When the Phoenix Suns announced Sept. 15 that small forward P.J. Tucker would undergo back surgery and be sidelined until sometime in November, Dragan Bender and Marquese Chriss better have perked up. While no one wants to see a teammate go down, the two rookie big men will be the primary beneficiaries of Tucker’s absence — if they take advantage of the opportunity.
Conventional wisdom says T.J. Warren will be the one most bolstered by Tucker’s absence, as he is now the presumed favorite to be the opening night starter, but that was potentially happening anyway. As long as Warren didn’t self-destruct before the season started, he was already penciled in for about 20 minutes per game behind Tucker — if he didn’t outright take the starting job during preseason.
The rookies, meanwhile, were another matter. As two giant question marks behind a veteran in Jared Dudley, their minutes were to be subject to wild fluctuations based on team need and individual performance this season. And with them each playing the same position (more or less), finding them consistent minutes was a task made even more laborious for coach Earl Watson. But that didn’t mean he wasn’t going to try.
“I think [Bender and Chriss] have to have a contributing role,” Watson told Tom Leander and Tom Chambers during Media Day. “I think with Bender and with Chriss it makes more sense for them to contribute right away or have an opportunity.”
But the desire to do something and the realities of a situation don’t always mesh. Pre-injury, Bender and Chriss were going to open the season fighting over 18-23 minutes behind the veteran Dudley. Outside of that, the two would be left to soak up the odd minute at either small forward or center, but there was never much opportunity to be found at either position given the players already at those positions.
But that was their reality with a healthy roster — and realistically will be their reality upon Tucker’s return. In that interim time, there will be approximately 30 extra minutes of court time available, and those minutes need to be seized upon by the rookies like a leopard attacking a mewling Thomson’s gazelle.
With Tucker out, the Suns will have just one “true” small forward on the roster. The easiest way for Watson to fill this opening is by upping Warren’s minutes into the 30s and employing Devin Booker as a small forward in lineups also featuring Eric Bledsoe and Brandon Knight, the latter general manager Ryan McDonough confirmed on Media Day has been talked about. But the preseason, at least, is a time for tinkering and experimentation, and with Watson already on record as saying he believes Bender can play small forward, it is highly likely that the Suns will use Bender as the primary backup small forward early in the preseason to gauge his aptitude against NBA competition.
The Bender-as-small-forward experiment will be aided by the versatility of frontcourt mate Dudley, who can also play both forward positions and therefore help Bender avoid many undesirable mismatches.
With Bender spending a bulk of his time playing small forward in Tucker’s absence, that leaves the backup power forward role almost exclusively to Chriss. Suddenly, the two rookies who were expected to fight over 20 minutes total per game could find themselves playing 20-plus minutes apiece, which will serve as a huge benefit to the confidence and consistency of each.
The sudden opening also serves to allow coach Watson to more easily play Bender and Chriss alongside each other, allowing him to get a feel going into the season of how that pairing will fare down the line.
There is a caveat, though: This boom in minutes won’t last with a healthy roster. Eventually, Tucker will return, and minutes will be adjusted accordingly. That means Bender and Chriss cannot play as though they already have meaningful roles sewn up. Instead, they must approach this opportunity as a fortuitous proving ground to show the coaching staff that they deserve to keep those larger roles gifted to them once the games matter and the roster is full once more.
Chriss, for one, seems to understand this. “I just have to put it in perspective that it’s not my decision, and whether or not play is up to the coaching staff,” Chriss told Bright Side. “But it’s up to me how well I play when I’m in the game. I think that I can’t just leave it up to chance. I have to go out there and make them want to play me.”
Watson is no fan of bringing players along slowly. He credits much of his success and confidence as a player to early butt-kickings he suffered at the hands of John Stockton, and believes whole-heartedly in giving players the same trial by fire he received as a young player. The highly touted rookies were going to get their chances to play, sporadic as they may have been, but with Tucker going down, they will get to show the coaches parts of their individual games that may not have shone through in a mere 10-15 minutes of action.
And as Watson knows, anything can happen when players are given an opportunity. “If we don’t let them go,” he said, “Devin Booker never becomes Devin Booker.”