LAS VEGAS, NV — Coming into Las Vegas Summer League as co-favorites alongside the Los Angeles Lakers, the Phoenix Suns have stumbled out of the gate. With a record of 1-2, they will be regulated to probably one of the lower seeds when the quarterfinals begin Wednesday. However, there’s still a ton of positives that can be taken away from these three games, especially Monday’s matchup against the Houston Rockets.
Even though they lost to Houston, who had great performances from Troy Williams (how is he not signed yet, Daryl Morey?) and Zhou Qi, Marquese Chriss and Josh Jackson led the way and continued to show flashes of their promising potential. Chriss finished with 26 points and seven rebounds, while Jackson was a pest on both ends and ended his day with a line of 20 points and six rebounds.
Chriss, who also got into a scuffle defending point guard Mike James in the second half, believes the team came out strong but ran out of gas at the end.
“I think we came out really strong compared to last night,” Chriss said. “We let off a bit at the end, I think that’s what got away from us. We let up on the defensive end. Their shots started falling, so they kind of started to pull away. We were trying to fight from behind. I don’t think it’s any terms of heart, I think we just ran out of gas towards the end of the game. I think that’s something that can’t happen. There’s a lot of games in the NBA, long games, so you’ve just got to play as best as you can the whole game.”
Throughout Monday’s contest, Phoenix flashed their ability to be a fun, fast-paced offense. At one point in the first half, the Suns had five straight possessions of transition dunks. I noticed when you let the young Summer Suns play at their pace, it’s a lot to handle with how not only Chriss and Dragan Bender run the floor as bigs, but Jackson’s dynamic ability of playmaking and slashing to the rim.
However, in the second half, things got away from them. The Rockets started getting hot from the outside, which spelled trouble for the Suns as their lack of perimeter prowess on the roster reared its head. As head coach Marlon Garnett told us afterward, the potential for this team to be a quality defensive one is there, but it obviously takes time. With all of their core four members 20-years-old and under, it’s going to be a process, but one that management is looking forward to helping guide along.
“We got a glimpse when our management put the team together,” head coach Marlon Garnett said, “We’re versatile, we're long. The thing that has hurt us, though, is we get deflections. When we get after it, we can be a good defensive team. We get rebounds when we want to get rebounds, but just our turnovers we have some careless turnovers when we go on the other end. We can’t quite finish with the athleticism and with the speed that we have with the team, but that’s going to get better. Guys will be more solid down the stretch, and we’ll be able to make plays.”
As I talked about over in our game thread prior to tip-off, I expected Jackson to come out with a vengeance, with something to prove. Seeing him in action against somebody other than Davon Reed in practice, in-person, was a treat. Jackson’s high motor is easily shown throughout, but Garnett thinks he might be using too much because playing too fast leads to easy mistakes.
Jackson’s playmaking continues to be an area that sticks out with the Summer Suns, too. His ability to take it end-to-end and slash or drive-and-kick out to open shooters will only help open up space for players such as Devin Booker once late October rolls around.
(Also, I was sitting next to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski throughout the game, and picking his brain on Jackson, he sees him as someone would could easily be the best player coming out of this class. Woj is on the Jackson bandwagon for sure.)
“Obviously to stay aggressive, but within the confines of balance, because he’s playing with four other people out on the floor,” Garnett said of Jackson’s performance. “He passed it well today. We talked about the game before, I think he was pressing, but he’s a young guy, he’s a rookie. This is his first year, he wants to do well. He has a good heart with everything that he does, so continuing to bring balance to his game I think is one of the biggest things. Defensively, just keep doing what he’s doing as far as an energy standpoint, but not too much energy where he’s making the wrong mistakes, where he’s not in the right place, but overall I’m pretty with what he’s doing. The sky’s the limit for him.”
Through the first three games, what’s stood out visually? The transformation of Chriss is the easy answer.
Chriss’ listed weight was 233, but he looks much closer to the 250 range now and it’s paying off for him on the inside. Since the 2016-17 season ended, Chriss has been tirelessly working on his footwork and post moves — and with his commitment to the weight room, the Suns’ staff really could be building him out to be the future long-term center.
“I think it’s helped a lot, just keeping myself more stable, being a little bit harder to move,” Chriss said of his weight transformation, with his official number staying private for now. “I think just staying in the weight room has helped me.”
Garnett, meanwhile, believes his footwork on the inside will be crucial in his development to be a post-oriented big who can also stretch out and space when needed.
“He is making some strong moves,” Garnett said. “We worked a lot on his footwork, and that’s going to be big. .. He shot it pretty good from the line, which is a very big positive because if you don’t get fouled, that’s basically two points if he can continue to shoot it at a 13-16 clip. So, I’m happy about that.”
Even though the Suns are below .500 in Vegas, it’s all about developing the roster. With likely one of, if not the youngest, rosters in the NBA come the fall, taking their lumps this early on will only help change the course for them down the line.
However, as Garnett mentioned, with such a youthful team -- really almost a college team, mostly, in terms of age — you have to walk a fine line while prospects go through their evolvement to the professional level.
“It is about that, but with a young team, you got to make sure you still try to keep them positive, because you get down really quickly,” Garnett said. “The loss is one thing, but with the constant mistakes you have to find that line of pushing them to the furthest that they can go without breaking them, but, for lack of better words, coddle them to the point where they’ll still work hard, run through a wall for you.”