With nine players aged 24 and younger, including three teenagers likely to make the regular season rotation, the Phoenix Suns are in the throes of a rebuilding period that could potentially be starting its rise out of the ashes.
That rise will not be easy. And it’s quite possible the Suns don’t yet have the necessary firepower to even begin the ascent. Yet, they will enter the 2016-17 season with more collective hope for the future than in any year since the mid-2000s.
The Suns won’t go entirely young, though, like the Sixers have done for years now. At the forward positions, the opening night starting lineup will likely include at least two 30+ year old veterans, Jared Dudley and P.J. Tucker, allowing young players to grow into their roles as they show a readiness to handle the minutes. T.J. Warren, in his third season and already a proven scorer (11 points per game last year), will be the first small forward off the bench.
So how much will the old forwards play over the younger guys like Marquese Chriss, Dragan Bender and T.J. Warren?
“It’s early August and this is a question that cannot be answered in August,” coach Earl Watson said in a one-on-one interview with Bright Side over the weekend.
Those opening remarks were only a prelude to a long discussion about the complexities involved in playing time for rookies, especially teenagers.
Watson began by describing a workout session with Marquese Chriss last Thursday, where he and a half dozen of his coaches were all on the court running Chriss through drills. He’s sees the entire staff, including himself, as teachers who span all the duties from player development to game planning to execution.
At one point during that workout, Chriss made a play that Watson had never seen before in all his years of basketball. He says Chriss shows a special ability to finish with power but yet execute a move with grace. He did not describe the exact move, but I still remember Chriss’ welcome party to Summer League. He drove down the right side of the lane, hard-stopped and spun into the paint while keeping the dribble, and then finished at the rim while his defender was unable to react. The whole gym gasped. A 6’10”, 235 lb. player is not supposed to be able to move like that.
Chriss and fellow forward Dragan Bender are especially talented. But as we saw with Alex Len and Archie Goodwin’s array of talents and little idea how to use them to this point, the key is getting those talents to display on the court in a consistent, positive manner. So many players fail to reach their potential for a myriad of reasons from focus to effort to coaching to heath to opportunity.
“You can put all the right people on the bus that you want, but if you don’t put them in the right seat, in the right roles, it’s not going to work,” Watson said.
“I’m on the court a lot as far as a head coach because I really do believe the player development coaching is very important,” Watson said. “Because if you can really get them to execute a certain skill or a style of play, it makes it easy to create plays moving forward.”
Watson knows he needs to play Chriss and Bender next year, and that his coaching staff’s responsibility is to put them in positions to succeed.
At the same time, he will not limit them to only one or two skills in their early years. He won’t pigeon-hole them into a certain role while potentially leaving some other skills dormant.
“We have hybrids in Marquese Chriss and Dragan Bender who are unique enough they can play on the perimeter, run a pick and roll, shoot a three, pass the ball, hit a jump shot, finish at the rim,” he said. “You don’t really see that and with those guys being so young I have no right to take that ability away. They have the capability and the tools.
“Which means the offense, the development, and throughout the season, is gonna have to be very fluid in their growth. Because we don’t know how quick either one of them are going to grow into more playing time.”
It’s easy to want to throw a player out there for big minutes and just see what happens. But you don’t always know how it will turn out, and sometimes too much too soon, especially in the wrong situation, can hurt the future of that player.
The Suns did that with Devin Booker last year and appear to have hit a home run despite his poor shooting percentages. But when they tried it with Archie Goodwin in midseason and then Alex Len after the All-Star break, those players did not show the same promise.
Some of that disappointment came from playing Goodwin and Len out of their natural positions, a necessary byproduct after a slew of injuries. Goodwin is not a point guard and Len is not a power forward.
On the good side, now we and the Suns know not to give them minutes outside their natural positions, shooting guard and center respectively, in the future. But on the bad side, neither has a certain future with the Suns either. Playing so much out of position last year just to get them big minutes may have hurt them more than helped.
Now Watson has an even bigger task ahead of him. He has to put Booker, Len and Goodwin in the right seats on the bus. And he also has to find the right seat for T.J. Warren (back from a broken foot) and not lose rookies Bender, Chriss and second-round gem Tyler Ulis along the way.
Watson has had all summer to think about this, about how to build a young team into a winner. He says you have to build the program before you worry about wins and losses.
“It’s not just about ‘how can Eric Bledsoe be more efficient’,” he says. “It’s about what really flows for our team. What’s the mindset to create. What’s the program to create, and buying in to the team. So it’s a constant thing I’m thinking about all the time. I have mentors in sport who are very present in my life as far as preparing for the season. And then surrounding myself with great teachers, I think that’s the first thing you can do is hire the right people.”
Watson hired two of his own former coaches to work for him on this journey. He played for Jay Triano in Portland most recently in 2013-14, and prior to that for Ty Corbin in Utah. Now both coaches have signed on to help Watson build the Suns program the way he wants to build it.
Now he just has to make it all work. As a second-year coach, Watson does not have a history of coaching success in his back pocket from which to draw confidence. He has to develop his own skills while building up those of others.
“For me its reading, going to people who have been there and done that, and then at the same time, letting myself create throughout the day and throughout the night, whenever it hits me,” he said of how he approached the summer.
Before the off season began, Watson said he planned to get his coaching staff together every day to game plan, design the offense, design the defense and make sure they were 100% prepared for the season. It’s a luxury he was not afforded last spring when he took over mid-season with a short coaching staff and injured and/or discombobulated players.
Now in early August, we continue to hear about Watson’s relentless preparation. He is not taking any significant time off this summer to relax. Even in the dog days of August while the players want to recharge, he’s got Chriss in for a workout before the annual rookie photo shoot. And Tyler Ulis is on his way back to Phoenix this week.
“Every day, I go to the arena,” he said, “And we have practice or we have a workout or whatever it may be, I always keep my mind open to something new.”
He talks about pulling back the reins on the 19-year old “Devin Booker for All-Star” a bit. They need to allow Booker to find his own path at his own pace and maybe he will end up even better than we ever wrote about him. But it has to be at Booker’s speed, not ours or his. And it’s his job to recognize that and give Booker that proper timeline.
“With these young guys, we cannot compare them to Devin,” Watson said. “It’s not fair. He’s just a unique talent at that age. But they have the tools, the potential and the hunger. Which is why we love we ended up in the draft.”
He mentioned Tyler Ulis being ready for playing time as well.
But he still has to honor the veterans, who will begin the season as the team’s leaders. It’s up to the young players to earn that mantle as leaders, and it’s not fair of the coaching staff to just take that mantle away from veterans who have earned it.
“As a former player, just two seasons ago,” Watson says of the veterans on the team, “You always want the opportunity to compete for your position, because you work hard all summer. Guys get better over the summer tremendously and we don’t want to take that ambition away.”
But Watson doesn’t want to overplay the vets just to get a few wins this year at the expense of developing the future.
“We don’t want a season when we have a lot of wins, where we make the playoffs or barely miss the playoffs. We don’t want that season,” he said, using a description that sounded a lot like our recollection of 2013-14.
“We want a season where we have productive wins, productive growth and a productive plan that elevates us every season into something special.”
At the time, we thought that’s what the 2013-14 was giving us - a glimpse into a sustainable future. But now that we’ve seen how that can play out, the Suns are understandably a bit more reticent to push for a win-now season and more interested in winning and losing in the context of a long term plan.
It sounds like the development of Chriss, Ulis, Bender and Booker, along with Warren and Len, are the key to that future as early as this season.
*This article is just one of many we will share from our interview with coach Watson, where we touched on a myriad of topics. Watch for more this week and next.