Three weeks from tomorrow, the Phoenix Suns will be done with training camp and ready show off the new team to fans at Walkup Skydome in Flagstaff on Saturday, October 1.
From that point on, the off season is over. Skills development, body development and “chemistry” will all be pretty much set and done for the next season. Sure, some players break out mid-season like Devin Booker did last year, but for the most part you are who you are in September.
How you did over the summer has a 100% correlation to how you will play all season.
As the entire Suns team gathers today for their informal workouts and scrimmages to develop team chemistry this month, players begin to unveil how they’ve changed their bodies and/or games in the past few months.
The off season is not just for weight lifting to add that legendary “15 pounds of pure muscle” (#MUSCLEWATCH) that becomes “finally back down to my playing weight” a few months later, but every young player does need to get bigger and stronger. The NBA season is a grind that melts away fat and muscle from the constant activity, so you need to build up new muscle during the summer.
Rail-thin Dragan Bender and Tyler Ulis, in particular, are surely drinking protein shakes like water and spending hours a day in the weight room. Even adding five pounds of muscle can help a great deal. Alex Len added 10-15 pounds of long-lasting muscle over his first two off seasons.
But you don’t want to add too much too soon. Bender, for example, said right after the draft that while he knows he needs to get bigger, he has to do so without losing the quickness and agility that set him apart as a player.
Other players who appeared to add muscle between April and July are Devin Booker and T.J. Warren. You saw Booker looking bigger during Summer League. Warren looked bigger too, as he watched games from the sideline. Some of Warren’s gain is surely due to the fact he couldn’t run hard until this past month (broken foot), but his upper body definitely appeared thicker.
Some players already have enough sand in the bucket, or even too much, so they might spend the off season developing agility and speed or changing their diet.
Kyle Lowry of the Raptors famously came back thinner than ever last season after adjusting his eating habits and workout regimen.
“I see him in the locker room the other day and I’m like, ‘Man, I’ve never seen this before. You’ve always been this short, chunky, bulldog fat kid that I’ve known since my first year in the NBA. Like, seeing you like this, it’s like the evil twin brother or something.’”
Lowry ended up playing the most minutes per game of his 10-year career and posting career-highs in points, steals, blocks and rebounds per game at 29 years old.
Suns fans might remember Jared Dudley having a similar transformation in Phoenix during his first stint with the club. He went from chunky swing forward to lanky wing in one offseason, resulting in career highs across the board during the 2011-12 season. Dudley even served as the Suns’ top wing stopper that year when Grant Hill was unavailable or needed a rest.
Who knows what Duds we’re going to get later this month. He’s since transitioned back to a swing forward role as he slides down the back side of his career, so adding back the weight he’d lost is not necessarily a bad thing.
Dudley just joined the Suns this week after his annual training regimen at Impact Basketball during August to get in shape for the season.
With a team loaded with spindly Tyson Chandler and Leandro Barbosa, muscle-man Eric Bledsoe and nine other players aged 24 or younger, not many Suns need to watch their weight.
The one guy on the team I’m curious to see is P.J. Tucker. On one hand, he showed up (IMO) a little heavy last year and has been largely out of the public eye all summer so who knows what he’s been doing or not doing. But on the other hand, he’s a free agent next summer and has a lot of incentive to have the best year of his career.
More than anything, though, the off season is about developing your basketball skills. There’s just not enough practice time or down time to develop a brand new skill while the season is going along. By that time, you’re in recovery mode just to be 90% by the next game.
While Suns fans are used to players like Eric Bledsoe, Brandon Knight and the Morrii giving the “Everything” answer to the annual “what skill are you going to work on most this summer?” queries, a player like Jared Dudley was always refreshing with his honest, pinpoint answers.
Coming to the Suns, Dudley was a down-low bruiser not unlike P.J. Tucker. In one off season, he developed his three-point shot and made 39% one season and then 45% of them the next. As he saw the defenses start to run him off the line, he spent an off season developing a 1-2 dribble step in jumper to counter that, and scored a career-high the next season and made himself into a starting-caliber shooting guard.
