Summer League is a glorious time during the basketball calendar where the entire league -- both team personnel and media -- flock to Las Vegas to trade jabs over shots of tequila about who handed out the most trash contract throughout the last week and a half. Upstart rookies get their first opportunity to strut their stuff in front of peers, executives, and a national audience in some cases. The games are played in a scrum-like setting where general admission reigns supreme and fans hang over you like your mom the first time you have a girl over to "watch a movie."
Hope springs eternal for most franchises -- either because of new free agents signings, draftees, trade acquisitions, or all of the above. This year's festivities are likely to be hampered to some degree, as the Golden State Warriors' brass are going to be leered at and maybe even shunned for an extended period of time. There is not as much hope to be had when another franchise is simply light years ahead of everyone else.
The Suns head into Summer League with one of the more intriguing rosters within the circuit, headlined by Devin Booker, Dragan Bender, Marquese Chriss, and Tyler Ulis.
Last year's Suns SL entrant boasted T.J. Warren, Alex Len and Archie Goodwin along with rookie Devin Booker as Nate Bjorkgren led the SummerSuns to the championship game. Warren was head and shoulders above the competition, but Len played just a little too small and Archie played just a little too Archie.
12-year old Devin Booker was fun and refreshing, and he got lots of ready-to-play headlines, but the SummerSuns second best player was Mike James, who now rocks it overseas. And their third best might have been lumbering but long-range shooting Josh Harrelson.
This year's storylines
This year, the Suns come loaded again. The only returnee from last year is Devin Booker, and he likely only contributes in one or two games after setting rookie records. But adding him to the Suns' three rookies gives me more excitement than I've had in years.
Len and Goodwin both aged out of SL (in NBA years). Warren would have been eligible, but he likely would not have played his third SL if he'd stayed healthy all year. SL is for guys with something to prove, and a 22-year old Warren scoring 11-15 points per game in his second season doesn't really need SL anymore. It's a damn shame we broke his foot in January. Would have been a little less ugly to watch Warren get a ton of touches as the season wore down.
We are all coming to watch the great unknowns...
- Can Dragan Bender actually play basketball? The unicorn will actually come out of the shadows over the next week, getting tons of run as a 3/4 in a big Suns lineup. Coach Nate talks excitedly (of course, that's the only way Nate talks) about the 7'1" Bender's ability to handle the ball, run the pick and roll, and create offense. He might be the league's longest playmaker.
- Can Marquese Chriss actually play basketball? While Bender supposedly gets by on skills and silky smooth moves, Chriss plays above the rim whenever possible with highlight dunks and swats. But can he actually play? He's talked about his short basketball career being full of starting poorly and finishing strong. In high school, he almost got cut from his first team. In college, he almost fouled out of every game his first two months. But in each case he finished strong. SL might be a bit of a disappointment for Chriss fans.
- Can Bender and Chriss co-exist? This is a huge huge question, and one the Suns pray can be answered with a yes. On paper, they seem to have complementary skills. Chriss is more of a finisher and high flyer, while Bender is more of a table setter with passing skills that make him unique at his height. Both can score in multiple ways, and both have the feet to defend any front court position, including small forwards. They will get a lot of time together in SL. Let's see how it looks.
- Can Tyler Ulis stay in one piece? Much has been made of Ulis' slight frame (149 pounds), with comments that he might break in half trying to run through screens on defense. So Ulis gets a chance here to show he knows how to get the best use out of his size, and contribute anyway. It shall be interesting to see how he copes.
- Does anyone else surprise us enough to make the Suns roster? Four years ago, P.J. Tucker parlayed a great SL into a fine NBA career. Since then, the Suns have not found any gems but other teams have discovered plenty of talent that they carried into the season. I'm curious to see what happens with the rest of the roster.
Though those guys are getting most of the attention, there are still plenty of other bodies that require recognition, which is why you all are lucky to have me at your disposal.
Let's look at the roster.
Bender enters Summer League unheralded and anxious to finally make his way onto the court after not getting too much playing time overseas. He expects to get a lot of run alongside fellow newcomer Chriss, and how that pairing fares playing together is perhaps the most important narrative for the Suns.
