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Five areas I’m watching for with the Phoenix Suns over their final 23 games

After the All-Star break, these are things I’m hoping to see come to fruition.

NBA: All Star Saturday Night Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Even though the Suns sit tied alongside the Atlanta Hawks with an 18-41 record, there are many important steps of progression I want to see over their final 7-week stretch.

Armed with the league’s youngest rotation, expect to see minutes for the likes of Tyson Chandler and Jared Dudley significantly decrease.

Unlike last year where they had to sit Eric Bledsoe, Brandon Knight, and Chandler, Phoenix should be able to organically come up with losses via the league’s toughest schedule.

Over their final 23 games, 9 of them come against the likes of Golden State, Cleveland, Houston, Oklahoma City, and Boston. It’s safe to assume Phoenix could go 0-for, maybe sneak one victory if one team is coasting much like the Warriors was in the first 6 minutes before they went on to lambast them by 46.

When the chance to add either Luka Doncic or Deandre Ayton is there for the taking, I expect general manager Ryan McDonough to devise something to help their odds even more.

Looking toward the future, though, here are fives thoughts/ideas that I want to see the Suns analyze under a bigger microscope.

No. 1: Devin Booker should attempt 10 3s a game

When scanning to see who jacks up the most 3s on average, it’s no surprise both names come from the league’s most successful teams at the moment. Golden State’s Stephen Curry and Houston’s James Harden have averaged over 10 three-point attempts per game, and there’s no reason why Booker should not be alongside them for at least this last quarter.

Each season, Booker has progressively taken his offense further outside. It went from 3.8 to 5.2 and now it’s up to 7 attempts in Year 3. Hopefully, by Year 4 we see Booker join the likes of Curry and Harden in the double-digits because I think that’s his best chance of maximizing his offense as a weapon even further.

With the addition of Elfrid Payton, though, that opens the door for Booker to see easily 10+ looks from beyond the arc. In their debut together, Payton fed him a ton of those opportunities to the tune of tying a career-high 14 attempts.

Here’s an interesting number to chew on: Booker averages 34.3 points while converting 3s at a 43.1% clip in 11 career games where he shoots 10 or more treys.

Payton’s addition should help ease the load off Booker, and in turn, allow him to return more to his sniper-like role from the outside. I imagine we see Booker break his career-high of 3s made in a game with 6 broken sometime over this stretch of games.

No. 2: Josh Jackson needs to be utilized more in playmaking role

Unfortunately, we have not seen this skill translate over as crisp as I hoped, but when it flashes it’s a fun sight to behold. We saw it happen against Oklahoma City in January where Jackson hummed towards a line of 17 points, 10 rebounds, 5 assists, and 1 block.

Those flashes have shown albeit in quick glimpses, but they have luckily started to show more consistently since 2018 began.

There’s been no denying that Jackson has been a top-five rookie over the last six weeks alongside Donovan Mitchell, Ben Simmons, Lauri Markkanen, and Dennis Smith Jr. The two-way potential is starting to seep onto the court more often, while his defense is slowly starting to come back towards average in terms of on-ball stops.

One area I loved with Jackson that he was able to display at Kansas was his unique playmaking ability for a wing. At 6’8, Jackson is able to see over defenders and alongside his speed can change the game in transition opportunities.

As we have seen plenty of times already, Jackson loves to throw the deep ball in transition, which has paid off for Warren, Booker, and others thus far.

Jackson needs to improve his handle before he capitalizes off of playmaking opportunities, but he’s slowly earning that trust back with Jay Triano after his DNP-CD in early January versus Atlanta.

The No. 4 pick in the 2017 draft has only had 3/57 games so far where he posts 4 or more assists. That surprises me to a fair degree, but a lot of that has to do with his own inconsistencies alongside Phoenix’s revolving door at point guard.

With a seemingly more stable rotation and more minutes in line for him presumably after the break, Triano and Co. should try to revive one of the more gifted aspects of Jackson’s pre-draft profile.

Remember, McDonough said after they selected him that he was the best passing wing he’s scouted.

“He’s one of the better passing wings that we’ve scouted, that I’ve scouted in a long time,” McDonough said back in June. “His feel for a guy who 6’8 or so is pretty unique. His ability to kind of read plays before they happen and get the ball out of his hands quickly, that shows me has a pretty good mind for the game. It’s not like he’s just catching the ball, then thinking what I need to do next. When the ball’s already in the air coming to him, he’s already thinking about what he’s going to do with it.”

Now, the real question is if this is deployed over their final 23 games or brought out more after Jackson heads into his sophomore season in the pros.

No. 3: Continue to see Dragan Bender at the five moving forward

Outside of Jackson, Bender has made significant strides since the turn of the new year.

Over his last 10, Bender is averaging 9.5 points, 5.1 rebounds, 1.7 assists while shooting 40.5% on 3s.

