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Phoenix Suns Season Preview: The ingredients are simmering on a bright future

Even though the Suns had the worst record last season, there’s a ray of hope not felt locally in years.

NBA: Phoenix Suns-Media Day Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Throughout this entire decade, the Phoenix Suns have been stuck on the never-ending wheel that is mediocrity. Ever since the 2015-2016 season began, the losses started going to another level, which led to resting established players. Later on, resting someone like Eric Bledsoe down the stretch planted the seed to what would happen the next season. As we all know, it spiraled out of control to the tune of 21-61 while rounding out the last position in both offensive and defensive rating.

However, light at the end of tunnel seems to be appearing for the first time in years throughout the Valley.

That disaster which was last year for the Suns led to their first No. 1 draft pick in franchise history: University of Arizona center Deandre Ayton. Far and away throughout the pre-draft process, Ayton was lauded as one of the best big men prospects to come around in years with his rare fluidity and brute strength imposed on both ends of the court. And if we want to have a super early sample size of Ayton, his preseason debut was one of the most impressive performances seen by any big man in Talking Stick Resort Arena. Why I say that is due to how he took over late, being constantly fed in this new offense.

On top of that, Devin Booker somehow continued to progress at warp speed even in not the most ideal of conditions. He’s now on technically his fourth coach in four years after Jay Triano’s 78 games at the interim role following Earl Watson’s embarrassing start to last season. Not only is Booker’s playmaking ability starting to blossom, but his pure package as a scorer continues to advance. I wouldn’t put it past him being one of the top five scorers soon, possibly right now with how he will now be utilized.

The cherry on top was finally landing a competent coach to lead this talented young core forward. Igor Kokoskov’s system will take some time to master, but once it is this will be a type of basketball Phoenix desperately wants to taste again. Kokoskov is known as an offensive genius, but his defense is the backbone of things will pay off for the Suns anchored by how Ayton translates his skills in the Rudy Gobert/Clint Capela role.

Proof is in the pudding that people are buying back into Suns basketball with season ticket sales tripled from last season. That energy left by Steve Nash and Amar’e Stoudemire might be on the verge of a rebirth if all goes well with the three main cogs to their machine: Kokoskov, Booker, Ayton, and others like Josh Jackson and Mikal Bridges.

Losses - Alex Len, Alan Williams, Marquese Chriss, Brandon Knight, Elfrid Payton, Tyler Ulis, Jared Dudley

Additions - Deandre Ayton, Trevor Ariza, Mikal Bridges, Ryan Anderson, Elie Okobo, De’Anthony Melton, George King

As you can tell just from the listing above, this is a compete culture reset going on currently in Phoenix. The Suns not only infused top-flight young talent spearheaded by Ayton and Bridges, but they acquired two former Houston Rockets, Trevor Ariza and Ryan Anderson, to bolster their shooting (Anderson/Ariza) and defensive capabilities (Ariza) on top of quality veteran leadership who will lead by example.

At almost every position, except that tricky point guard position, there is a veteran mentor in place for the young core to learn from. Compared to other rosters, this is a very smart way of helping push this roster and overall rebuild forward.

General Manager Ryan McDonough is betting a lot on the draft haul from this year’s class paying off big time. If it does, the amount of talented youth could lead to sustained success over their competitive window.

Most significant moves performed by the Suns:

1. Hiring Igor Kokoskov

2. Devin Booker’s 5-year, $158 million extension locked in

3. Bringing in on-court veteran leaders — Trevor Ariza and Ryan Anderson

4. Being aggressive on draft night to secure a combo of Deandre Ayton and Mikal Bridges

As mentioned early, the Suns finally having a coach like Kokoskov is huge for this team’s immediate and long term future. His background is based around player development, but his showing at EuroBasket with Goran Dragic and Luka Doncic opened up eyes to how good Kokoskov might be if he had his own team. It certainly caught the attention of McDonough, who was there scouting but Kokosokov’s offense had him intrigued. Later on, McDonough and Vice President of Basketball Operations James Jones hired Kokoskov as their next end coach.

Even though this was a no-brainer decision even when last season started, having it set in stone that Booker will be apart of the Suns’ organization until at least 2024 is a huge relief for the organization. Booker averaged nearly 25 points, 5 rebounds and 5 assists last season with little to no help around him on both nights. He was putting up these numbers even during month-long stretches where he’s double-teamed the entire game once crossing the half court line. Now, with all of this talent around him — far and away, this is the best roster Booker has had to work with thus far in his career — Booker is being set up to flourish and vault onto the national stage soon enough.

We can’t underestimate how valuable the additions of Ariza and Anderson are. I’m leaning more towards Ariza because he’s a two-way contributor, but both will be starting at the forward positions for Phoenix. Ariza’s versatility is added into the mixture of length now all around the roster, while Anderson could be the answer to rehabilitating Dragan Bender’s career. For one season, these two are great examples for the young core, then officially passing the torch over at seasons end.

