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Suns counting on dunk finalists to lead defensive improvement

Oklahoma City Thunder v Phoenix Suns Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

You read that right. The Phoenix Suns are hoping a pair of high-flying dunkers can develop into the perimeter defensive stoppers the team has needed since Shawn Marion and Raja Bell anchored that side of the ball.

Second-year guard/forward Derrick Jones Jr. and rookie guard/forward Josh Jackson, both just 20 years old, have the raw skillset to become stoppers on the perimeter, with the ability to defend guards and small forwards using their quickness and long arms to disrupt passing lanes, contain dribble drives and contest jumpers.

But they originally made names for themselves as dunkers, and even competed in the same dunk competition in high school. And in warmups on Friday night, they had some fun finishing increasingly difficult dunks to the delight of the crowd.

Who won that high school competition?

“Oh it was me,” Jones said. “But still, (Jackson) gave me a run for my money.”

While coach Earl Watson says that Jackson should join Jones in this year’s All-Star dunk competition, Jackson immediately shut that down.

“I would say, ‘no.’,” Jackson said of the idea. “I think I’m a game dunker. I don’t think I got too many tricks up my sleeve. I got some stuff, but not as many as some of these guys, like Derrick. I can’t compete.”

“Josh is lying to you,” Jones said with a smile. “If y’all believe Josh telling you he doesn’t have tricks, don’t believe that.”

But these guys are about more than dunks. Dunks are fun, but they know they are going to make their mark in the NBA as defensive players.

“I think I’m an elite defender,” Jones said. “That’s something I take pride in. I want to get better at that...and hopefully one day be the defensive player of the year.”

Jones, who went undrafted last year, found himself tasked with defending MVP Russell Westbrook last March, at one point hounding the unsuspecting Westbrook into a pair of back court mistakes that led Suns scores in a surprisingly tight matchup.

Jones spent a lot of time defending the opponent’s best offensive wing player in the final games of the season, and now the Suns have another long defender in rookie Josh Jackson to throw out there with Jones when needed, or to take turns. The potential is there for the two have an impact defensively.

Jackson and Jones have similar builds. Saying Jackson is a bit larger is true, but that’s like comparing two blades of grass. Both are lean, quick and long, still growing into their bodies but neither will be as big as Draymond Green.

Jones is excited about the possibilities this season.

“The game is a lot slower for me now,” he said of his second training camp.

Last year, Jones turned a late camp invite into a four-year NBA contract, albeit non-guaranteed. He impressed the Suns with his effort on both ends of the floor, and by the end of the season worked his way into the conversation as a potential important part of #TheTimeline.

“Just knowing I have the length to guard anybody,” Jones said of his increased confidence. “Keep my hand up (to avoid reaching fouls) and contesting their shot.”

Jackson and Jones have the same challenges too, which could limit the times the Suns can play both in the same lineup.

Neither is a good or consistent outside shooter at this stage, which could hinder their value on the offensive end as wing players. You simply can’t have Jones and Jackson being your weak side spot-up shooters on a pick-and-roll. Defenders don’t have to hug up on them to deny the catch-and-shoot, which reduces driving lanes for Bledsoe and Booker.

But if Jones, a 25% three point shooter last year, can start to make at least 33% of his threes, then he will be able to earn much larger minutes. If he can’t reach that general neighborhood, he leaves the door open for rookie Davon Reed, a good defender with a 40% 3P reputation in college. Reed would be in this conversation right now, but is out with injury until at least after the holidays.

Jackson has the same question marks about shooting, but is a much better ball handler and passer who can create on offense without having a consistent shot, giving him the upper hand on playing time at first.

Let’s see how the season plays out for these 20-year olds. Maybe they really can help the Suns improve their perimeter defense this year. At the least, I’d like to see enough glimpses to keep my hopes up for future seasons, as both are under contract for a while.

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