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Suns future buoyed by sudden rotation players Ulis, Jones and Williams

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Tyler Ulis, Derrick Jones Jr. and Alan Williams once again played huge roles in a big Suns win, this time over the OKC Westbrooks.

Phoenix Suns v Chicago Bulls Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

After Phoenix Suns GM Ryan McDonough and his front office staff completed the trade to acquire Marquese Chriss for a small handful of draft picks last June, many thought the Suns had done most of their heavy lifting on collecting young players for the 2016-17 season.

Adding two Top-8 picks - Chriss (taken 8th) and Dragan Bender (4th) - to a young core of Devin Booker, T.J. Warren and Alex Len gave the Suns a chance to embark on a rebuilding season focused on the development of their most talented young players.

But McDonough and company didn’t stop there.

They took vastly undersized point guard Tyler Ulis in the second round, found teenaged Derrick Jones Jr. in the rookie free-agent pool and kept room on the roster for home-town hero but undrafted center Alan Williams.

Those three players made up the back end of the Suns roster for much of the season. All are undersized for their position and/or unproven as NBA rotation material, but would be solid citizens and great cheerleaders on the bench.

That is, until the trade deadline passed a week ago.

Since then, all three have major roles in the Suns’ surprising 2-3 record as part of an ultra-competitive bench unit.

Tyler Ulis

He was the SEC Player of the Year and SEC Defensive Player of the Year as a 19-year old sophomore point guard at one of the biggest schools in the country, John Calipari’s University of Kentucky.

In terms of play on the court, no one questioned Ulis’ heart, skills, playmaking, defense, innate basketball IQ or abilities. On talent alone, Ulis should have been a late lottery pick, especially in a weak draft like 2016.

But being the shortest (5’9” is generous) and skinniest (150 pounds might be generous too) player in the NBA scared every franchise off in the first round.

There were serious concerns about Ulis’ ability to hold up physically in the NBA. On defense, that he would bounce off big-man screens or crumple and unable to get separation. On offense, the concerns ranged from him being unable to get separation from his opponent for a shot attempt because he couldn’t ‘rise up’ above the outstretched hand to being unable to keep his balance while being pinball-ed from hip check to hip check in the half-court.

The Suns eventually took Ulis with the 34th pick, and were serious enough about his future they gave him a contract commensurate with a first rounder - two guaranteed years plus two team options after that.

Ulis would not have to earn his roster spot as he adjusted to the NBA. He just needed his chance to prove those doubters wrong.

Head coach Earl Watson waited a while to give Ulis minutes, but that was roster/rotation issue and not an indictment of Ulis’ talent. Ulis got court time in just 35 of the Suns first 56 games, and played 10+ minutes in only 15 of those. He was good and consistent every time he got playing time, but was stuck behind a pair of $12+ million per year PGs in Eric Bledsoe and Brandon Knight.

Now that’s changed, with Brandon Knight benched indefinitely to give Ulis a fair turn.

Ulis has played in six straight games, logging 13+ minutes in each of the last 5 and getting better every time.

Ulis has been credited with being the difference in two straight Suns wins. Against Charlotte on Thursday he had 8 points, 8 assists and 2 steals in 23 minutes, while against Oklahoma City he had a career-high 14 points plus 7 assists, 4 rebounds and 3 steals in 20 minutes.

“He’s played two top point guards in the NBA,” coach Watson said. “Both all-stars, both unique in their own right. Westbrook physical and speed, above the rim, NBA of our league, it’s not even a question. And then the night before, there’s Kemba Walker, who is small, who can handle, who can brake you down, and he (Ullis) has impacted the game against both guards.”

Watch his highlights here and you’ll know exactly why Ulis can succeed in the NBA.

Dude has a future. It’s up to him to make it the brightest it can be.

Derrick Jones Jr.

Two weeks ago, #AirplaneMode was just happy to have a job playing the game he loves.

Over the past year, the 19-year old freshman had been declared ineligible by the NCAA and left not only the program but dropped out of school entirely. Here’s our own Deadpoolio on DJJ last fall.

It’s been a strange journey for Jones whose freshman season at UNLV was cut short thanks to the handiwork of the NCAA. Holding a 3.25 GPA while with the Rebels, Jones was declared ineligible to finish the season after his ACT score was deemed invalid. At the time Jones averaged 11.5 points and 4.5 rebounds, topping 20 points three times in 30 games. His .672 field goal percentage from inside the arc was the best in the Mountain West Conference. Off to a dazzling start in his collegiate career, he was left with three options to begin the process of restoring his NCAA eligibility. He could retake the ACT, go to arbitration, or throw out the test score altogether. He elected to make an NBA roster instead.

