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Practice Notebook: Shaquille Harrison has turned into a valuable defensive sparkplug for the Suns

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Harrison has worked his way to a position where it’s hard to not sign him for the remainder of the season. He might even be around longer than that, too.

NBA: Portland Trail Blazers at Phoenix Suns Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

Just a few weeks ago, former Northern Arizona Suns shooting guard Shaquille Harrison was sitting in a hospital room celebrating his sister having the birth of a child. It turned out to be perfect timing because not too long afterward a phone call from the Phoenix Suns came through on his end. They were calling to offer him a 10-day contract after Josh Gray’s ended after the All-Star Break.

That’s not even the beginning of Harrison’s long journey to making his professional debut as a member of the big league Suns.

Harrison has a brother, Monte, who plays for the Miami Marlins. He’s well in line to start in right field for them, too.

It’s rare you see brothers play professionally at the same time in two different sports, but Shaquille and Monte are different. While one Harrison is swiping at point guards collecting steals at a frenetic pace, another one is hitting home runs down in Miami.

“Me and his relationship, it can’t get any closer than I imagine. Me and him have been through it all as little kids. For us to be playing professional sports growing up from where we came from, it’s honestly a blessing.”

Even though Harrison was enthused, he knew this was finally his chance to breakthrough on an NBA roster.

“I was happy. I had some tears. I was with my mom and my sister at the hospital, my sister just had a baby so it was just great, great timing,” Harrison said about where he was in that life-changing call came in. “At the time, I was really happy but I also knew it was go-time. It was time to go to work and embrace the opportunity.”

And, wow, has he certainly made the most of his opportunity in short order.

Harrison’s defensive instincts immediately won him minutes over Tyler Ulis as their primary backup point guard spelling Elfrid Payton and sometimes Devin Booker. He even saw crunch-time minutes in a one-possession game against the Portland Trail Blazers last week.

Harrison was planted onto Damian Lillard as his assignment and he nearly came away with the steal until Lillard readjusted the ball as it was squirming free.

That game didn’t see him pick up a steal, but his impact was felt.

Guarding Lillard was his second career game in the NBA, but in his first one against the LA Clippers, he had to go against Lou Williams. He held his own to the tune of four steals in 14 minutes while also blocking a shot.

In his first four games as a Sun, Harrison has twice recorded four steals. The last time a rookie reserve did that was all the way back in 2005 when then lottery pick Josh Childress out of Stanford played for the Atlanta Hawks. No rookie reserve has done it three times in a full season since 2000.

Certainly, impressive numbers and they speak to how much energy he brings on that end compared to most of his teammates already. When Harrison comes in, there’s a notable jump in defensive effort from my early eye test because they know he is bringing it every possession.

“He’s been great. Every time, he’s playing with that edge. You know, playing with that purpose which a lot of people do,” Booker said of Harrison. “You get that chance, that opportunity taking full advantage of it. He plays hard every possession and that’s what we need.”

Interim head coach Jay Triano quickly gained trust in Harrison. He even acknowledged that Shaq secured the outcome of last night’s game in Memphis.

When the Suns need a stop, they are already calling on Harrison to be the stopper of point guards.

“He’s the type of player that can change the game,” Triano said. “I don’t know if he changed the game last night but he secured a game for us with his defensive ability.”

If Harrison continues to keep this up, I want to see him as a piece of the bench unit even further past this season. There are a lot of tools to work with on both ends.

“I just try to be that energy guy. I’m not necessarily going out there to get steals but me, I’m just trying to make the right play,” Harrison said. “Just bring the energy and just being out there, it’s being a nag for the defenders. With EP (Elfrid Payton) running the point guard, try tiring (opposing point guards) out and everything so whatever I gotta do just to amp it up a little bit. That’s the type of player I am. I play with a lot of energy. That’s what I love to do.”

High Praise for Josh Jackson

What’s changed with Josh Jackson in 2018? As I have hit on a lot, the switch all the sudden flipped after Triano gave him a DNP Jan. 2 against Atlanta. Ever since Jackson has looked the part of a top 5 pick in a loaded draft class.

Over his past 5 games, Jackson is averaging 19 points, 7.2 rebounds, 2.2 assists, and 1 steal with a 50.7 field goal percentage. Compared to November and December, who would have thought we would be here already?

As Triano told the local media after Thursday’s practice, he believes Jackson has locked in as far as his approach as a pro.

“I just think his general approach to the game and practices and he just seems to be like really locked in and not playing at a frenetic pace. He’s slowed down a little bit. He picks and chooses when he can attack,” Triano said about Jackson. “I think he’s trusting his teammates more and his teammates are trusting him more. At the beginning, we weren’t really sure what he was going to do. It’s just us becoming more familiar with him and his teammates becoming more familiar with him.”

