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Game Preview: Will Knight reappear when Suns face Magic?

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The Phoenix Suns have a big question at backup point guard tonight - will it be Brandon Knight or Ronnie Price?

NBA: Phoenix Suns at Orlando Magic Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

What: Orlando Magic (24-45) vs. Phoenix Suns (22-46)

When: 7:00 PM AZ Time

Where: Talking Stick Resort Arena, Phoenix AZ

Watch: Fox Sports Arizona

Listen: 98.7 FM


Drama has found the Stick again, or is it the other way around?

According to local radio host John Gambadoro, Eric Bledsoe is unhappy about being benched, and Brandon Knight refused to play on Wednesday night as the tank rolls on. This was the danger in a race to the bottom: you can’t sit your mid-career vets without some backlash, no matter how many more years are on their contracts.

Meanwhile, rookie Tyler Ulis is the starter going forward at point guard next to best friend Devin Booker as the Suns roll out a starting lineup that averages just over 21 years and 8 months old. There have been years the Suns didn’t even HAVE anyone as young as 21 on the roster, and now that's the average of the starting lineup.

Let’s see how it plays out on Friday against the Orlando Magic.

The Magic

Orlando is going through it’s own struggles, trying for the past two seasons to get older and better but finding out they are just older and worse, and by the trade deadline they’ve rolled back on the vets and re-position for the next draft.

Frank Vogel has not been the savior quite yet for a franchise desperate to climb out of the post-Dwight rebuild. The Magic just can’t seem to get over the hump, dropping to 24-45 this year even after adding veterans to the youth movement.

In a span of just three years from the Dwight trade, the Magic acquired the very young Maurice Harkless, Andrew Nicholson, Tobias Harris, Nikola Vucevic, Even Fournier, Victor Oladipo (#2 overall), Elfrid Payton and Aaron Gordon (#4 overall) to form the nucleus of the next great Magic team. All first round picks, most of them in the lottery. And they hired rookie player-coach Jacque Vaughn from the Spurs family tree to lead them into the future.

Then they wanted to win, and hired veteran task master Scott Skiles to replace Vaughn. Two years later, only Vucevic, Payton and Gordon remain, along with their most recent top pick Mario Hezonja (#6 overall). None have developed into cornerstone stars.

Now 24-45, just two games better than the suddenly uber-rebuilding Suns, the Magic might give us a future glimpse at what this tanking effort might produce if you don’t find that cornerstone player at some point along the way.

Evan Fournier, age 24 in his 5th NBA season, is the Magic’s leading scorer with 16.8 points per game, but he’s kinda holding back 2015 #6 pick Mario Hezonja, who is languishing at 10th in minutes played this season.

Elfrid Payton, still just 22, never did figure out how to make a jumper consistently, and for a while this year came off the bench behind D.J. Augustin. He’s starting again and been bossing lately (three triple-doubles among five straight double-doubles in his five games until last night’s dud against Golden State) but hasn’t been consistent enough to be seen as the playmaker of the future.

Tired of rebuilding, the Magic acquired Serge Ibaka for a playoff run this year, which pushed Aaron Gordon out of his natural position at PF down to the SF spot.

Oh that small forward spot? They spent $15 million to have Jeff Green push Gordon for minutes there too.

And remember double-double machine Nikola Vucevic? Well, the Magic signed Bismack Biymobo (two years younger than Vuc, actually!) to man the middle and move Vucevic to the bench like Enes Kanter in OKC.

The Magic, Part 2

This season has not gone well.

By February the Magic were looking for takers on their vets as they realized their record didn’t support a “veteran” lineup. Serge Ibaka was the only one to go. As a net result of the Ibaka dalliance, the Magic swapped their 2016 lottery pick (Domantis Sabonis) and starting shooting guard (#2 pick in 2013, Victor Oladipo) for a likely career sixth man (Terrence Ross) and a late 2017 first rounder. Oof.

In a new rebuild after the first rebuild (2.0?).

Former U of A star Gordon isn’t an NBA star (except for dunking), but he’s having the best year of his career. His 11.8 points and 4.8 rebounds are career highs, pumped up to 16 and 6 in March now that he’s getting more power forward minutes.

Nikola Vucevic, Elfrid Payton, Bismack Biyombo and Evan Fournier join Gordon fighting for a draft pick in June that hopefully can help them climb out of the lottery some day.

But hey, at least they aren’t benching their vets. Jeff Green (30) and D.J. Augustin (29) still get 20 minutes a night (why?!?!?!?!).

The Suns

Coach Earl Watson made a few things clear on Wednesday night:

  • It was a management decision to sit Eric Bledsoe
  • Bledsoe has “had” a great year
  • Brandon Knight was offered a chance to play, but turned it down pulled a back muscle
  • Whether Knight played or not, Tyler Ulis was going to be the starter next to Devin Booker
  • Ronnie Price played like a guy who hasn’t played a regular season NBA game in almost a year
  • When Leandro Barbosa got sick during the game, Watson joked he lobbied McDonough to sign him to a 10-day contract himself

Let’s see how this unfolds on Friday.

No matter what, the Suns are going entirely young.

Where does the Suns rebuild diverge from Orlando’s?

The Suns may have already lucked into that cornerstone player in Devin Booker.

Booker is already arguably better than anyone the Magic drafted the last five years, and is the only one already showing clear All-Star level skills.

Matchups

Elfrid Payton, at 6’4”, is a big matchup problem for Tyler Ulis in the starting lineups facing off at point guard. Ulis might have a hard time getting his shot off, and might not be able to out-quick Payton on the ball. However, Ulis will have the luxury of going under screens on Payton, who still isn’t a shooting threat (only 30% of his shots are outside 10 feet).

Fournier and Booker face off at shooting guard - both are good long range shooters with some ability to pass and drive. Booker takes a few more two-pointers per game, and makes his close and long-range shots at a bit better clip.

Terrence Ross and T.J. Warren face off at small forward. Half of Ross’ shots are threes as adjusts to the Magic’s offense, while we all know T.J. prefers the midrange area.

A pair of super-athletic guys will body up at the power forward positions - Aaron Gordon vs. Marquese Chriss. Expect to ooh and ahh a bit at these guys at some point in the game, and don’t be surprised if Gordon gets the better of rookie Chriss tonight.

At center Nikola Vucevic will take on the inconsistent Alex Len, but expect to see a lot of Biyombo and Alan Williams. Vucevic is still a double-double machine who can’t defend in a phone booth, so I’m kinda looking forward to the Vuc/Sauce contest more than anything.

Prediction

These are surprisingly similar teams in terms of personnel. Not exact matches, but similar. Especially now that Eric Bledsoe is out of the Suns lineup for the rest of the season for “rest”.

This game could go either way.

I’m going to focus more on the highlights and individual matchups than the game score.