Believe it or not, Ripley, the Phoenix Suns are less than two excruciating months of nothingness away from the start of preseason basketball. Once through the news deserts of August and September, NBA basketball will shimmer on the horizon like an oasis and slake the parched masses with early answers regarding questions surrounding the 2018-19 squad.
One of the most pressing questions is how the rotations will play out, especially in the frontcourt. With T.J. Warren, Josh Jackson, Trevor Ariza, Mikal Bridges, Marquese Chriss, Dragan Bender, Deandre Ayton, Tyson Chandler and Richaun Holmes all vying for minutes at the small forward, power forward and center positions, there is a squeeze coming for a few of these guys. Head coach Igor Kokoskov will be charged with doling out minutes and roles, but the math suggests not everyone will be happy.
There is a simple solution for assuring no one rots on the bench, at least: the G League.
The G League in more or less its present form has been in existence since the 2005-06 season. Before partnering with Gatorade and rebranding itself, it was called the NBA D League, with the ‘D’ standing for development. The Suns, however, have neglected this fact in recent years, choosing to do their developing in-house rather than outsource to their G League affiliate in Prescott Valley.
Over the past three seasons, the Suns have made 22 assignments to their affiliate, not counting two-way players. Last season, they made 13. In 2016-17, it was eight. In 2015-16, they made one assignment. Half of the assignments in that span went to Derrick Jones Jr., with Davon Reed (six), Alan Williams (three), Tyler Ulis (one), and Jordan McRae (one) constituting the others. Disappointingly, many of those assignments were for rehab, not development.
It makes sense the Suns wouldn’t have maximized their affiliate in recent years. The team in Phoenix wasn’t very good, and the logjams were made up mostly of experienced players who would get little to nothing out of a G League assignment.
That’s not the case this season. Of the eight players mentioned above in the frontcourt rotation, five have three or fewer years in the league and are eligible to be assigned to the G League an unlimited number of times. While it’s unlikely Ayton or Jackson would be sent down — although not impossible — it wouldn’t be a terrible idea for Bender, Chriss, and Bridges.
As a rookie, Bridges is in all likelihood the fourth man on the totem pole behind similar players in Warren, Jackson and Ariza. Unless his experience as a two-time national champion at Villanova works to his benefit or the Suns are deluged by injuries, he could be in line for a slew of DNPs. Getting some run with the Northern Arizona Suns, who run the same system as the big club, could help him develop as more than just a body for practice.
Chriss could also use some time in the G League. He had numerous issues last season, both on and off the court, that culminated in a season of regression for the project forward, but his biggest issue remains maturity. From coming in last season out of shape to pouting about playing time to continued struggles to rein in his emotions, Chriss needs a reality check. His trade value has bottomed out, which in and of itself should be the canary in the coal mine for him. A trip up north to the G League could act as a scared-straight program, providing a glimpse into what life might become if he doesn’t take his craft more seriously. Hey, seeing the future did wonders for Scrooge.
But of those three, Bender would benefit the most from an assignment — or six. Coming off two seasons charitably described as lackluster and a Summer League performance that was “meh” at best, he needs to be thrown into an environment that will push him to break through the blocks holding him back.
And that probably won’t happen in the NBA.
Yes, the talent is superior in the NBA, but this isn’t a talent issue. Bender’s soul doesn’t burn basketball, and one doesn’t rediscover his love for the game around a bunch of players on guaranteed multimillion-dollar contracts. That’s not to say NBA players don’t work hard and earn their money, but you rarely find a player willing to clamber over the bones of his enemies who in two hours will be hopping in his Maybach and driving home to Paradise Valley.
Those guys are found in the G League, where everyone’s dreams hang by fraying threads. Yet they persist, slogging through commercial flights and long bus rides, staying in accommodations a couple steps up from no-tell motels, sweating blood for meager pay in the hopes they will one day realize their dream of donning an NBA jersey with their name stitched on the back.
Those are the guys who will help Bender rediscover his joy for basketball, that feeling he had watching Toni Kukoc highlights as a kid, the feeling that compelled him to go outside and try to emulate his childhood hero’s moves. He wasn’t playing for anything back then but love for the sport itself.
As Michael Jordan said of his time playing minor league baseball in a 2000 ESPN SportsCentury documentary, “Those minor leaguers were the best thing to happen to me. It was their true love for the game. And I lost that. And I found it again playing minor league baseball.”
Bender can experience the same thing. He can remember what it’s like to love basketball, love to compete. He can go head-to-head with guys who believe they deserve his job, his contract, his opportunity — and will be out to prove it nightly. Guys who couldn’t care less he was hyped as the European Kevin Durant when he came to the States.
He can remember what it’s like not to be hungry, but starving. And it’s a lesson best taught in the G League.
It’s incumbent on the Suns to finally use their G League team as a greater asset rather than merely a rehab destination and a pool from which to draw injury replacements. Maybe now more than ever, the NAZ Suns are positioned to help develop key players on this Phoenix roster, to be used like a true minor league team. If the Suns are done with tanking, they’ll start putting their affiliate to good use.