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Suns preview new-look roster and scheme at their open practice

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Phoenix put on a quick show for the fans on Saturday with a 20-minute scrimmage. Here are the big takeaways.

NBA: Phoenix Suns-Media Day Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

For as little advertised as this open practice was for the Phoenix Suns outside of social media platforms, first off I want to say how impressive it was to see most of both lower-level baselines nearly filled up. Right away, you could tell the energy in the air from this season compared with last is different. Devin Booker extending for five more seasons and the team selecting Deandre Ayton at No. 1 have brought newfound life to the Suns’ fanbase.

Even though Saturday’s event was advertised as an open practice, I was surprised to find out it was an actual scrimmage split up by white and black practice jerseys. Head coach Igor Kokoskov was wearing a microphone for fans to listen in, but it was rarely used with a 20-minute running clock.

The main takeaway from this event was how intricate Kokoskov’s offense is and how if one piece is out of position or doesn’t know what they’re doing, it creates some issues. As Kokoskov let the media know afterwards, they still have plenty of work to do on both ends after only one week. They also treated today like another day of training camp, too.

Below, I’m going to list off some of my biggest points I took away from Saturday’s event at Talking Stick Resort Arena.

  • Dragan Bender not only was playing within himself, but Kokoskov’s offense is going to make good use of him. He will be used as a facilitating big on the wing and in the corner. That was on display a few times, even though he didn’t make a shot — he was playing with energy, which surprised me. If Bender is attacking the offensive glass and playmaking for others, he could finally unlock his skill set under Kokoskov.
  • Josh Jackson had the highlight play of the game; after Shaquille Harrison stole the ball from him, Jackson made up for it on the other end with a chase-down block. Also, his on-court chemistry with Deandre Ayton was on full display already with two alley-oop finishes off pick-and-rolls.

“Josh is big on his big man rolling to the rim as fast as possible, so once he passes our shoulder, go straight to the rim and it’s going to be in the air by then,” Ayton said afterwards on the court. “Just having that chemistry with him and him having that communication with me is making me better as a player and as a good roll man, because once I finish my roll to the basket, it releases my shooters because I bring so much attention down low and other people are open on the wing so it’s just a flow-through offense.”

Jackson’s budding playmaking ability he displayed at Kansas could be unlocked with Kokoskov’s development focus.

Kokoskov said in Flagstaff that Jackson could be like a baby Shawn Marion. If he gets close to that, he and Mikal Bridges will be that important glue on the wing.

  • Davon Reed was active on both ends and very vocal. His voice continued to be the one that stood out most, and that matters. He could earn himself early playing time if he understands what’s going on in Kokoskov’s system better than others. His two-way profile also meshes well, which will show up once preseason begins.
  • Shaquille Harrison and Isaiah Canaan were the first two point guards playing Saturday. Then, Elie Okobo and De’Anthony Melton came in soon thereafter. Kokoskov continued to mention afterwards that all four are in line to see playing time, albeit in shorter bursts. Harrison forced a few steals in his minutes and even hit a jumper. I think he’s in line to be the Suns’ starter at that position unless a trade is made between now and Oct. 17. Meanwhile, one of Melton or Harrison paired with Reed and Bridges in the second unit will create absolute havoc defensively. They were all going at it competitively Saturday afternoon, with plenty of defections and loose balls.
  • Deandre Ayton started to take over late in the 20-minute scrimmage with his mid-range jumper and offensive rebounding. Far and away, he was the most impressive player on the floor, and showed it, which is another good sign of what he could be, even as a rookie.

After sitting courtside next to Kokoskov during the scrimmage, Booker spoke to the media and reinforced how mature Ayton is at this stage of his career.

“Yeah, that’s what intrigued me the most about him at Summer League. He wasn’t forcing anything. He knows how to play the game the right way,” Booker said. “If somebody’s open, he makes the pass. If it’s one-on-one, he makes the play that he needs to make. So, it’s a lot of maturity for a first-year player.”

Ayton was actively looking for shooters on the wing, an area that popped whenever you watched him at the University of Arizona. He’s no Nikola Jokic, but Ayton could be someone who down the line averages three assists per game as a result of the movement around him.

“Coach Igor is always telling me I’m one of the playmakers on the team, because I bring so much attention, I can playmake for the rest of the team,” Ayton said. “It takes the pressure off guys on the wing, so I take a big part in that — especially flashing high to the post and knocking that shot down is big and it will open up the floor a lot.”

  • There weren’t many points scored in this 20-minute run as I thought there would be. As mentioned earlier, Kokoskov’s system is so detailed it would be impossible to expect everyone to already have everything down after one week of installation.

Afterwards, the Suns’ new coach said most of the practice happened before coming out to the main floor. This technically was another day of the training camp grind.

“We used this as a regular camp day. We had a long practice before that, so we stayed in the facility — go through our daily bread and all that stuff. From the table to lifting weights to the daily vitamins the guys are taking,” Kokoskov said. “They call it an individual routine and then we practice as a team. So, the scrimmage, it was just a small little piece of today’s practice plan, but I think overall it was good.”

Overall, the Suns didn’t show much new on Saturday, but as more time is put into learning the intricacies of Kokoskov’s scheme, the more it will pay off as the season progresses.

I’m anxiously awaiting to see how much firepower could be discovered when Booker is back in the the starting lineup, hopefully by opening night.