in the offense were primarily to feed Markieff in the post and let Morris make decisions from there, to either make a scoring pass, kick the ball back out, or shoot it himself.
Last night, it worked well and the Suns put together 97 points despite missing their top three scorers on the season. Eric Bledsoe (21 ppg) and T.J. Warren (11 ppg) are out for the season now, and Brandon Knight (19 pgg) won't be back until after the All-Star break sometime.
So the offense has to run through Morris and Booker.
The guy feeding them is Archie Goodwin, who figures to get some easy assists just being the feeder. Archie doubled his previous career high in assists with 12, and notched his first double-double of his career with 18 points to go along with the assists.
Watson is a big fan of Goodwin too.
"He played well," Watson said. "Archie is a unique player. I don't think you can compare him to anyone in the league or that played in the league."
This is an important distinction because Watson already spent some time Wednesday mentioning Kobe Bryant and Kevin Durant in relation to Booker. Yet, Watson couldn't resist a big time comp a few seconds later, mentioning Gary Payton.
"[Archie] is unique that the skill that he can do, he can go out at the one, two, or three and he can run the offense, initiate the offense and he creates havoc. He has like a wire strength that reminds me a lot of Gary Payton, the way he is built. He looks slim, but he is really strong so he has a lot of core strength and we'll continue to build his confidence because Archie has a bright future, he is a young player."
Here's your focal point the rest of the season, folks.
Archie Goodwin (21 years old), Devin Booker (19) and the relative wily veteran Markieff Morris (26) will be your top scorers at least until the trade deadline.
While Markieff Morris made some nice comments about missing coach Hornacek and insisting his best game of the season had nothing to do with winning any war of wills with Hornacek, I really liked what Devin Booker had to say about the firing of his first coach.
"I feel like it is our fault," Booker said. "You can't blame everything on the coach. We weren't coming out there, we weren't playing with energy, and we weren't playing with passion. Coach (Hornacek) was a great coach for us and I hope he has a great career. I'm sure there are places for him [elsewhere], he is that good of a coach. We just have to look ourselves in the mirror in the sometimes, look like it could be us."
I really hope Booker's mindset doesn't change as a result of the newly reconstituted influence in the locker room. I love this kid's outlook and mindset just the way it is.