Heading into Friday’s tilt against the Portland Trail Blazers, it was a reminder of how this is the true first test for this young roster. Deandre Ayton would be matched up against Jusuf Nurkic, while Josh Jackson would have to go threw the gauntlet presented by Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum.
Portland, who made the playoffs last season as the No. 3 seed, showed why they are at least a level above compared to Phoenix. Early on, the Blazers were confusing the Suns with their concepts to the tune of allowing plenty of easy looks, which happened plenty on Wednesday against the New Zealand Breakers.
However, if we’re looking for a major positive to come out of the preseason home finale for Phoenix, it’s the continued play of the franchise’s first ever No. 1 pick in Ayton. In the first half, Ayton showed great verticality on two separate instances, even going straight up without elevating blocking one of Nurkic’s layup attempts.
And even though Ayton has obviously been adjusting on the fly going up against the big Bosnian native, he still produced effectively. In the first half, Ayton had 10 points, 6 rebounds and 2 blocks on 4-6 field goal attempts. Once the final buzzer sounded, Ayton racked up a line of 19 points, 14 rebounds, 1 assist, 1 steal and 3 blocks. Another positive step forward for the Suns’ 20-year-old center.
Below, I will recap my biggest takeaways from Phoenix’s defeat at the hands of Portland, ranging from the usual positives and negatives. What stood out? Let’s see.
Thumbs Up: Ayton maintains efficiency against tougher competition
No surprise, but Ayton was once more effective. When trying to post up Nurkic on a few occasions, he didn’t know what to do with the added mass pressed against him, instead settling to pass it back out to the perimeter to reset. Even though some could see that as a negative, but Ayton’s basketball IQ is an aspect I underrated through the pre-draft process. Not only is he not fumbling away any possessions he gets, but when the first option isn’t available there’s no panic. For a young big, that’s an innate trait to have, similar in a sense to others around the league like Joel Embiid and Nikola Jokic.
Defensively, Ayton also is developing a knack for using his body’s dimensions to his advantage. He’s not flailing his body around when contact arrives, absorbing it up instead.
Ayton could have done more damage if he was given the ball in correct moments, which we’ll get to later with the near-dire point guard situation unfolding. Either way, Ayton has done most everything right that he can control through three games, outside of a few late rotations that showed through during Friday’s action.
Immediately, Ayton has established himself as an easy double-double candidate in each game who could be the ideal second option behind Devin Booker.
Thumbs Down: T.J. Warren refuses to shoot wide-open 3s
The talk of Media Day from General Manager Ryan McDonough and new head coach Igor Kokoskov was that the now 5-year pro had taken huge steps forward in overhauling his perimeter shot. Well, so far in preseason, that looks more like blowing smoke than anything else. On multiple occasions during Friday’s game, Warren passed up wide-open looks on 3s. Instead, he didn’t take advantage and passed out of those situations in a hurry.
What’s up with that? Well, one would have to assume he’s just not comfortable taking those opportunities just yet. Until then, defenders will just sag off him not allowing driving lanes for him.
Unlike Warren, Mikal Bridges can shoot three-pointers with no issue. Bridges was held out Friday due to an elbow injury, but it was obvious from a two-way perspective his presence was definitely missed. With no spacing from the outside from the 4, means less openings for Ayton and shooters like Trevor Ariza and Ryan Anderson.
Warren’s lack of outside shooting will be something to follow closely leading up to the regular season opener on October 17 versus the Dallas Mavericks. Warren has replaced Dragan Bender as his backup, but divvying out minutes between he and Bridges will likely remain fluid in early portions of the regular season.
For anyone curious, Warren is 0/2 shooting from distance, but he’s at least taken steps forward playmaking while also maintaining his offensive efficiency. Until Warren turns into a three-level scorer, though, expect more of the same type of game out of the former North Carolina State volume scorer.
Thumbs Up: Trevor Ariza is the on-court leader this roster has needed for years
Leading up to game action, Ariza had already made a bigger difference than most veteran signings when Bridges let it be known to Brendon Kleen and I on Locked On Suns last month that Ariza was inviting the two young wings along every morning for an early shooting practice.
Then, on Wednesday, Ariza gave the perfect veteran leader quote when asked to comment on Ayton’s impressive start to preseason.
“Impressed? Not really, that’s what’s expected of him,” Ariza said. “I’ll be impressed when he has a 20 and 20 game. That’s impressive, which he has the capability to do.”
Ariza also has delivered when he’s on the basketball court for the Suns, too. He’s hit on 50% of his three-point looks compared to Anderson, who’s struggled mightily early hitting only 1/8 attempts.
Ariza played 29 minutes finishing with 10 points, 4 rebounds, 1 assist and 1 steal while converting 50% of his total looks. Through preseason, Ariza has averaged 11.3 points, 2.3 rebounds, 3 assists and 1 steal. Productive numbers for the grizzled veteran who’s entering into his first go-around of full-scale rebuilding after witnessing immense success with the Rockets.
Compared to other attempts at trying to establish real leadership for this group, Ariza feels like the first legitimate option brought in. His no-nonsense attitude is going to rub off on people, and you would hope that is felt postgame after this embarrassing effort versus Portland.
Thumbs Down: The Suns desperately need a point guard before opening night
We are now three out of three, 100% success rate in each game so far, where the point guard rotation has been an obvious eyesore. Even with Elie Okobo getting the start and Isaiah Canaan making his season debut after nursing a thumb injury, the lack of playmaking has been obvious.
For Kokoskov’s scheme to work, the lead ball handlers have to communicate his message to the rest of the players. The message is supposed to be sent through either Shaquille Harrison, De’Anthony Melton, Okobo, or Canaan but it’s been inconsistent at best.
Turning the speculation meter on for just a moment, Charlotte Hornets Assistant General Manager Buzz Peterson and lead scout Gary Sacks were in attendance. Here’s hoping that this eventual turns into Kemba Walker trade discussions. Highly doubtful, again just speculating, but at this point the Suns have to be considering all their options at this spot.
Even if it’s someone like Clippers point guard Milos Teodosic, who’s seen his playing time dwindle with Shai Gilgeous-Alexander’s emergence, anything would be an upgrade over the current depth chart available to them.
The Suns had the worst assist-to-turnover ratio last season, and that trend is continuing early especially with rookies soaking up some of that playing time.
Hopefully these three games have been an eye-opener for the Suns’ front office to be more urgent in trade discussions, because, if not, there will be some ugly basketball from an offensive flow and playmaking standpoint until it eventually occurs.
Sure, Melton looked great in mop-up time losing by around 30 points, but that definitely shouldn’t change the calculus one bit.
Phoenix will return to preseason action Monday at the defending champion Golden State Warriors. The big question I’m asking myself is whether the Suns will make a move to help Ayton and the shooters out before they depart for Oakland. At this point, they have to be considering it, right?