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Suns’ training staff back under microscope heading into a new season

With both Brandon Knight and Isaiah Canaan back on the court following big injuries, Aaron Nelson and his team have the spotlight once more.

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NBA: Dallas Mavericks at Phoenix Suns Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Though they lost some lustre through the poor performance of the Suns’ young squad in recent seasons, the renowned Phoenix training staff will have a chance this year to show once again what makes them special.

Back when the Suns were frequent entrants into the postseason, the team was known as much for its folkloric training staff as its MVP point guard. That only changed as, with each loss, Phoenix became known more and more for well, nothing.

But with patients such as Brandon Knight and Isaiah Canaan expected to compete to play a role on the team, this season will be the biggest test for Aaron Nelson and the Suns’ training staff in years.

Canaan told The Arizona Republic last week that he initially couldn’t travel after suffering a broken ankle against Dallas in January. But Canaan felt far from stranded rehabbing in Phoenix.

“The Suns organization helped me get back on my feet and back to doing what I love to do,” he said.

Getting back to full health meant adjusting to being active on his repaired ankle. That meant yoga, core work, and strength and conditioning training.

I saw Canaan in and around early-season Phoenix Mercury practices this summer, nearing the end of his training program and working toward health. He was upbeat despite the horrific injury he suffered, talking with Mercury personnel and happy to answer questions about his recovery.

Canaan signed a non-guaranteed deal with the Suns last week, giving him an opportunity to fight in training camp for a spot on the roster. There is certainly a hole on the roster in the guard rotation, which Canaan and Shaquille Harrison will try to fill.

“Coming off an injury like that, nobody expects you to play at the highest level you were playing at before you got hurt. I mean just to have an opportunity is all I can really ask for,” Canaan told The Republic.

While Canaan is battling for another chance in the league after struggling through a terrifying injury, there is more riding on Knight’s recovery.

The 26-year-old, whom coach Igor Kokoskov outright called the “starting point guard” before Summer League, fits the typical mold of a veteran reclamation project that Nelson and his staff became famous for. Knight tore his ACL during a rec-league exhibition and missed the entire 2017-18 season.

“Having not played in over a year, it feels good to just relearn those movements and get back out there to basketball activity,” Knight said during the minicamp.

Nelson and the staff earned their reputation by being ahead of the curve on preventative work, based on frequent strength and mobility assessments throughout the year. This allowed them to rehabilitate veterans like Shaquille O’Neal, Michael Redd and Vince Carter, and prolong Steve Nash’s career despite consistent back pain.

But an injury like Knight’s, which happened across the country in Florida near where he grew up, is just bad luck.

“Now if a guy tears his ACL or has to have microfracture or steps on someone’s foot and fractures his fifth metatarsal, we can’t control that, and you wish you could but it’s just impossible in any sport,” Nelson told FanSided in 2012.

“You can do so much for prevention, but then it just stops. Then it’s a matter of keep your fingers crossed and hope nothing bad happens.”

Perhaps bad luck is the rosiest outlook one could have on the injury which halted Knight’s career and left the Suns shallow at point guard last year. That would mean there is optimism moving forward, entering a year in which a lot is riding on Knight.

By proxy, that pressure on Knight is passed down to the Suns’ training staff as well. They’ve escaped the spotlight somewhat during this rebuild, but forgetting how big an advantage they represent for the organization would be a mistake.

The staff was recently featured on an ESPN+ documentary short — but don’t call it a comeback. While attention is shifting back to the training and recovery incubator Phoenix has built, it was there all along.