The brother of our own Booker, Askia was selected with the 11th overall pick in the 2015 NBA D-League Draft. During the 2015-16 season, Askia averaged a cool 12.8 points and 3.5 assists on 46 percent shooting from the field. Those numbers are efficient, but it will be difficult for the other Booker to win a spot on the roster given the army of talent Phoenix already has locked up in their backcourt.
You know enough about this guy already, right? Book is slated to play in the first game against the Portland Trail Blazers, but anything beyond that is unknown to this point due to his participation with USA Basketball.
A Summer League veteran, Brown will be looking to crack the Suns roster after playing in Spain last season. The 7-footer has a saucy shooting stroke that is reminiscent of Ryan Anderson in my opinion, but he will need to show his worth in other facets of the game to get a real look from the front office towards making the final cut.
Bryson is far from a highly touted prospect, but that does not mean that he cannot do some useful things. He exhibits a pristine shooting stroke -- holding the ball high and releasing rather quickly. He is a good kind of goofy, displaying a certain aura of confidence while shooting and an equally menacing disdain with himself if the ball does not tickle the twine. Again, it will be difficult for him to crack the Suns' backcourt, but he could possibly make some waves because of his shooting.
I can't wait for the first time we see Chriss get loose off of a back screen and receive an alley oop from Ulis. Dude might hit his head on the backboard before he leaves town. My interest lies with seeing how Chriss responds to playing five on five at a professional level, and whether or not he has more tricks up his sleeve other than his athleticism. The man has had a great showing on the shoe game front thus far, so I can't help but have confidence in him.
Cooke went undrafted in the 2015 Draft, and will be fighting like hell to make an impression on an NBA team after an unimpressive showing in the D-League last season. Standing at 6-foot-9, Cooke has nice size for a wing, but he will need to improve his shooting to make a dent towards the NBA.
Coming off of a scary brain surgery, Kuric managed to only appear in 13 games in Spain last season, averaging 9.5 points on 50 percent shooting from the floor and 44 percent from behind the arc. Obviously, the man can shoot it, and it is a remarkable story that he is even still chasing his NBA dream after such a traumatic circumstance.
After playing under Coach Becky Hammon and the reigning Summer League champion San Antonio Spurs last summer, Scott hopes to bring the same kind of magic to the Suns. He is known for having a defensive mentality after ranking second in Ohio State history with 211 steals, so do not be surprised to see him and Ulis harass some fools in the backcourt.
Despite going undrafted in the 2014 Draft, Solomon is an impressive rebounder and has shown a potency for going up and getting the ball when warranted. He will be battling Chriss and Bender for minutes in the front court, but I have a feeling that Solomon is going to impress some people with his play.
It is no surprise that Ulis has been the last man shooting on the court after each of the Summer League practices that have transpired. What he lacks in size, he makes up with smarts, toughness, and a knack for making plays when the team is in need. Ulis has the mentality of a leader, and I hope we get to see that side of him come out in Vegas.
I am itching to see what Williams looks like when given extended run to show off his skill set. It is hard to not feel good for a guy who worked his way over from China to earn himself a multi-year contract in the league. Williams' per 36 numbers are pretty gaudy, and he will be called on to help the Summer Suns control the glass while Bender and Chriss align themselves with the professional game. Dude is a menace on the boards, snatching anything and everything in his sight.
The other Williams on the squad went undrafted in this year's NBA Draft, but will get a look this summer nonetheless. Teams will be intrigued by the way he attacks the glass from the wing (he kind of overlaps with Williams), and it will be important for him to show a consistent outside shot to really draw the eye of scouts.
*All times are within the Phoenix time zone.
- Saturday, July 9th: Suns vs Trail Blazers @ 1pm -- NBA TV
- Sunday, Jul 10th: Suns vs Celtics (!!!) @ 7:30pm -- ESPN2
- Tuesday, July 12th: Suns vs Heat @ 3:30pm -- NBA TV
The Suns will play at least two more games as they embark on a round-robin tournament that could last through next Monday if they keep winning. Scheduling is determined after every team plays their first three games.
Note from Owen: Along with Dave King, I will be here for you all to cover the hectic Summer League action the best way I know how: down $200 at the black jack table.
Note from Dave: Down only $200? Heck, I managed that in an hour that time I was in Vegas. Bright Side has you covered for SL, kids! Owen and I are there for games one and two. Owen stays for game three (and more gambling losses). Then Keith covers the playoff action!