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Suns 2017-18 Rotation Preview: Youth Shows Through

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With Brandon Knight’s knee injury, along with staying the course this summer, Phoenix is set up for a competitive training camp with minutes up for grabs. How will the rotation look?

NBA: Los Angeles Lakers at Phoenix Suns Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Even though this was one of the more quiet summers in recent Suns memory, it sure did not feel that way right? Countless trade rumors revolving around Kyrie Irving and the tumultuous topsy-turvy offseason so far has led us all the way to a month before training camp. Crazy, right? Now, it’s time to look towards how this year’s roster will look for Phoenix.

And if one thing stands out, it’s the amount of youth present throughout. Outside of Eric Bledsoe, Tyson Chandler, and Jared Dudley, the rest will fall under the 24 and under category with T.J. Warren turning that next month.

#TheTimeline is a full go now with ownership and management all on one-page after Ryan McDonough’s extension through 2019-2020 and James Jones addition as Vice President of Basketball Operations, so now their chips are all in on their young, albeit raw core.

Point Guard

  1. Bledsoe, 2. Ulis, 3. James

After the Irving rumors went by the wayside, Bledsoe is for sure the Suns starting point guard to start this season. And for the current roster, his presence was crucial. Bledsoe has really embraced his leadership role on this team even more it seems, and his numbers point to someone vastly underrated in national circles. Alongside Devin Booker, they have a great synergy together starting, so why break that up when it’s not needed at the moment.

Bledsoe’s contract is a bargain deal for the current point guard market, and it runs until the end of the 2018-2019 season. At this point, I would be surprised if that’s not what the Suns do at this point unless they find fair value for him along the way. When I spoke with ESPN Insider’s Kevin Pelton recently, he told me that a deal along the lines of what Denver supposedly offered at the draft — Emmanuel Mudiay and the No. 13 pick — would be sufficient in his mind.

Bledsoe has a firm hold on the starting point guard spot while in Phoenix unless something happens along the lines of a move.

Meanwhile, after Bledsoe was shut down post-All-Star break last season, Tyler Ulis showed he’s fully capable of having the controls of an offense. When McDonough spoke with me in Las Vegas, he mentioned how Alan Williams and Ulis have great chemistry already in the second unit was one of many reasons why Big Sauce was brought back on a three-year deal.

Ulis is one of the few players on the roster I’m most curious about heading into his sophomore season. If he continues his second half from last year, Ulis is on pace to make some headway as a firm piece in the long-term. Either way, his playmaking ability already stood out vastly while on the floor, so expect to see much more efficient set ups for Marquese Chriss and Dragan Bender unlike what we saw in Summer League with Mike James.

Speaking of James, after Brandon Knight’s injury he has a good shot to make the main roster, I believe. James scoring prowess that he has progressed on in EuroLeague since 2015 makes him a quality replacement as the third point guard. Also, with the way Phoenix structured James’ two-way deal, odds are heavily swaying towards him on the main roster to start the season on minimum.

Shooting Guard

  1. Booker, 2. Reed, 3. Jones Jr., Jok*, Millsap*

The ACL tear for Knight affected the two-guard spot heavily, as it pushes rookie Davon Reed immediately into a second unit role, however, that’s not set in stone yet. Derrick Jones Jr. will get every opportunity to earn that, but I would put my odds on Reed to lead with Airplane Mode getting his fair share of minutes in the rotation. Reed was my main stand out from Summer League, and I’m curious to see how he fares in a 20-plus minute role each game.

Like Bledsoe, Booker is obviously going to be running with the ones exclusively unless we see him in a playmaking role with backups at times. As Yusuf mentioned in his piece earlier this week on Booker, the third year is where you see significant jumps with elite prospects. And I’m in the group where I expect him to make that jump, where we haven’t seen areas of his game to its fullest potential. For example, how often will we see Booker as the main playmaker in a James Harden-like role? I believe that’s possible with the Suns' current 20-year-old guard, but this upcoming season will be very telling on that front.

His transition into a more ball-dominant player will continue to grow as someone who averages 25-27 points per game with 4-6 assists a game consistently. The advanced nature of Booker’s offensive repertoire is astounding before he can even have a sip of alcohol. That shows you how much more there is in the vault of Booker’s overall game, and it will continue to transform as the roster transitions to build around his strengths.

Reed at 6-5 with a 7’ wingspan fits him seamlessly into the 3-and-D label that has taken over the Association with versatility at a premium. While at Miami (FL), Reed showed his jack of all trades ability during his four seasons under Jim Larranaga and at Summer League displayed he will be a valuable role player in Phoenix. As McDonough said after the selection of Reed, he’s able to shoot from deep and guard multiple positions. Phoenix stockpiling those types of talents is a smart strategy with the way we're heading with positionless basketball and continuous fast pace.

Like Ulis, I’ll be very curious to see how Reed establishes himself up in Flagstaff for training camp and how quick he can snatch the backup spot to Booker.

For Jones Jr., his role on the roster will be something to follow leading into the season. While in Vegas, he showed an improved shooting stroke but with all eyes on Josh Jackson, Chriss, Bender, and Reed, there were not many opportunities for Jones Jr. to flash much outside of his defensive ability out on the perimeter.

I expect 2017 to play out much like 2016 did for Jones Jr., in terms of a consistent role in the rotation, but he’s one of the projects Phoenix have continued to work on. Heading into only year two, the former UNLV Rebel should still carve out a role around 10-15 minutes per game with Knight’s absence.

