Unbelievably, the calendar has nearly turned to July already. There’s this free agency thing that will occupy your thoughts for a few days this next week, but Suns head coach Igor Kokoskov is focused on getting his young players ready for Summer League.
Igor will coach the team himself.
“We have a young team, young staff,” he said. “There’s some teams maybe one of the assistants would coach. It’s a lot of work to do it... but that’s not who I am. To sit on the side and observe, there’s nothing to observe right now.”
Kokoskov’s coacbing staff has been filled out with a strong, long-time lead assistant (Joe Prunty) and a number of coaches with history in player development.
He and his staff will be readying rookie and incumbent players over the next week, with a focus on the four draftees taken in last week’s NBA Draft.
Top overall pick Deandre Ayton as well as Mikal “I don’t have a hitch!” Bridges, french point guard Elie Okobo and guard George King will get most of the attention and minutes.
The first three will surely have three of the Suns 15 regular roster spots, while King has already agreed to sign a two-way contract for next season, one of two the Suns can offer. He likely replaces Danuel House, who has aigned to play SL for the Houston Rockets team this year.
Recent rookies too
However, lots of other guys need to learn Igor’s system and will use Summer League to speed up that process.
Summer league rules state that each team can only bring
- up to four “veterans” from their current roster who played the whole prior year in the NBA and are under contract for next year (Jackson, Chriss. Ulis and Bender)
- plus any guys who’d spent time in the G-League (Harrison, Reed)
- plus any guys who’d been injured at least 25 games the prior year and any rookies (would include Knight and even Booker)
- plus any rookies (Mikal Bridges, Ayton, Okobo, King)
- plus any free agents not under contract at the time of Summer League (still unknown)
Igor expects to see the young Suns players out there with the rookies.
“Yeah it’s open,” Igor said. “Competition is a good thing and I think it makes all of us better.”
For the Suns, that includes a few recent lottery picks: 2017-18 second-team All-Rookie “hairless” Josh Jackson, 2016-17 second team All-Rookie Marquese “I’m better than Papa Johns” Chriss and Dragan “I’m still developing!” Bender.
That also includes Tyler Ulis and 2018 draftee Davon Reed, who spent time in the G-League, as well as Shaquille Harrison the G-league vet who has a non-guaranteed contract for next season.
That’s 10 players, but there are no guarantees on how many games four of them will play. I’d expect that the Suns will be “careful” with Ayton, Jackson, Bender and Chriss after the first weekend of games concludes.
So expect the Suns to fill out the roster with a few more bodies.
Apparently, Aussie Emmett Naar, a 23-year old point guard from down under, will join the not-yet-announced team.
There is a rumor that Rahlir Hollis-Jefferson (Rondae’s brother) will join the team. Rahlir spent much of last season with the G-League NAZ Suns.
Last year’s NAZ Suns coach Cody Toppert has taken the ‘Director of Player Development’ position with the Suns this year.
From the Suns press release:
Toppert spent one season at the helm for the NAZ Suns, officially hired on the day of the team’s 2017-18 season opener. Under his watch, the NAZ Suns set a new team record for wins in a season with 23, finishing the year 23-27 (.460).
A team-record five players were called up to an NBA roster under Toppert in 2017-18. Isaiah Canaan signed with the Suns, Derrick Jones Jr. was called up by the Miami Heat, Josh Gray joined the Suns, Shaquille Harrison signed with the Suns and Xavier Silas was called up by the Boston Celtics. The five players called up to the NBA marked the most unique player call-ups any NBA G League team had last season.
Known for his offensive prowess, Toppert boosted the Suns on that end of the floor immediately. The NAZ Suns quickly set numerous offensive records, finishing tops in the league in three-point makes per game (14.9) and second in scoring (119.3 points per game).
Knight and Booker for practices, but not games
The primary focus will be on the Suns returning young players and the new draft picks. Kokoskov will make practices open to all of the Suns who want to play, including veterans Devin Booker and Brandon Knight.
Booker and Knight are allowed to participate in Summer League activities because they were injured at least 25 games the year before. Knight missed all season with a knee injury.
Booker and Knight have been working out and playing pickup at TSR Arena with the other guys since the season ended and are itching to get out there under the new coaches’ direction in a five-on-five setting (outside of SL, coaches cannot “lead” any formal practices or scrimmages more with than three-on-three at a time).
But don’t expect either Booker or Knight to play in an actual SL game.
“He wants to practice and play right now,” Kokoskov said of Brandon Knight. “Here’s a good story for you guys: We had promised to play a three-on-three recently, but we didn’t and he was upset. Good upset, not bad. So I called him and apologized that we missed playing.”
Knight’s attitude and effort has been praised all spring by the Suns, and he’s been ramping up his court activity since the season ended after recovering from ACL surgery this past season.
“He is excited,” Igor said. “He wants to start playing tomorrow. He is full go. Mentally and physically he is full go.”
But would the six-year NBA veteran, with 385 NBA games under his belt, play in Summer League?
“No, that’s not an option,” Igor said flatly. “We wouldn’t do that. He’s not a part of the discussion.”
That doesn’t mean Knight is out of favor with the Suns. It just means you don’t make a 6-year NBA veteran with career averages of 15 points and 4 assists on 30 minutes a night play against rookies, sophomores and hangers-on who only had a week to prepare before the games start.
Here we go
The Suns first Summer League game will be on Friday, July 6 and will be carried on national TV (either ESPN or NBA TV). They play the Mavericks, but word has already come out that Luka Doncic will NOT be playing in SL (though he IS on the roster they released this week). The Friday night game will likely be a Okobo vs. Jalen Brunson affair. The Suns were reportedly looking at Brunson with the 31st pick, but rated Okobo higher.
Then on Saiurday, it’s Deandre Ayton vs. Marvin Bagley III as two young teams battle for supremacy of young rosters. And also, Marquese Chriss vs. the ghosts of draft day past (i.e. Bogdan Bogdanovic and Skal Labissiere).
Finally on Monday, Ayton gets to square off against Mo Bamba and the Orlando Magic.
Yours truly will be there for at least the first two games, if not all three.
Ayton, Doncic, Bagley and Bamba were all considered contenders — on some level — for the #1 overall pick. But according to coach Igor, it wasn’t much of a competition.
“There was not a lot of doubts who we were going to take,” Igor says of taking Ayton will the top overall pick. “It wasn’t an easy decision but it was a unanimous decision.”
After those first three games, the seeding will be determined for the SL playoffs. You can likely expect the Suns will be one of the favorites.