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Offense and veteran stability lead to growth from Suns’ super-young core

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With the help of some key veterans, the Suns are running a passing offense.

NBA: Preseason-Sacramento Kings at Phoenix Suns Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

There’s a theory that playing a bunch of unproven kids at once to find the diamond is like throwing a handful of al dente spaghetti at the wall to see what sticks.

These past two years, the Phoenix Suns have been testing that theory to its limits. Eight of the top nine players in total minutes played last year were 26 or younger, and five of those were age 21 or under.

The problem is that the spaghetti analogy just doesn’t “stick.” At all.

The first strands are more likely to stick than those that follow. The ones thrown more directly AT the wall are more likely to stick than those that approach at an angle.

But each strand of spaghetti is independent of the others. If all strands are cooked the same, thrown at exactly the same speed and angle and distance from each other, the ones that stick versus the ones that don’t is still completely random.

Such is not the case with NBA prospects. You can’t coach them all the same, throw them out there as a group and just see who sticks. When you do that with athletes, the most aggressive ones always win, just like schoolyard basketball. Not the most talented, per se, but always the most aggressive. But then those aggressive guys don’t always end up the best players, and all you get is, well, schoolyard basketball.

This year, the Suns have apparently decided that they should focus on certain young players first, and then allow the other young guys to come in when there’s injury or underperformance among the veterans.

Let’s take a look at how the Suns rotation has changed year over year. I only included players who appeared in a majority of Suns games last year (i.e. no Elfrid Payton, Eric Bledsoe or Greg Monroe).

Young players returning from last year’s top nine in minutes played: Devin Booker, Josh Jackson and T.J. Warren.

Still on the team but currently out of the rotation are Dragan Bender, last year’s No. 2 in minutes played, and (for the most part) Troy Daniels (No. 6), while Tyson Chandler is seeing a lot fewer minutes too.

Gone for good from last year’s top nine in minutes: Alex Len, Tyler Ulis and Marquese Chriss.

Now, the Suns are more balanced. Among the projected top eight in minutes are an equal mix of:

  • 25 and under: Booker, Warren, Jackson and Deandre Ayton
  • 26 and older: Trevor Ariza, Ryan Anderson, Jamal Crawford and Isaiah Canaan

Of course, Igor is not done tinkering with the rotation.

After seeing Mikal Bridges’ debut on Saturday night against the Nuggets (10 points, 4 rebounds, 2 assists, 2 steals in 15 minutes), I’m inclined to believe the 22-year-old rookie could force his way in, possibly taking not only Troy Daniels’ minutes but also a few of several players minutes, like T.J. Warren, Josh Jackson and/or Ryan Anderson in that wing/forward rotation.

The veterans are here to help the young guys see what making the right plays looks like. While everyone’s still learning Igor Kokoskov’s offense and defense, it’s the veterans who are most likely to adopt the playbook first.

After two games, the Suns are top three in the league in most passing categories after being one of the league’s worst for the last several seasons since Alvin Gentry left in 2013.

While the Suns offense is still not that efficient, you saw on opening night and in that one preseason game against Golden State that when they make their threes they can be tough to beat.

After two games, the Suns offense is around 20th in points per possession (depending on the site) while being universally worst in the league a year ago.

To make that work, the Suns need some veterans in the lineup who won’t get flustered and won’t make too many mistakes. If the whole lineup is younger than the last NCAA Final Four average, more passes generally equals a lot more turnovers and runouts for the defense.

With more passing, there’s more open shots, though the early iteration of this offense is slowing the pace way way down.

As the year goes on, expect the players to run the offense quicker and generate more open shots earlier in the clock.

For now, just enjoy watching some actual NBA offense that leads to open shots more often than not.