With training camp only two weeks away, what should we expect from the Phoenix Suns this season? Whether it’s looking towards Devin Booker making his jump to league-wide legitimacy or the current big men depth, there's lots to discuss leading into a critical year in the Suns’ timeline of rebuilding.
1. What are realistic expectations for Devin Booker heading into Year 3? And what type of jump do you see him making?
Gerald: We all know Devin Booker can score, and that should extend beyond one 70-point game by now. The 20-year-old has already put his name into elite company with guys like LeBron James, Kevin Durant, and Kobe Bryant in terms of scoring prowess before reaching his 21st birthday. However, the question is whether he can score at a more efficient rate and whether he can make the leap from "posting good numbers on a bad team" to "helping/carrying his team to wins" as a legitimate superstar.
Whether that's upping his scoring average, being more efficient, making more plays for his teammates, helping out on the boards, showing actual progress on the defensive end or all of the above, that's what it'll take for Booker to be seen as a legitimate franchise player outside of the greater Phoenix area.
I don't see all of those things coming together in Year 3, but he should average somewhere around 25 points per game on more efficient shooting splits at the very least. Any progress he shows defensively would be an added bonus.
Yusuf: For any NBA player, Year 3 is the most critical season. It illustrates what your career will be in the NBA. By Year 3, most future stars have the confidence to take the next step as the guy on a winning team. Kawhi Leonard did not have the same statistical jump as others but he proved himself as the NBA Finals MVP. Paul George similarly went head to head with LeBron James in the 2013 Eastern Conference Finals.
With the Suns' current roster set up for future success, it is unlikely Booker can lead this young Suns team to the playoffs like Anthony Davis, Kevin Durant, and LeBron James did in their third year. Aside from evaluating the jump in winning games, individually, Booker is going to show that he is one of the top scorers in the NBA right now. Booker has to make certain progressions this season such as baseline moves out of the post to go away from doubles and splitting traps in PNR. I think he has it all now heading into Year 3. I would expect him to average the kind of numbers he had post-70 point game.
If you study Booker you know how good of a natural playmaker he is with the ability to keep defenders on his hip, use the In-Out dribble to hold opposing centers out of PnR, always playing one step ahead with a high IQ. With Eric Bledsoe still on the roster, I don't think this is the year Booker can make the statistical jump.
Following the career patterns of other players, that jump usually comes at the time of the second contract. This the season Booker needs to show major improvement on the defensive end. He was never a defensive liability at Kentucky, so this is the year he will not be a defensive liability for the Phoenix Suns.
Evan: I expect a coming out party nationally for Booker. However, will that help transfer wins to Phoenix immediately, though? Not exactly, but I think Booker comes out with around 25-26 points per game this season, along with slight improvements in on-ball defense and playmaking. With Eric Bledsoe still around, we won’t see as many glimpses of Booker in a James Harden-type role, but I think that’s where it’s heading eventually.
Management will now start to build their roster around Booker’s strengths as they look to develop this young core into a consistent mainstay above the Western Conference. Yes, Booker will make the jump to legitimacy this year but with Jackson only being a rookie, expect this team to go through growing pains like any uber young roster will battle through.
The 70 point explosion by Booker in March was an indication of things to come. Booker will surprise and end up in the top 10, in terms of overall scoring this season.
2. How does Alex Len's return impact Bender, Williams or Chandler if at all? Will Len force Bender out of position once again or will the former Terp be relegated to a bench role?
Gerald: Assuming Len returns on that $4.2 million qualifying offer, there's too much depth at the 5 to see him starting. Even if he did finally surpass Tyson Chandler in the rotation, there's still too much depth for him to get the minutes he needs to grow as the undisputed starter.
Alan Williams was more effective than Len after the Suns shut Chandler down last year, and if Watson actually feeds Bender minutes in the frontcourt where he belongs, those rim protection skills could come to the forefront. The Suns have played Bender at the 3, 4 and 5 though, so you can expect him to play out of position no matter what Len does. As long as Len and Big Sauce are both competing for backup minutes, Dragan will be relegated to the 4-spot.
Yusuf: With the emergence of Alan Williams and Dragan Bender, Alex Len is now officially a misfit on the Suns' roster. I do believe the Suns front office made the right move with the qualifying offer but it is hard to see Watson give Len minutes over Chandler, Williams, and Bender. An interesting aspect of this question is the idea that the Suns will have three of the most unique players in their second unit with Ulis, Bender, and Williams. All three have synergy when they play but the trio needs each other on the court with them, Len just does not have the same skill set that Williams and Bender bring to court.
I would expect Watson to relegate Len to a bench role fairly early in the season unless he shows he can make the outside jump-shot consistently. The only way Len can bring more value on the court is the defensive impact he showed playing with Bender at the end of last season. Len and Bender had some really good moments on the defensive end. This is the only reason Watson would look to play Len ahead of Williams if Len's poor play from last season continues.
Evan: As I mentioned earlier this week, I don’t see how Len can force many changes to the rotation once he returns. Watson is already committed to Williams and Bender seeing consistent minutes this season, especially Bender with his current rep around the league after his rookie campaign.
Len was unable to show consistency, and Williams went in immediately and usurped in the lineup. As Yusuf mentioned, Ulis-Bender-Williams is a trio with tons of synergy. And Ryan McDonough mentioned this summer that Williams’ chemistry with the second unit was a reason for his return.
That sounds like bad news for Len, who Phoenix had been hoping would field an offer on the restricted market.
