After making very few changes to the young roster over the summer, the Suns will enter the 2017-18 season with some serious holes and big question marks on the roster.
The Suns have plenty of players on hand. It’s the overlapping skillsets that are the problem. The Suns have a handful of one-on-one shot creators (Devin Booker, Eric Bledsoe, T.J. Warren, etc.) and a few guys who can score from the mid-range to the basket if put in the right position (Marquese Chriss, Alex Len, Alan Williams, Josh Jackson, Dragan Bender, Jared Dudley, Tyson Chandler, etc.).
But the Suns lack in the area of strong outside shooting. Or, to put it better, the Suns lack in the area of mid-to-high percentage outside shot-making. They have a lot of shooters. Just not a lot of makers.
League average among 450 NBA players last year on three-point shots: 35.7%. Of those on the current roster, only Jared Dudley and Devin Booker made more than 33% of their threes shots last year. As a team, the Suns finished 27th out of 30 teams with a 33.3% three-point percentage.
The Suns inability to generate and make outside shots at a high clip would help explain their awful offensive efficiency numbers. It doesn’t look like 2017-18 will be any better, and might be worse.
Making matters even worse, one of the two best jump shot makers on the team, Devin Booker, will spend even more time than ever as the primary ball handler next year. When that happens, Jared Dudley will be the only player on the roster who can catch a weak side pass with a better than league average chance to make the shot.
There’s always the chance that one of Davon Reed or Tyler Ulis or Mike James becomes a surprise shot-maker along the perimeter, but of those three players only Mike James is healthy enough to start training camp at full speed. Ulis will be brought along slowly (ankle injury) and Reed will be out until around the All-Star break (knee).
Undrafted but sweet shooting Peter Jok was signed to a partially guaranteed contract recently. But Jok is swimming upstream to even make an NBA roster, let alone become a rotation regular who can make shots at league-average or better. Expecting Jok to burst onto the scene in his rookie year would be an egregious stretch in fanaticism.
So who can make shots next year besides Booker and Dudley?
Let’s examine the possibilities.
Natural improvement from young players
It’s quite possible that Marquese Chriss and Dragan Bender will hold up better on catch-and-shoot threes this year.
Chriss improved as his rookie year went on, making 36% of his threes after the All-Star Break, including 38% in March on nearly 4 attempts per game. If Chriss can keep that up, or improve on it, the Suns offense will run much more smoothly in 2017-18.
Dragan Bender had a very forgettable shooting year as the league’s youngest rookie. Bender started poorly and got worse as the year went on, finishing with a 27% field goal percentage on threes. He gets to his spots fluidly in the offense, so being able to actually MAKE those open threes on the wing is imperative to help the Suns this season.
Tyler Ulis is also likely make threes at a better rate this year, but to expect a significant improvement on measurably higher volume from Eric Bledsoe, T.J. Warren or Derrick Jones Jr. would be folly. And really, it’s not reasonable to expect better-than-average numbers from rookies Josh Jackson, Davon Reed (when he gets healthy) or Peter Jok.
Mike James channels Seth Curry
You all remember Seth, right? He got a cup of coffee with the Suns a couple years ago when the Suns went through approximately 5,324 players on 10-day contracts.
Curry later worked his way into the hearts of Kings and Mavericks fans as a decidedly undersized shooting guard who could consistently make shots. Eddie House, anyone? Curry made 45% of his threes in Sacramento, then 42% for the Macs last year on 4.6 attempts per game. He doesn’t do much else - less than 1 shot per game inside the arc, and less than three assists and rebounds despite playing 29+ minutes per game - but the 42% shot-making from the outside helped Dallas stretch the floor.
Could Mike James provide the same kind of impact this season? Maybe. The Suns are certainly hoping he can.
Sign another shooter, with NBA experience
Leandro Barbosa is gone, and not likely to be brought back. Per Scott Bordow of azcentral.com, their new beat writer for the Suns this season, Suns GM Ryan McDonough had this to say on the topic.
“I think we will lean toward younger guys, with the mid-to-late 20s being the upper limit of what we’ll look at,” McDonough said to Bordow. “Is there one guy out there who could be an exception to that? Maybe. But I think that will be the target of the initial process, somebody who fits with the timeline of our young core.”
Sounds like the Suns plan to sign another player. Who that player is, and for how much guaranteed money, will tell you how they feel about Davon Reed’s prognosis (and that of Tyler Ulis’ ankle, even).
Unfortunately, there’s not a lot out there on the market who could help the Suns this year AND is younger than 30.
Hollis Thompson could be an intriguing name. The unsigned 26 year old is definitely a shooter. He spent the first four years of his career with the Sixers, playing between 18-28 minutes per game. The 6’8” Thompson is a career 38.6% shooter on threes, taking as many as 5 per game in the 2015-16 season. But he only made 36% last year before being released by Philadelphia, then just 25% for the Pelicans on a pair of 10-days, and has spent the summer unsigned by anyone.
Outside of Thompson, there’s not much that fits McDonough’s description. The rest of the available shooters are well over 30 and would not fit #TheTimeline of the young core.
The Suns, basically, are hoping that a year of experience and age will help the likes of Booker, Bender and Chriss to make more threes this year at a higher clip, and that they will be surprised by a free agent (James) or a rookie.
Crossing fingers, indeed.