He made himself available for the NBA draft but never heard his name called. He wasn’t even invited to participate in NBA summer league.

The Suns gave him a make-good contract for training camp with the Suns and he played well enough to earn a full-time roster spot with the big boys while he'd spend most of the year developing his game on D-League assignments.

“He’s the most athletic player on our team and that says a lot with Marquese Chriss sitting right here,” Watson told the Arizona Republic at the time. “He has the potential to be a defender, 3-point shooter and play above the rim. But he has to get NBA reps and get a NBA work ethic.”

Jones wowed observers with highlight reel dunks in Prescott Valley and got himself invited to the NBA’s Slam Dunk Competition on All-Star Weekend and finished second. But what stuck out to me was when he was pressed by national media on something ‘the public doesn’t know about your game’, instead of laughing and saying “everything” he said “My defense. People don’t know that I’m a good defender.”

Heck, neither did Suns fans.

Through the All-Star break, DJJ appeared in only 7 of the Suns first 57 games, never played more than 5:07 and never scored more than 6 points - which he tallied in the Suns last game right before the All-Star break as an opportunity to get a dunk in the NBA stat books prior to appearing in the Dunk contest days later.

Like Ulis, everything changed after the P.J. Tucker trade opened up small forward minutes. Jones has appeared in all five games since the break, playing at least 10:12 in each.

And last night, he showed us that yes, his defense is his second-best skill right now beyond cutting and dunking at the rim.

Last night, he was tabbed to hound MVP-level Russell Westbrook and did a great job of getting Russ out of his comfort zone. Russ tried to intimidate the frustrating Jones, once elbowing him in the nose and later shoving him during a timeout when Jones bodied him a a full-court press.

Eventually, Russ got Jones off him by baiting the rookie into four fouls. But Westbrook couldn’t shake Jones as easily as he thought he could, and that leaves a lasting impression on all of us.

He also had a nice putback in the middle of the scrumming.

Jones shrugged off the assignment later, saying he was told right before game time and it didn’t even make him nervous.

“Where I’m from, you don’t back from the challenge,” DJJ said of his Philly-area roots. “I mean I’m never going to back down no matter who the player is. I just go out and play my heart out and go for the win every night.”

He was proud of the way the team responded to support him, not only during the scuffles but mid-game if Russ got past him.

“That means a lot,” Jones said. “The coach needs to know your teammates are behind you and they just know they got your back no matter what. If you get beat, your man, you teammates are always there to help you and you just got to recover and that’s something that we take seriously. I got beat a couple times tonight, but I knew my teammates were there to help me and I had their back when they got beat.”

The greatest tribute fans can give a player is to spontaneously jump up for a standing ovation when he checks out of the game.

By the time Jones got a breather toward the end of the first half, the crowd at Talking Stick Resort Arena collectively stood and cheered Jones for his all-out effort.

“It was great,” Jones said of the O. “I loved the energy tonight. It was one of the best atmospheres I’ve been in in a long time.”

I suppose one fan’s love of DJJ’s defense is another fan’s ridicule. Adam Joseph, who is not a Suns fan but covers the NBA on the whole, had a different take.

“Derrick Jones, he’s embraced his role as a defender,” Watson said. “Above the rim player, x-factor, it’s the way he’s played and challenged for us. You have to challenge people in this league.”

Alan Williams

Big Sauce, himself undrafted as an undersized center (6’8” in shoes), had yet another double-double off the bench to give more and more fans and pundits reason to think he could be a long-term rotation player.

Our own Brendon Kleen has a profile on Sauce coming later today, so I won’t focus on Sauce’s basketball game.

I’ll just share with you one more reason to love Alan: because he’s as much an extension of us as home-town fans as he is an NBA player. He’s living out his childhood dream right now, and doing it with Al McCoy getting honored is even better.

“It was extremely special,” Williams said of McCoy’s Ring of Honor night. “It’s not often that you can write a script like this. I grew up listening to Al. If you left the game early or you couldn’t get to a game, Al was on the radio and my dad and I, my brother and I would listen to it and hearing his voice and the things he said and the way he carried himself.

“Getting a chance to get to know him these past couple years has just been truly special to me because you get to see the guy who is behind the voice. He’s a really classy, special man and it’s just a privilege and an honor to play the game that he is getting inducted to after growing up listening to him. I don’t know how many guys have gotten a chance to do that.”

Coach Earl Watson had a great comment himself on McCoy.

“His is the voice you hear in your head when you’re back yard and emulating a Suns great.”