In the Phoenix Suns’ second warmup action prior to their season opener on October 17 against the Dallas Mavericks, they went up against the New Zealand SKYCITY Breakers. After battling the NBL’s Brisbane Bullets, a visit from the Breakers makes sense when you realize Suns legend Shawn Marion became a co-owner back in February.
With still more preseason action to digest over the next week plus, it’s time to start tracking how new head coach Igor Kokoskov’s rotation shakes out. And if we want to put any stock into Wednesday’s version, Dragan Bender is on thin ice as he logged 0 minutes in the first half of a competitive game.
Keeping in theme with how I conducted quick recaps last season, thumbs up and thumbs down on various topics (if you have any other ideas, I’m always open), let’s go through the three biggest positives and negatives I took away from the Suns’ first victory in preseason.
Thumbs Up: Deandre Ayton
Once more, the Suns’ first No. 1 pick in franchise history proved to very early on he was the best player on the floor. Ayton’s presence on both ends is undeniable with the gravity he creates, but he stayed engaged defensively with few mental lapses. In the first half alone, Ayton gobbled up a stat line of 21 points, 15 rebounds, 3 assists and 3 blocks at great efficiency in 31 minutes.
Sure, it’s against the Breakers but Ayton also did this against the likes of Marvin Bagley III, Harry Giles and Willie Cauley-Stein on Monday to the tune of 24 points, 9 rebounds and 3 blocks. Ayton’s impact was felt in the box score even further as he was one of the Suns’ main leaders in plus-minus.
If Kokoskov is able to channel Ayton’s unique blend of athleticism and brute strength into a two-way presence on the block, Phoenix will have a problem many teams will have to figure out how to solve on top of Devin Booker.
Thumbs Down: Point guard playmaking
If there was ever an example of why the Suns can’t afford to go long with their current rotation at point guard, they had more turnovers than assists midway through and their assist-to-turnover ratio, which Kokoskov pointed out of importance, buoyed around a poor 1:1 ratio.
Shaquille Harrison and De’Anthony Melton are pests defensively, but both seem to be struggling picking up the nuances of Kokoskov’s motion offense. Again, Harrison struggled mightily trying to feed Ayton in the paint consistently. Elie Okobo has had his fair share of moments, but his defense leaves something to be desired compared to his counterparts.
At every other position on the roster, Phoenix has mentors in place for their young core. That missing link at point guard has been obvious, and it’s the most important position on the floor to help conduct this offense at full speed.
Both Harrison and Melton could play off-ball, as well as Okobo, but the Suns need not only a plus defender but plus spot-up shooter for whoever plays alongside Booker in the starting backcourt.
Whether it’s someone like Patrick Beverley before the season opener or Kemba Walker near February’s trade deadline, an established name is an obvious need for this team to help boost this offense up another level. And after seeing how Ayton has done early, I can’t help but imagine what kind of upgrade an All-Star caliber point guard would be.
Thumbs Up: Trevor Ariza
Ariza was a major bright spot for the Suns playing second fiddle to Ayton. Ariza finished with 16 points while hitting on 60% (3/5) of his three-point attempts.
After committing on July 1 to a 1-year, $15 million deal with Phoenix, Ariza was immediately tasked in helping not only reshape the culture but have a veteran who could also show his worth to the young core on the floor at high levels.
On Wednesday night, Ariza showcased his switchblade ability by snaking around screens and draining perimeter shots while also harassing Breakers ball handlers until they either turned it over or were forced into a bad shot.
Once Booker returns, Ariza will be the glue that holds the two-way play together for Phoenix. The spacing that Booker and Ayton will create for a marksman like Ariza will do wonders for not only his own offense, but the Suns’ two main pillars as well.
Thumbs Down: Overly passive Josh Jackson in beginning, overly aggressive in end
Jackson was racking up the fouls on Wednesday, but my biggest take from his performance was his lack of shot attempts. Jackson still jacked up 13 of them as he settled in, but you could tell immediately he was focusing more on facilitating it around at first. Jackson was whipping it around often to the likes of Ayton and Ariza, but he also doubled his turnovers to his assists. In the end, Jackson ended up fouling out as well.
On Monday, we saw the good side of playmaking Jackson, but some bad habits returned. Once it slows down for him and Booker is back, it should take some of this burden off of him, but if there is no trade made for another point guard, they will be relying on Jackson early and often from a playmaking aspect in Kokoskov’s scheme as one of the secondary initiators.
It’s at least progress from how Jackson fared in the first half of his rookie season, but there will be some speed bumps from time to time, especially when this young roster is still in its infancy of learning an entirely new system.
Thumbs Up: T.J. Warren the bench spark plug?
One of the underlying subplots for the Suns would be how T.J. Warren accepted a bench role after starting the past few seasons. Adding in Ariza and Anderson plus drafting Mikal Bridges leaves Warren pegged to play plenty of minutes at the 4. Through the first two games, we have seen Warren play more power forward than Dragan Bender.
What continues to maintain under Kokoskov is Warren’s efficiency, even with more ball movement going on all around him. On Monday, Warren only missed one shot and scored 16 points. This time around, Warren hit 40% of his shot attempts while scoring 13 points, which included 8-12 on free throws.
If Warren is able to thrive in a role of the bench, it changes things for him as he looks to be the backup to Anderson at the moment in this rotation.
Before the season even began, General Manager Ryan McDonough spoke on how the excess amount of wings wasn’t something they saw as an issue. For example, teams like the Boston Celtics and Houston Rockets have made their bread-and-butter positional versatility while switching everything on defense.
The Suns are nowhere close to where Kokoskov wants them to be, but in time a player like Warren could turn in more value if the buy-in process was short and sweet in coming off the bench.
Thumbs Down: Dragan Bender possibly falling out of the rotation?
After another disastrous performance from Bender in the preseason opener, Kokoskov decided to just leave him on the bench this time around until there was 10 minutes left in a game that was out of hand. That’s a really bad look for the No. 4 pick in the 2016 Draft.
Remember, the Suns have until October 31 to either pick up or decline Bender’s fourth-year team option for $5.9 million. If the Suns were to decline Bender’s option and stretch Anderson, they would be sitting just above $40 million in cap space for next summer.
Dragan Bender just had a disastrous few minute stretch there. Barely hit the rim on a three-point attempt and already has three fouls and one turnover in 8 minutes. Already has team-worst plus-minus of -7.— Evan Sidery (@esidery) October 4, 2018
Bender failed to capitalize in Las Vegas Summer League as the most experienced player on their roster, and the timidity continues to show itself through.
For things the Suns wanted Bender to improve on, it was a near carbon copy of what was said before last season with aggressiveness.
It’s put up or shut up time for Bender, and these next few weeks will likely decide his future in a Suns uniform. Early results are showing the raw big man from Maccabi Tel Aviv might be the third and final piece from the 2016 Draft that is not on this roster anymore following the departures of Marquese Chriss and Tyler Ulis.
Currently, it looks as if Bender has been usurped by Warren for the spot he was expected to fill this season.