Not all players have the capacity or the drive to add new, tangible skills on a permanent basis. Many players are who they are from year two or three until retirement. But if you’re going to add skills, summer is the time.
Most of the Suns players have been in and out of Phoenix all off season, working individually with coach Earl Watson, the assistants and/or the player development guys.
Back in May, when the Suns were hosting draft prospects, Booker could be seen practicing his handle, focusing specifically on his left hand. At the time, he was wearing gloves to help control the ball while he practiced, just to get the feel of a hard drive through traffic while dribbling with his off hand. By summer league, Booker appeared unstoppable on the drive to the hoop while still being one of the youngest players on the floor at any time.
What other skills have the Suns players developed?
Hopefully, Tony Buckets spent the summer practicing his jumper just like Amare Stoudemire developed a killer mid-range jumper while rehabbing his knee in 2006.
And maybe Eric Bledsoe has developed a faster release on his three-pointer so he can feel more confident getting it off against a longer defender.
And maybe Bledsoe and Knight have been practicing keeping their head up as they drive to the hoop, to keep their options open for dump-off passes as the defense collapses on them.
Hopefully Alex Len and Dragan Bender have been practicing maximizing their length to keep the ball above the defender as they drive into the paint. Both players have the tendency to play small with a body on them.
And of course, all three rookies have to develop their initial NBA skills just to get NBA minutes in their first season.
Earl Watson’s entire coaching staff is dedicated to off season development.
“I think the first thing you can do is hire the right people,” Watson said of finding success as a rookie coach.
He bucked tradition and professional insecurity by hiring not one but two former NBA head coaches to his staff in Jay Triano and Tyrone Corbin. He also kept budding star assistant coach Nate Bjorkgren, who has a strong track record developing players and winning games at the D-League level.
He’s filled out the rest of his staff with aspiring coaches as well.
“I tell every [coach] that we have,” Watson said to Bright Side. “I want you to one day either join me by sitting next to me or moving on to leading your own program.
“Because we are not here to keep coaches forever. We want everyone to have ambition, whatever success is for you, and whatever level that is. When you reach it, hopefully it’s here and if not and its somewhere else I think it’s a great opportunity to carry the voice [of the Suns basketball program].”
He wants all of his coaches - player development guys and bench assistants - to be teachers first and foremost.
“I didn’t just want player development coaches,” he said. “I wanted all teachers. Coach Jay (Triano) all the way down to whoever the last guy is in alphabetical order as far as player development. I’ve known all these guys for years. I’ve been around them, so I understand who they are.”
Earl’s teachers have been available all summer, and many of the Suns players have stayed in town to make use of free skills training. Watson described having all seven coaches together in mid-August just to work out Marquese Chriss one day.
“And all of us were on the court,” he said. “Just pitching in, putting him through drills, supporting him, clapping and cheering him. I don’t know if that’s even normal. But I’m on the court a lot as far as a head coach because I really do believe the player development coach is very important. 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.”
We don’t know what kind of coach Earl Watson will be, and we don’t know if any of the Suns youngsters will one day thank the coaching staff for making them significantly better.
I remember several former Utah Jazz players extolling the influence former Suns coach Jeff Hornacek had on their shooting stroke, but while Hornacek was in Phoenix he really didn’t have that same impact. It’s quite different to be a skills-only coach like he was in Utah versus a head coach like in Phoenix.
And not all players can be molded. Some are stubborn, some lack the self-drive to make permanent changes, and others just don’t have the capacity to improve in ways the coaches want them to improve.
Regardless of the PD stuff, a coach’s job is to help the player succeed with the skills that he’s got.
“You can put all the right people on the bus that you want,” Watson says. “But if you don’t put them in the right seat, in the right roles, it’s not going to work. That bus isn’t going to move.”
This next season, and the one after that, we get to see if coach Watson can properly identify the right seats for each player.