During that timeframe, Bender also flipped the switch in terms of aggressiveness and trying things out offensively. Also, Triano made the switch and placed Bender into the starting lineup. It’s worked, especially when the 7’1 Croatian can space the floor at the 5 spot.

In 2018, Bender has already posted 6 outings where he ends up with 4 or more assists. Before then, that never happened.

A lot of that has to do with how Bender fits alongside Phoenix’s three-headed wing attack of Booker, Warren, and Jackson. When Triano throws Bender out at the 5, it presents immediate matchup problems that those wings are able to exploit at will.

Bender is able to drag his big out to the perimeter, which causes a domino effect where cutting lanes open up in abundance. When you have two of the better cutters — and now Payton can be added into the equation — it makes life easier on offensive creation.

If we see Chandler’s minutes reduced once Alan Williams returns, Bender should see an even heavier workload at center as Alex Len has proven to not be a long-term piece of the Suns.

Bender’s playmaking ability was one of the main areas many draft niques were enthused about with his long-term potential. Those flashes under Triano are now starting to be realized, and it should be expanded upon while he continues stretching out opposing defenses.

No. 4: Marquese Chriss and Dragan Bender need to start together soon

Many have been begging for it since after last year’s All-Star break, but we have only seen the 2016 frontcourt lottery duo in very small doses.

It’s been so miniscule to the point that it’s only appeared in 17 games to the tune of 110 total minutes. Not encouraging. And it’s even worse when analyzing the advanced numbers as their net rating is a putrid -22.8.

This duo might even help the Suns pile up losses as the addition of Payton will strengthen Phoenix’s backcourt and wing sets. Now, as I mentioned earlier, expect to see Chandler sit to let them analyze how this pairing works.

The early results haven’t been encouraging, and it hasn’t been better since Bender’s turnaround. The net rating since Jan. 7 is even worse at -30.2.

Whichever way McDonough can get more lottery balls in his favor he will, and this is a low key way of doing so while also experimenting to see how their 2016 top-8 selections work together with a larger sample size.

It’s become even more clear over the last six weeks, but the gap between Bender and Chriss in terms of long-term value on this team is beginning to increase.

A starting lineup of Payton-Booker-Warren/Jackson-Chriss-Bender should be in their cards soon.

No. 5: Will Elfrid Payton prove to be legit?

The early returns on the Payton trade have been spectacular. Compared to the likes of Mike James, Tyler Ulis, Isaiah Canaan, and a going through the motions Eric Bledsoe, Payton has been a breath of fresh air.

Through his first three games, Payton has averaged 20 points, 8 rebounds, and 8 assists all while shooting above 50%. That obviously isn’t sustainable, but there are other factors to watch out for.

Payton will be a restricted free agent, so Phoenix has the right to match any offer that goes his way but how the lottery balls fall will definitely play a factor. If Luka Doncic could be had, I could easily see McDonough rescind Payton’s rights clearing their cap to add the 6’8 Slovenian point guard and another piece via free agency.

What works in the Suns favor, though, is the upcoming market.

Outside of Phoenix, only five other teams project to have cap room to play around with. That could signal bargain deals looming for McDonough to capitalize on, which could equate to a 2-3 year deal for Payton on a cheaper wage scale than anticipated. This scenario totally could happen.

A big factor will be how the Booker/Payton backcourt meshes over these final 20+ contests.

Against Utah, Payton, as mentioned earlier, set up Booker with a lot of easy looks on 3s. That hasn’t happened often for Booker, if at all this entire season beforehand. He also has been steadily keeping an eye out for the likes of Jackson, Bender, Chriss, and Warren every chance he gets.

Currently, he’s No. 6 in potential assists league-wide since his Suns debut on Feb. 10 against Denver.

Where Payton has been excellent in terms of patience on the offensive end, he needs to show more flashes of the Louisiana-Lafayette version compared to the Orlando one. On the pro level, Payton has failed to live up to his defensive hype, often times dying far too often on screens and being consistently beaten in simple matchups.

The positive flashes have shown more than the negative ones in three initial starts, but he’s sure to rear the ugly Orlando side every once in awhile.

If he ever figures it out on that end, Phoenix might have something there with 2014’s No. 10 overall pick.

How Payton plays over this final stretch could even play a factor in how they draft, which is crazy to think about. If Payton somehow keeps up a similar pace to how he is now, that should make McDonough far more comfortable to select Ayton over Doncic if the lottery finally went Phoenix’s way for the first time.

Not only will Payton have to answer these questions, but many names throughout the roster will have to as well. These final 23 games are actually an important scope in terms of how this summer should play out.

Flexibility remains the main idea in Phoenix, but what course they end up taking to build a contender around Booker could be decided on via actions between February-April.

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