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Five storylines to watch as Suns training camp begins

Here’s what I’ll have my eye on, from the obvious hole at point guard to how the Suns play defense.

A whole lot has changed since the Suns last took the court back on April 10. As usual, the talk about all the turnover on the coaching staff and in the locker room was optimistic during Suns Media Day on Monday morning, but the words from the organization’s key players helped paint a picture of what this all will look like on the court.

Here’s what to look out for heading into training camp in Flagstaff, with the Suns’ first preseason game just around the corner next Monday, Oct. 1.

1. Who plays point guard, and what is their job?

The two predominant tales the team told about the point guard rotation on Monday were a) They like the four guys (Isaiah Canaan, Shaquille Harrison, De’Anthony Melton and Elie Okobo) on their roster and b) the front office will remain active from now until the trade deadline hunting down a better option.

It was the first question directed toward general manager Ryan McDonough, and his answer stated the obvious: “We’re young there.”

More to the point, though, having four guys hasn’t alleviated any of the concerns that arose the instant Eric Bledsoe tweeted he was done in Phoenix. Melton, Harrison and Okobo are all young and look ready, in certain aspects of the game, to compete right away. But trusting rookie second-rounders, even those Phoenix loved predraft, and Harrison, who played just 23 games last year, is daring.

“We’re trying to conceptually turn a weakness into a strength,” said coach Igor Kokoskov of the peculiar balance of the backcourt. “We don’t have one guy who is our starting point guard, we have four guys who can start on any night.”

It’s clear the Suns don’t yet know what they have. McDonough was honest about that, saying he couldn’t even draw outright conclusions about Melton until he saw him more. Harrison is the oldest of the group at 24 and seemingly the front-runner to start opposite Devin Booker, but shot just 56.5 percent within five feet last season and much of his NBA time came during the tankfest that is March and April basketball.

What this foursome is asked to do in September will be vastly different than their job when Booker returns. Training camp and the preseason will look a lot like Summer League. Harrison, Okobo and Davon Reed initiated the primary action just past half court, and the ball spun around the arc until it found energy. At least, that’s what the Suns’ offense looked like at its best.

There were times when Harrison and Reed’s inability to get the ball into the middle of the floor stunted the flow of the set and resulted in broken plays. The two combined for 18 turnovers over four games, and contributed to many of Deandre Ayton’s 13 turnovers. It has to get better for the Suns to be competitive.

When Booker returns, those guys will get to refocus their energy where it can make the biggest impact — on defense. Harrison’s bonkers 3.2 steal percentage as an undersized G League call-up is rivaled only by Melton’s own college numbers. These guys will bring a different mentality to the backcourt opposite Booker than he even had with Bledsoe.

It’s just a matter of figuring out which of them plays. Canaan is non-guaranteed and just barely making it back to full speed for training camp after the horrific ankle break. It’s early and he won’t be as healthy as he’ll be six months from now. He is likely to be cut before opening night unless he wows in Flagstaff, but the other three will be in an ongoing battle for minutes throughout the year.

2. How will Deandre Ayton be used?

“He’s a center, nothing but a center,” Kokoskov said Monday, describing Ayton and silencing any qualms that the No. 1 pick’s position would be an ongoing concern in Phoenix. Kokoskov was quick to acknowledge that calling Ayton “just” anything would be a mistake, that Ayton has prolific skills to help him rise above the rest of the league, but ultimately promised Ayton would operate mostly around the rim on both ends.

Ayton’s role is going to be close to what we saw in Vegas in July, Kokoskov said at Media Day. That means plenty of initial action away from the big man before the ball ends up in his hands — and lots of shooting to direct attention away from him. Ayton shot 14-17 from the free-throw line at Summer League as a result of that system, and earned easier looks than at Arizona, despite being double- and triple-teamed.

As the Suns acclimate to a new system and add new pieces into the rotation (Booker may be the only returning starter, from last year, somehow), Ayton’s job will be made simple. So don’t hold your breath for the big man bombing from 3 anytime soon.