One move that might take place with Len is trying to move Chandler again. The supposed deal with San Antonio fell through earlier this summer for Jonathan Simmons before he was ultimately released.
Either way, Bender and Williams will hopefully see the lion’s share of reps with the second unit as 2013’s No. 4 pick has proven to be a poor fit in the Suns’ system.
3. In terms of filling depth at shooting guard, what do you expect from Derrick Jones Jr. this season? This could easily be a prove it type year for him to improve his offense to stay around for actual consistent minutes.
Gerald: Jones Jr. definitely has a lot to prove this season with the drafting of Davon Reed and the addition of Peter Jok to fill in while Reed is out injured. Jones has defensive potential and breathtaking above-the-rim athleticism, but he's not much of a shooter, he's still extremely lean and even at age 20, his ceiling is not particularly high. The start of the season is his best chance to make an impact with Reed out injured, but expecting much out of him in 2017-18 would probably be a stretch.
Yusuf: I do not expect Jones Jr. to have an impact at all on the team this season or moving forward. Quite frankly, I would be surprised to see him on the roster in 2018-2019.
I just don't see what he brings to the table compared to other options such as Davon Reed, RJ Hunter, and Peter Jok. Jones Jr. has shown improvements but he is not the defensive player that I would want on the floor. If the Suns front office sees him in the PJ Tucker role with a corner three, I disagree.
This is a prove it type of year for DJJ with the injury to Davon Reed. Reed is the future backup SG for the Suns and will hold that role for #TheTimeline. I would expect DJJ to still stay on the Suns roster through this season with the injuries already coming, but it is hard to see him make the roster in 2018-2019. It's always hard to predict Watson's rotations but don't be surprised if a player like Hunter makes the roster and quickly takes his minutes early this season.
Evan: Whether we want to admit it or not, this is a huge year for Jones Jr. With the injuries to Davon Reed and Brandon Knight, Jones Jr. will likely be thrust into the second unit and see consistent minutes through the first half of the season.
Jones Jr. has defensive potential along with being a rim runner, but what else can he provide Phoenix? His jumper is still very much a work in progress, especially from the outside. He will have to show he can hit the corner three regularly to hold off someone like Peter Jok.
Even though he’s still only 20 years old, more of a two-way presence from Airplane Mode will need to be felt in 2017-2018. Outside of Bender, Jones Jr. could be mentioned as a player with the most to prove in their sophomore years.
4. With management now fully committed to #TheTimeline, what are realistic expectations for the Suns as a whole?
Gerald: Unlike the Golden State Warriors' or Oklahoma City Thunder's rise to prominence with their young cores, the Phoenix Suns probably aren't going to make the leap in 2017-18. There is no Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook or Stephen Curry to be found here. However, the arrival of Josh Jackson, a potential prove-it year for T.J. Warren, the returns of Eric Bledsoe and Tyson Chandler and a possible breakout season for Devin Booker means this team should be better than the 23-win, tanking version of itself. I'd guess somewhere in the 30-win range unless the Suns have their eye fixated on a top-heavy 2018 NBA Draft class and start tanking again down the stretch. If that's the case, 25-28 wins feel more appropriate.
Either way, letting Booker thrive and feeding Bender, Chriss and Jackson developmental minutes should take precedence over everything, and that could extend as far as trading Bledsoe for additional assets and enjoying a top-five pick that might net another franchise pillar. It'll be an eighth straight season without the playoffs, but Phoenix fans can look forward to the young players getting a lot of minutes, another high draft pick and then, a much more promising 2018-19 campaign on the horizon.
Yusuf: Like I had mentioned earlier, it all comes down to the level Devin Booker plays at. If Booker is that star in the NBA, which I think he is, the Suns are looking at around a plus 10 win season from last year.
Following the patterns of other timelines, the Suns should hope to see a major improvement in Booker's third year. If you look at the OKC timeline with Kevin Durant; rookie year: 20 wins, year 2 with a rookie Russell Westbrook: 23 wins, year 3 with a rookie James Harden: 50 wins. I obviously don't think the Suns are on that same timeline with Booker considering those are three of the best players in the NBA right now.
The Suns should be on the same timeline as the Washington Wizards and John Wall. Rookie, John Wall got 23 wins, year 2 in a shortened lockout season had 20 wins, year 3 while missing the beginning of the season with a knee injury had 29 wins. With a rookie Bradley Beal, however, you see the big jump year 4 with 44 wins. I think the Suns are on similar timeline having a 45-50 win season in 2018-2019. This is Suns team is better than the team Wall had his third year, so I would give Booker year 3 with an elite point guard in Bledsoe and an NBA ready rookie Josh Jackson 35 wins.
At the end of the day, I think the Suns are a lot closer than many fans think. They are one more summer away.
Evan: For me, this season will be judged on the progress made by the Suns’ core four of Booker, Jackson, Bender, and Chriss. After McDonough refused to trade Jackson, he will be tied to his development throughout his extension.
With the youth, it will be all about building chemistry and licking their wounds through a rough schedule out West. However, as both McDonough and Watson have mentioned, these moments will make the roster much stronger as they mature into a winning squad.
Once this roster flips the switch, they will be tough to deal with for an extended period but not just yet. As Gerald mentioned, I think looking towards 2018-2019 being the year where said jump is made seems much more realistic.
I’ll go ahead and toss my record prediction out for this season at 27-55, too, but I could easily see them eclipsing the 30-win treshold if that switch flips earlier than expected.