Another note to keep an eye with Jackson, even after his breakout performance where he tallied up 29 points, 7 rebounds, 4 assists, 2 steals, and 2 blocks on 9-16 field goals, but he went to the line in bunches. Overall, Jackson finished with 13 free throw attempts and a few nights before, in New Orleans, he had 11.

Simply put, with his speed, length, and handle for a forward this should be the bread-and-butter of his offensive attack outside of cutting to the rim, where the No. 4 pick is quickly becoming good at as well.

“We’ve kind of talked to him about the number of people who can’t keep him from getting to the basket. He has that quick step. He’s got the long stride. He’s got the great athleticism where when he gets to your side, that you either have to bump him or figure out how you're going to cut him off,” Triano said. “I said I’d like to see him get more charges. It means he’s taking it more. Sure enough, he got one last night but he also had more free throws than he did charges, so I just think that’s part of his game. His ability to attack and find the seams. That’s why he’s getting more free throws.”

Triano brings up a great point there. Jackson has started to sacrifice himself more often to help gain extra possessions for Phoenix, and that was a huge reason late why they pulled away. Two of those last night helped change the pendulum as far as on-court momentum is concerned.

The former Jayhawk has even seen time playing spot center with their litany of injuries in the frontcourt, but Jackson played well. He was able to hold his own against Anthony Davis and Marc Gasol. That’s impressive, and an upgrade from his first road game where Blake Griffin torched him nearly every possession.

His defense should improve this summer after another few months in the weight room so he can bully wings with his tantalizing two-way outlook.

Jackson’s offensive game is something I didn’t expect to be like this. I thought he would be further along on the other end, so these flashes that are becoming consistent now have to make Suns fans excited. He has looked the part, especially coming up huge in Memphis when Booker was in need of a running mate with T.J. Warren sidelined by a tailbone injury.

During the pre-draft process, a lot of draftniks were excited about Jackson’s defensive profile. He does everything, even the dirty work. His relentless motor also won him over many front offices throughout his one year at Kansas.

Tyson Chandler, who has been a stalwart as a defensive anchor in the middle of defenses for 15+ years, sang the praises of Jackson on Thursday after his career-best night in Memphis.

“His maturity. He’s a big-time competitor. He’s one of those guys that you see and you’re not worried about because he’s such a competitive guy that he’s going to figure it out. Because he wants to figure out how to win,” Chandler said. “I think what you’re seeing over the last couple of games and last couple of weeks of this stretch is just his maturity and the game. Him starting to be able to understand it a little better. When you first come in, you’re just trying to figure it out, eyes wide open, but I think now for him the game is slowing a little bit and now he’s starting to be able to put his presence on the floor and the reason why he was drafted where he was drafted.”

Another area Chandler touched on when discussing Jackson was about his overall potential. From a guy who won Defensive Player of the Year in 2012, this is awesome to hear him say that Jackson is well on his way to being a perennial contender for All-NBA Defensive teams.

“Yeah, I try to talk to them all (young players on the roster), but with him specifically because I think he has the potential to be an incredible defender,” Chandler said. “I envision him some years down the road being on All-NBA Defensive team because he has that potential. He has that timing. It’s just a natural gift to be able to do it.”

Has Jackson turned the corner compared to where he was about 8-10 weeks ago? Yes, absolutely, and his trajectory should only continue to grow as his boundless energy and tireless work ethic seems to be paying dividends now.

Booker attempting more 3s alongside Payton

As I have monitored closely over the last few weeks, Booker has started to shift back towards his natural shooting spots alongside a starting quality point guard in Elfrid Payton.

Since his return to the lineup on Valentine’s Day against Utah, Booker has attempted 9.8 3s per game which trails only James Harden and Stephen Curry.

I simply asked Booker on Thursday, why is that? With Booker being one of the rare breeds of scorers who finds his shots within the flow of the game and hits at efficient clips, that peaked my curiosity from an advanced metrics point of view.

Is Booker doing some hoop-math? No, he’s simply finding his best shots within the flow of the game and still draining them. That’s what makes him such a valuable offensive weapon who’s in line for a max contract extension this summer.

He does admit though that he worked on that this summer as far as advancing his range. Today’s NBA is prioritizing the long ball, and it shows with Harden and Curry being superstars.

Booker, if all goes to plan, should be right alongside them over a full 82-game season as far as attempted 3s per game, I imagine. His aggressiveness from the outside will make his high volume scoring outings even more explosive.

“Through the summer, I worked on that a lot. I feel like the game is evolving,” Booker said. “Obviously, a three-point shot is a higher percentage shot than a mid-range or whatever people try to say. I just play in the flow of the game honestly. Whenever I get somewhat of a clean look, I’ll take it.”