The Phoenix Suns are dead last in the Western Conference at 18-40, hurtling toward a top pick in a deep NBA draft this June.
For the remainder of the year, it appears that Suns fans will get a bigger diet of young players than any season in Suns franchise history.
Just looking at recent memory, the lottery-bound teams of 2013 (Beasley, Morrii), 2015 (Warren, Len, Goodwin) and 2016 (Booker, Len, Goodwin, Sauce, D-League parade) did not have nearly the NBA-level youth to trot out to starving Suns fans as this team has.
What started as a wave is about to become a tsunami.
Watson’s first big move
We already know that the Phoenix Suns (18-40, deep in a rebuild) have been featuring 19-year old Marquese Chriss, 20-year old Devin Booker and 23-year old T.J. Warren in their five-man starting unit all season.
The Suns franchise has not started three 23-and-unders on a regular basis since the 2003-04 season (Joe Johnson, Amare Stoudemire, Leandro Barbosa) and has NEVER regularly started two 20-and-unders in its 49 year history.
Rookie Marquese Chriss - the fourth youngest player in the league - ranks in the top 6 of many categories of 2016 rookies, including total minutes, points and rebounds. That may not sound impressive for the 8th overall pick, he is on pace to finish with the 7th most starts EVER for a teenager in NBA history. Chriss won’t turn 20 until this summer.
Second year guard Devin Booker - still one of the youngest players in the league - is 28th overall in scoring (21.2) and 22nd in minutes per game (34.6), up to 7th and 16th, respectively, since January 1. Booker’s 21 points per game are the most by a 20-year old since Kyrie Irving in 2012-13 and puts him among only six 20-or-unders EVER to post such a stat.
The oldest “kid” in the starting lineup is T.J. Warren, a ripe 23 years old in his third NBA season. Warren rarely played in his rookie season, a byproduct of a team desperately trying to make the playoffs only fall apart in the season’s final month (they were 38-33 in mid-March 2015, but lost 10 of their last 11 games). Then he missed half his second season with a foot fracture. This year, though, Warren has started nearly every game he’s been healthy and played a career-high 29.2 minutes per game (8th in starts, 5th in minutes, 10th in scoring among the 2014 Draft class).
To give those three their first full-time starting roles, Watson benched three proven NBA starters: Brandon Knight (who had started 96% of games in his career), P.J. Tucker (who had started 93% of games since 2013) and Jared Dudley (who had started more than half his games since 2011).
He moved them to the bench from the outset, but didn’t entirely bury them. Knight and Tucker were still two of the top six in minutes-played through 57 games as primary bench contributors. Through December, Dudley was a top-6 minutes player as well.
Tucker and Dudley, both 31, took the news well and have played some of the best basketball of their careers. Knight, on the other hand, handled the news well off the court, but on the court has regressed into one of the league’s least effective players. Still, Watson gave him ample minutes (6th most on the team through the break) to play his way out of the funk.
Unlike the last two years, Watson’s handling of player minutes did not cause a locker room rift or generate drama-filled headlines. Knight, Dudley and Tucker have been exemplary off the court and have been praised for their professionalism in the locker room.
Watson’s second big move
Dudley was still playing big minutes through Christmas off the bench, ranking 6th in the league in three-point shooting and playing 25+ minutes per game as Chriss’ backup.
Then, a day after Christmas, Watson decided it was Dragan’s time.
Dragan Bender, the youngest player in the NBA who began the season 18 years old, would now get his big chance. He responded with one of the best games for a player his age in NBA history, and otherwise played well on a nightly basis for the next month before he broke down (ankle, surgery) and might miss the rest of the season.
To give Bender his chance, Watson completely took Dudley completley out of the rotation for a month because Bender and Chriss both needed those PF minutes, while Warren and Tucker needed the SF minutes.
Once again, there was no drama. Dudley handled the temporary benching with perfect professionalism.
Watson’s third big move
P.J. Tucker has been traded away, but veteran center Tyson Chandler (8th in the league in rebounds per game this year), Dudley, Knight and Leandro Barbosa all remain*.
*Not to mention recent signee Ronnie Price. Price was signed for the remainder of the season but is not expecting any court minutes and is likely transitioning into a player development coach already.
In the meantime, the Suns still have not gotten a good enough look at the rest of their young players beyond Chriss, Booker and Warren.
Coach Watson says that’s going to change from here on out.
"We have to be able to move in the right direction, and we have to start now,’’ Watson said. “We cannot wait, so our young players are going to get more minutes. This is a great opportunity for (them) to develop and grow.”
It’s a real shame that Dragan Bender is injured, but the Suns still have a handful more 23-and-unders in the wings to get their shot and show if they can be part of the long-term solution.
Alex Len, 23 and approaching restricted free agency in July, started the game on Friday night and Alan Williams, 23, came off the bench as the backup center. Per Watson’s M.O. that likely means a permanent change in that direction, at least in terms of Len.
Per GM Ryan McDonough, he and Watson talked to Chandler before the trade deadline about the shift and he expressed a desire to stay in Phoenix rather than be traded to another team.
Another change had rookie Tyler Ulis, 21, getting the primary backup point guard minutes in place of Brandon Knight. Neither Knight nor Chandler checked into the game on Friday at all.
And finally, rookie Derrick Jones Jr., just turned 20 this month, got his first real rotation action on Friday as the backup small forward in departed P.J. Tucker’s place.
Back in the rotation is Jared Dudley, now the main predictable backup at both forward spots while Bender is out.
When Watson has made big moves earlier this year, he’s shown the resolve to stick with it. Booker, Chriss, Warren and Bender all got their chance and kept it no matter how well they played. Now, the rest of the young roster will get their chance over the season’s final six weeks.
Hold onto your seats, Suns fans!
The kids are all coming out to play.