Defense will be the real focus for Ayton, as was said numerous times Monday. “(Ayton) should take it really, really personal. I want him to be one of the best defensive anchors in this league,” Kokoskov said. It’s tough to tell now what that will look like, but we know Ayton has the tools to be dominant on defense. Getting to that point will be a matter of support and hard work.

For his part, Ayton joked that talking on defense will be no problem for him, and intimated that he better understands his role now, after a full summer with the organization.

3. How will the Suns play on defense?

In Las Vegas, the Suns took advantage of their versatility on the defensive end to corral the young groups they faced. You can already tell their principles defending the pick-and-roll, much like Kokoskov had in Utah, will rely on Ayton dropping back to corral the ball-handler and then recovering quickly to bully his big man matchup.

Outside of the anchor in the middle, the rest of the Suns’ roster looks perfect for adopting the trend of aggressive switching that has made the league’s best teams so successful in recent years. As Josh Jackson mentioned at the podium Monday, championship contenders like the Rockets, Warriors and Celtics all have guys around Jackson’s height or shorter playing power forward these days, and the centers and guards are about that same size. Phoenix now has the pieces to compete that way.

From Jackson, Harrison and Melton to Mikal Bridges and Dragan Bender, the Suns can make the best of their interchangeable pieces to construct a versatile defense that is hard to match. There is a lot of uncertainty here after finishing the season as the NBA’s worst defense last season, but the Suns have the pieces to be much better in 2018-19.

4. What does the big man rotation look like?

Media Day did not provide much clarity on how the front court rotation shakes out, but it’s something worth watching over the next month. After trading for Richaun Holmes, the Suns can count him, Ayton, Bender, Ryan Anderson and Tyson Chandler all as traditional bigs who have some claim to a rotation spot. The Suns will also likely play small a great deal, meaning Bridges, T.J. Warren and Trevor Ariza could slide down to the four fairly often.

This all means that with the 96 big-man minutes, it will be difficult to fit everyone in. As with the last two years, coach and general manager alike echoed it will be a competition for a spot in the rotation heading into the year — and we know injuries will strike.

You can probably pencil Ayton in for 30-plus minutes a night once the season opens, and Chandler will probably fade away as the season goes on. Besides those two? It will be a matter of how well Anderson, Ariza and Holmes translate to new situations, and who sticks out within the group of youngsters.

The Suns need to get a good look at everyone before continuing the roster overturn that has been a trademark of McDonough’s tenure in Phoenix. We know one or two guys will be gone in the inevitable deal for a playmaker, but that still leaves 12 or 13 young pieces vying for attention from a new coach.

In the frontcourt, Phoenix’s aggression acquiring win-now pieces could result in something of a logjam.

5. Do small lineups make an impact?

It came as a bit of a surprise last week when the news came out that Phoenix targeted J.J. Redick in July. As Redick himself said on the Lowe Post podcast, the Suns reached out to the veteran sharpshooter and told him they could “make something happen straight away.” And this was after the Suns had signed Trevor Ariza, per Redick.

These things happen a lot in the NBA — what was surprising was what it represented about the Suns’ ideology as they rebuilt their roster this summer. Considering Redick, who has not come off the bench more than one game since the 2012-13 season, signals that the Suns may already have imagined the ball in Booker’s hands more often this year.

It’s not unlike the Houston teams this roster is clearly being modeled after. While McDonough nodded to the comparisons between this squad and the Rockets 2016-17 team especially, he noted there would be less isolation under Kokoskov based on the talent in Phoenix.

Booker agreed with the assessment. “I see the similarities,” he said. “Obviously, we have two of the starters from that team now, but with a very talented big man in Deandre.

“I have been watching film on that team now, just trying to feel out Ryan and Trevor to see where their spots are on the floor.”

When he was specifically asked about the point guard situation, which, combined with wing depth, put the Suns’ in the position of potentially playing small more, Booker said it created more opportunity.

“You gotta start somewhere,” he said.

For the Suns to make full use of their revamped roster, they will need to get comfortable playing a lot like those Rockets — and the winning organizations around the league. That means being versatile, thinking quickly and going small.

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