Fifteen years ago, the Phoenix Suns were preparing to enter a season with flagging expectations. The 2001-02 Suns had finished 36-46 and missed the playoffs for the first time since 1988. The roster possessed young talent, but that talent had not translated into wins. Most prognosticators spent the following summer predicting the 2002-03 Suns to finish near the bottom of the NBA, but there was one facet they did not account for — the rapid ascension of Amar’e Stoudemire (or should I say sans apostrophe Amare).
It’s difficult to fault those prognosticators, though. As the only high schooler drafted in 2002 (ninth overall by Phoenix), Stoudemire was an anomaly in every way. When other general managers around the league became gun-shy about selecting prep players after the previous draft saw underwhelming pro debuts from Kwame Brown (first overall), Tyson Chandler (second overall), Eddy Curry (fourth overall), and DeSagana Diop (eighth overall), Stoudemire proved to Suns owner Jerry Colangelo in the first 15 minutes of a pre-draft workout that he was their guy. When red flags appeared regarding his off-court life, he made sure those concerns never materialized, keeping his nose clean and his focus on basketball (with an assist from Mark West and veterans like Scott Williams). And when most evaluators suggested he was a project, he stepped into the starting lineup for injured veteran Tom Gugliotta after just 10 games and never looked back in a spectacular rookie campaign that resulted in 2002-03 Rookie of the Year honors.
Stoudemire’s impact on a team already featuring Stephon Marbury, Shawn Marion, and Anfernee Hardaway fueled an unexpected playoff berth as an eighth seed before falling in six exciting games to the eventual NBA champion San Antonio Spurs. After a season that started with everyone doubting this Suns team, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich told reporters after the series: “They’re more difficult to play than a normal eighth seed. I’m very, very happy we don’t have to play them again.”
But neither helping the Suns to the playoffs nor becoming the first Suns Rookie of the Year winner since Walter Davis in 1978 was Stoudemire’s greatest contribution that season. His greatest contribution was the way he infused the fan base with hope for the future.
He did it when he beasted Kevin Garnett and the Minnesota Timberwolves for 38 points and 14 rebounds on Dec. 30, posting a points total bested only by Davis in the annals of Suns rookies. He did it when he ripped down 21 rebounds against Pau Gasol and the Memphis Grizzlies on Jan. 10, a Suns rookie record that still stands today. And he did it on Dec. 20 when he made sure everyone would remember the name Michael Olowokandi — just not in the way the former first round pick would have preferred.
While the Suns already had young talent like Marbury, Marion, and Joe Johnson on the roster, Stoudemire was different. He radiated potential like a 245-pound chunk of plutonium, and everyone who watched games that season in person or on TV sat on the edge of their seat, collectively wondering what he would do next. For a franchise that had failed to find that one defining star player since the departure of Charles Barkley in 1996, Stoudemire looked every bit equal to the task even at the age of 20.
The Suns find themselves in nearly an identical situation this season with another 20-year-old rookie — Josh Jackson — and will be hoping for lightning to strike twice some 15 years later. Phoenix is picked regularly as one of the five worst teams for 2017-18, and the tandem of Eric Bledsoe and Devin Booker is arguably no better than that of Marbury and Marion, having thus far failed to positively affect the wins column despite their individual talents.
Enter Jackson, the fourth overall selection in June and Phoenix’s highest regarded rookie since Stoudemire in 2002. He averaged 17.4 points and 9.2 rebounds for the Summer Suns in being named to the All-NBA Summer League First Team in July and has a better-than-average shot at dislodging T.J. Warren from the starting lineup this season. Jackson has been compared at times to San Antonio’s Kawhi Leonard, and while that might be an unfair NBA comparison for the rookie, the best players find ways to validate them, as Stoudemire did with his young Shawn Kemp comparison.
But with a player like Jackson, success won’t be measured solely by stats or wins. Stoudemire averaged 13.5 points and 8.8 rebounds as a rookie and didn’t look great every minute he played, but the way he went around, through, and over opponents that season told everyone he was something special. Perhaps Jackson too possesses that something extra that transcends his measurable play on the court, that certain Amare-ness that captivated the imaginations of apathetic Suns fans everywhere.
It would serve as a welcome sight to weary fans, as #TheTimeline continues to act as an opiate to anesthetize the masses to the losing in the present day. For all the optimism surrounding the team’s youth movement, the fear persists that Booker will never be more than another Tracy McGrady — a prolific scorer who nonetheless cannot carry a team on his shoulders. Meanwhile, Marquese Chriss and Dragan Bender remain projects, and what they will ultimately contribute to the next winning Suns team is uncertain. Everyone else of significance on the roster is who they will be.
That leaves Jackson. While unproven, he possesses the ability to be an elite two-way player and the internal fire required of players who aspire to do more than merely meet their potential. Can he be the one who channels the ghost of Amare past and sparks true optimism in a franchise that has resorted in recent seasons to deferred gratification and manufactured excitement? Fans want him to be. The Suns need him to be.
We’ll all find out together starting October 18.