In terms of training camp battles, Elijah Millsap and Peter Jok could be for a main roster spot while one heads down to Prescott or both could end up with their G-League affiliate. Jok, who will sign his partially guaranteed contract next week in Phoenix, participated in Summer League with New Orleans. From Jok’s interview with the Des Moines Register, it sure sounds like he will end up somewhere in the Suns organization after camp ends.

Small Forward

  1. Jackson, 2. Warren, 3. Dudley, 4. Jones Jr.

The question is not if, but when will Jackson supplant Warren as the starter? With McDonough and Co. putting their eggs in the Jackson basket completely after passing on Irving, his progressions will be crucial. Especially on offense, where his shaky jump shot will continue to need work, the former Kansas Jayhawk will need to carve out a consistent role on that end.

Early results from Summer League suggest Jackson will be the legitimate two-way threat Phoenix has desired since Shawn Marion left, but they also have one of more offensively talented forwards still on a rookie-scale deal in Warren. McDonough mentioned how they want to work on an extension with Warren between now and the season, and they see both being able to coexist on the court at the same time. With Warren as a small-ball four, it could lead to some intriguing mismatches for both forwards.

With Jackson starting, it would be a 10-deep as follows: Bledsoe, Booker, Jackson, Chriss, Chandler; Ulis, Reed, Warren, Bender, Williams. Honestly, that second unit lineup would instantly become one of the youngest but also high quality, too. Warren would be able to carry the scoring load, while Jackson would be able to cover Bledsoe and Chriss dependent on defensive matchups.

Jared Dudley meanwhile would be able to cover for both units as a three and four. Dudley has embraced #TheTimeline of growing this young roster together toward future success with the current lumps they’re taking. It will lead to greener pastures down the road for Phoenix, and veterans like Dudley were brought here for a specific purpose. Others such as Ronnie Price and Chandler along the way also fall into that category, as McDonough spoke further on last month.

Dudley and Jones Jr. will see action at both spots, so I imagine we see a similar rotation allotment with minutes.

Power Forward

  1. Chriss, 2. Bender, 3. Dudley, Peters*

Even though we saw a significant bulk up from Chriss, I still expect to see him mainly at the four as long as Chandler and possibly Alex Len are on the roster. Both Chriss and Bender will flip between four and five depending on the matchups, and see a lot of time together on the floor. After barely seeing it, expect a healthy dose of it throughout 2017-2018.

Chriss’ defensive lapses continued to rear its ugly head at Summer League which is concerning and will be something to consistently watch for. There will be a lot of progressions that need to be seen from Chriss in year two for Phoenix to feel comfortable, and that applies for Bender too.

What made Bender so special before being drafted out of Croatia was his passing for a big his size. Alongside that is his high BBIQ and a knack for finding the ball on defense. A rookie season filled with setbacks by a foot injury and playing out of position at small forward led to some already throwing out premature labels, but he could end up being the second behind Booker, in terms of ranking the core four, if he reaches his ceiling.

Heading into preparation for Las Vegas last month, everyone spoke on how we would see Point Bender in action a lot, and that we did. That innate passing he has in his arsenal came out, as well as a confident stroke from the outside. Bender’s confidence will only continue to grow as he sees a more consistent role in this year’s rotation where he will find consistent minutes in the frontcourt.

If Bender is able to find a consistent post game he could be a dangerous threat not only from the inside as a scorer but setting up his teammates too down there when size advantages show themselves. A lot of people have rushed to judge Bender far too quickly because there’s a lot still under construction for the still 19-year-old.

Dudley will see minutes as a small ball four at points when they want to stretch the floor, and they could play him alongside Chriss or Bender when they slide to center. With even more youth infused into this roster, Dudley’s role will become more clear both on and off the court for one of the league’s youngest rosters.

Alec Peters, the Suns’ No. 54 pick, slipped in the draft due to a late-season foot injury but he graded out as a consistent scorer. He will come in and fill a stretch four role, too, however, he might end up with the NAZ Suns to see consistent playing time. Peters will be someone to monitor, as he is one of Phoenix’s two-way contracts.

Center

  1. Chandler, 2. Williams, 3. Bender, 4. Len**

Before the offseason even started, Chandler wanted to see more veterans infused into this roster, but the opposite occurred. With reports earlier this summer that Chandler was close to being shipped to San Antonio for Jonathan Simmons in a sign-and-trade, he could still be moved soon whether it’s before the season or in February.

If Chandler is still here, though, he should be the starter. Chriss or Bender make sense, too, but doing it at the beginning of the season would definitely surprise me.

The big move for Phoenix this summer was re-signing Williams to a three-year, $17 million contract with only the first season fully guaranteed. Williams waited it out to give the front office flexibility if anything arose, and with his hometown roots, it would have been an upset to see him anywhere else.

When Williams saw extended run in the second half of last season, he immediately supplanted Len. His above-average rebounding carved him an immediate role and an actual threat to put double-double numbers night-in, night-out off the bench. His advanced numbers in that category suggest the sustainability, too, and he’s now a valuable bench piece. Big Sauce will continue to entertain Suns fans on and off the court for the extended future.

In terms of Len, he has not signed his one-year qualifying offer that Phoenix offered at the beginning of free agency. It’s looking like it will stretch out towards training camp, but expect him to sign the dotted line soon unless another team comes out of nowhere to do so. However, for the former No. 5 pick, his role would likely be significantly decreased if he returns after he fell behind Williams and Bender could do so rather quickly once camp opens.

The 2017-2018 season for the Phoenix Suns is one all about progress in its youth, not exactly displayed in the wins and losses column. With likely 8 or more players 24 and under in the rotation, that will be the case in a Western Conference that got even stronger after many teams attempt to dethrone Golden State.