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Second unit has a chance to decide Suns’ future

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The guys getting a chance on the Suns’ second unit will determine how things break for the team this season and in the future.

NBA: Oklahoma City Thunder at Phoenix Suns Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

The Phoenix Suns, even after making great strides toward a more top-down buy-in to the long game of team-building this year, face challenges in forming a balanced rotation amid an influx of players and health questions across the roster.

For now, there is a Tyson Chandler, Jared Dudley and Eric Bledsoe-sized role in the middle of the rotation. Training camp brings fresh optimism, as well as a return to normal for these three players, who saw their roles reduced to nearly zero for portions of last season due to Ryan McDonough’s decision after last year’s All-Star break to rest his veterans.

As Jared Dudley put it to Bright Side at Suns Media Day on Monday, the young players are going to play, win or lose. “For us, it’s seeing growth: people want to see Booker take another step, Marquese take a step. Winning or losing, that’s the main thing over anything.”

If we expect the youngsters to see the court regardless of the team’s record -- as they did last season -- and the veterans to do some heavy lifting early on, the result could be a rotation that asks a lot of its young second unit.

That possibility looks even greater with the news of Alan Williams’ meniscus surgery and the six month recovery that comes with it.

When Eric Bledsoe was off the court last year, according to NBA Wowy, the Suns were nearly five points worse on offense. Despite Devin Booker’s heroics and the development of Williams and Tyler Ulis late in the year, the team struggled to find efficient shots consistently when their star wasn’t playing. For a variety of reasons this year, the second unit has a lot to prove.

Leaning on the carryovers

That starts with Ulis. The other, other Kentucky guard exploded up to 34.3 minutes played per game in 22 games in March and April after spending stretches of the early season in Prescott Valley with the Northern Arizona Suns. Thing will be different this season without Williams, with whom Ulis developed an exciting chemistry last year, but Ulis is prepared for a larger leadership role.

“Last year, Earl really pushed me to be a leader of that second unit, and then when I started, I had to lead the entire team, so I can’t wait to come out this year and be more vocal,” Ulis told Bright Side.

As a starter last season, Ulis maintained solid efficiency numbers for a rookie, shooting 42 percent from the field alongside eye-popping per-game numbers. There is hope that his production was more the result of a specified role rather than just able to be chalked up to the Suns’ end-of-season youth experiment. All signs point to him being the sole backup point guard this season, especially with Brandon Knight missing the season recovering from a torn ACL.

We will also likely see Alex Len reprise his role as Tyson Chandler’s backup after signing the qualifying offer following a summer of restricted free agency. He will hope to avoid another year of 42 percent shooting, as he has had in each even-year season since being drafted. Len said Monday that this year he feels less pressure, and that his confidence is up after getting interest from other teams over the summer.

Apart from those two, it wouldn’t be surprising to see the bench struggle. The bundle of young, unproven players that the Suns have accumulated will each have an opportunity to compete throughout camp and into the season for playing time off the bench.

If Monday’s Media Day was any indication, the end of the rotation is still in flux. Dragan Bender, Josh Jackson and Derrick Jones Jr. will surely reclaim their roles from last season, with opportunity for growth. The problem is that it’s difficult to tell what these players are (or can be this season) so early into their careers.

Bender and Jones have each played less than 600 total minutes, while Jackson is of course a rookie coming off an uneven year at Kansas. Pitting them against the league’s best benches could produce frustrating results.

Something the entire team spoke excitedly about at Media Days was the potential for this team to run even more, using transition as a weapon. With Bender and Jackson especially playing together, pace should be a strength for the Suns, even after ranking second as a team in possessions per game last season.

The Suns themselves also prioritized upgrading their second unit ahead of the start of the season on Oct. 18, as seen in their acquisition of Grizzlies’ guard Troy Daniels over the weekend.

Daniels is a career 41 percent three-point shooter who spoke at length on Monday about his role as a bomber throughout his four seasons in the NBA. “Obviously I was brought in to do what I do, which is shoot the ball,” Daniels told Bright Side before adding that he has also worked over the last two seasons to expand his game.

Pinning it down

Heading into training camp, which begins Tuesday in Flagstaff, Arizona, the primary bench lineups appear set with Ulis, Daniels, Jackson, Bender, Dudley and Len. Outside of Dudley, who will be out at least another few weeks following toe surgery, the group will have a combined ten seasons of experience and an average age of 21 years old. (Dudley said Monday that he expects to return to basketball activity by mid-October, which puts the start of the season in doubt).

The inexperience of this young team will force Earl Watson to get creative mixing and matching lineups to protect his players. Just as Devin Booker and Marquese Chriss benefited from playing next to veterans like Tyson Chandler and Eric Bledsoe, the second unit will need to find its spark early on in the year.

Following impressive performances to close the 2016-17 season, it’s impossible to discount these youngsters -- but it will require patience and creativity by the Suns’ coaching staff to build a rotation that can succeed.

The team will risk losing precious development time if it botches the juggling act required in creating a sound rotation. Players like Richaun Holmes have been uncovered when young, rebuilding teams like the Sixers lean on their youth in the second unit. On the other hand, giving too much responsibility to the wrong players can stunt their growth in an unfortunate way.

If the structure that Earl Watson hopes to implement is constructive this season, perhaps there will be little cause for concern. Yet there is too much riding on this season for nearly everyone involved to afford forfeiting large portions of games. If it seemed like Watson and his staff asked a lot of the younger Suns to finish the 2016-17 season, this season could be even more stressful.