Heading into their 50th season in Phoenix, a year where both ownership and management have preached patience coming into, the Suns seem content on letting the Western Conference rage war against each other while they develop towards a contending roster.
The 2017-2018 campaign is crucial to see where exactly this roster is at and where it possibly could go down the line.
Will Devin Booker make the star jump in his third season? Will Josh Jackson make an immediate impact on both ends? How will Marquese Chriss and Dragan Bender look in their sophomore seasons? Even though a lot isn’t expected of the Suns, they will still be one of the more interesting teams to watch throughout the NBA for these reasons.
Here are three things that I will look for at training camp as the regular season opener against Portland now less than a month away.
Who will fill minutes at shooting guard behind Devin Booker with injuries to Davon Reed and Brandon Knight?
Earlier this summer, both of Phoenix’s backup shooting guards went down with separate knee injuries. Knight tore his ACL at a Pro-Am in Miami at the same time he was individually training for the upcoming year, while Reed tore his meniscus during offseason workouts and is expected to be out until around New Years, possibly All-Star break.
After Reed went down, the Suns went out and signed former Iowa guard Peter Jok to a partially guaranteed contract. Like Reed, Jok was one of the best shooters from the outside in terms of off the catch numbers in this draft class and shot 92% from the line. Meanwhile, Elijah Millsap, who impressed down in Prescott for the NAZ Suns, will be battling Jok to fill one of the final roster spots.
Even if one of them make it, will they see much playing time? It’s possible, but it would not surprise me to see Eric Bledsoe, Josh Jackson, and Derrick Jones Jr. fill the void for a few months.
As Booker progresses into a more on-ball role as a playmaker, there are not much better players to adjust to off-ball work than Bledsoe. Even when Tyler Ulis replaces him, we could see more of them together on the court.
Jackson, meanwhile, has the typical frame for a two-guard at the moment. Last season for Kansas, Jackson played a lot of small-ball four but in Phoenix’s system, I could realistically see him playing 1 through 4 at times. That’s the versatility that will help cover a lot of bases for the Suns, and they hope Jackson can adjust to the pro regimen rather quickly with their expectations of him.
However, the person I see taking advantage most from Reed and Knight’s absences is Jones Jr. Airplane Mode showed last season he is a capable defender, but still has a long way to go in terms of finding a consistent stroke. At Summer League, we saw Jones Jr. mostly camped out in the corners while Reed, Chriss, and Bender went to work, so the opportunity didn’t really present itself in Las Vegas to work on his offensive repertoire.
With the youth throughout this roster, these injuries actually allow for a player like Jok or Jones Jr. to establish themselves. In Flagstaff, I expect to see Jones Jr. with the second unit but he will have to prove his worth on both ends or he could be upended by a sharpshooter like Jok.
Either way, this opens the door for both Booker and Bledsoe to eclipse 35-plus minutes a game at least through the first half of next season.
How often will Marquese Chriss and Dragan Bender share the floor together?
General manager Ryan McDonough exuded excitement when I spoke to him about finally seeing his two top 10 picks from the 2016 draft play together. After selecting Bender with the No. 4 pick, then trading back up with Sacramento to acquire Chriss at No. 8, a lot is riding on both of them to hit their strides and show significant progress in year two.
At Summer League, we saw a much more built out Chriss than at any point during last season. McDonough mentioned how both of them adding weight to their frames will help them see more time this upcoming year as they mature.
“It’s something we tried to protect him and Dragan from a little bit last year,” McDonough said. “They were two of the youngest players in the league, we didn’t want them necessarily taking a beating. They were giving up 30-40 pounds to NBA centers, especially the bigger centers. Now, I think with his added weight, Dragan’s added weight, those guys will be able to play four, five versatile depending on the matchup.”
Chriss mentioned earlier this summer that he had been working on post moves extensively prior to their trip to Vegas, so seeing him more as the center isn’t a stretch. And I think whether it is at the beginning of the season or after the All-Star break, we will see both Chriss and Bender starting.
After putting such an investment into those two prospects, those decisions will have to be sorted out as they gain value to not only Phoenix but to other teams around the league if the right package came around for a star-like trade.
Getting a glimpse at maybe the future frontcourt duo for years to come in Phoenix needs to be explored a lot more, especially if they are able to free up more minutes for Bender early on.
Who’s the starting small forward? T.J. Warren or Josh Jackson?
This will settle itself out further into the season, I believe, but I’m curious to see who Watson will roll out in his starting rotation first. Much like Jared Dudley last season with Chriss, it could be much of the same this go around with Warren and Jackson. After Dudley started the first few games, Chriss ended up taking over and learned on the fly as a 19-year-old starter.
With how much Jackson could compliment Booker in the starting lineup with his defensive deficiencies, it would make sense to let them develop together with 30-plus minutes together but Warren has done nothing to lose his spot.
Last season, Warren averaged over 14 points per game with a 49.5% efficiency in terms of scoring. After the All-Star break, Warren’s numbers increased once P.J. Tucker was offloaded to Toronto. That move not only helped the Suns tank more, but it helped management get a further look at the overall potential of Warren.
The Suns want to begin dialogue with Warren’s representatives about an extension when McDonough mentioned it to me in July, and it makes a ton of sense. Warren is the perfect fit for a team starved of scorers, and he’s a prototypical sixth man in today’s league.
Even though I expect Warren to start early, Jackson should overtake him later on once he’s able to showcase his two-way prowess. Also, a second unit of Ulis-Reed-Warren-Bender-Williams would one of the more exciting, up-and-coming second units in the Association.
With Jackson as the second main pillar to this franchise alongside Booker, and with comparisons already being thrown around to names such as Kawhi Leonard internally, the excitement is palpable to see their newest draft pick on the floor in game action.