Ayton seems to have been an easy decision when you heard McDonough gushing about him after his draft workout, then again after he was officially selected on June 21. However, the roll of the dice was using the 2021 unprotected first-round pick via Miami alongside the rights to Zhaire Smith in order to land the lanky wing from Villanova. At this stage, McDonough looks to have made the correct move because high school eligibility looks to not be in play until 2022. Also, if Jimmy Butler is traded to the Heat and signs a long-term extension, the pick heavily leans toward not being one of much significance. These gambles are ones that had to be made in time, and it could pay big dividends into the 2020’s.

Strengths: Versatility and Team Speed

Compared to years past, the Phoenix Suns are built entirely around versatility. Almost everyone on this roster can play multiple positions, especially when you see the depth on the wing with Ariza, Jackson, Bridges and T.J. Warren. Another name to watch for in this area is Melton. He was ranked on my personal draft board as a lottery selection at No. 14, and he’s everything you look for in a defensive-minded guard who’s compatible in the backcourt with Booker. This versatility movement will now have Warren also playing his more natural position of power forward, which we saw plenty of in their preseason opener. Nowadays, case in point during the playoffs, versatility is the name of the game in this modern NBA.

When first watching Ayton up-close, his speed in transition is something I immediately took note of. He’s a locomotive who won’t be moved off his path when he has his eyes on the rim at full speed, which makes him such a terrifying weapon in this situation. Ayton is also able to switch onto guards with no issue, as we saw him swallow up De’Aaron Fox with verticality on a few instances Monday. Jackson excels in transition, so does Warren and Booker and Bridges. This team is built to play fast and Kokoskov has said on multiple occasions he plans on doing that. The Suns were already a team who played fast, but this is one with so much on and off-ball movement that it will be even more of an asset to the overall speed aspect.

Weaknesses: Experience and Defense

Even though Ariza, Anderson and Tyson Chandler are on board coupled with the emergence of Booker’s leadership, the team age is still low. Adding in five rookies also will be a learning curve, especially through an 82-game rigor. The young talent is the main building block, but it will be it’s Achilles heel at points until they are ready to win in competitive basketball situations. The hope is after this year with the presence of the new veterans that Booker will take the helm and lead this group forward.

Phoenix ranked atop many defensive metrics in Las Vegas Summer League during Kokoskov’s head coaching debut. Yes, it’s only Summer League but the first impression was definitely strong. However, even though the Suns have nowhere to go but up in that metric, it will be an adjustment period but one that climbs them up the list still. I expect them to finish somewhere in the mid to low 20’s in defensive rating, but could eventually swing the tide to above-average as this core grows and learns together.

What is the main goal for this team?: Improve by at least 10 wins

This seems like it’s not much to ask for, but Booker has unfortunately yet to crack the 30-win threshold during his first three years as a pro. That definitely needs to change this season in order for McDonough to keep his job moving forward.

McDonough mentioned at Media Day the three-year rebuilding window has closed. For a natural progression, pulling off a record of 32-50 would be ideal, with obvious room for improvement. Then, in 2019 when the Suns have max cap space to add an established point guard, that number could jump into the mid-40’s when also adding in natural progression from their young core.

Sam Hinkie wasn’t able to see his vision through because the team didn’t deliver after this window ended. If the Suns stumble out of the gate and can’t recover, finishing again near the NBA’s basement, McDonough in all likelihood is gone. With that being said, that goal is of chief concern to maintain front office stability. This team also hitting 32 wins is something I consider success, especially when factoring in their current point guard situation which remains unsolved.

Who will be the most valuable Sun this season?: Devin Booker

This one was easy for me, because Booker is the player who keeps this roster going. Every year, he’s shattered expectations laid upon him and if he pulls off another encore, then he could be in line to reach his first All-Star game.

Spoiling my own personal predictions, I see Booker averaging 27 points, 5 rebounds and 7 assists while shooting 40% on 3s. That seems like a very high bar, one only Stephen Curry and Larry Bird have met, but Booker will be playing more of a Harden-like role while getting the easiest looks he’s seen so far in Kokoskov’s scheme.

If you are not in the Phoenix market and haven’t watched many Suns games over the past year, buy up all the Booker stock you can before he welcomes himself onto the scene.

How will the young core develop under Kokoskov?: The multi-million dollar question

Indeed, this is the biggest question for the Suns not only this year, but until Kokoskov’s contract expires in 2021. I have high expectations for Kokoskov, so I can’t see it going terribly, but if it does and the players don’t pick up concepts and buy in 100%, then it would be a terrible turn for the worst.

Kokoskov was hired to help develop Booker, Ayton, Jackson, Bridges, Warren and all the other Suns but the most interesting case was Bender. Both have an International familiarity — Phoenix even hired Bender’s former teammate, Devin Smith, onto their player development staff — but the former No. 4 overall pick has struggled mightily. He laid an egg in the preseason opener, and Kokoskov has to somehow break Bender’s timidity.

Bender is one example, but the player development track record Kokoskov has developed will be one to monitor closely during this new era of Suns basketball. It’s what will make-or-break the current outlook of this team under his tutelage.

The anticipation is filling the air once more in Phoenix about the Suns. It all rests on the shoulders of names like Booker and Ayton to bring fans back into the seats and re-establish a winning legacy.

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