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Suns expect winning habits, heavy competition from new veterans

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In recent years, players like Devin Booker, Deandre Ayton have been expected to lead where they had never gone before.

Sure, the Suns boasted “token” playoff-tested veterans to help out the young locker room in recent seasons, including appearances by the likes of Trevor Ariza, Jamal Crawford, Tyson Chandler, Ryan Anderson, Jared Dudley and Leandro Barbosa.

But those veterans were just that: tokens. All were past their prime, bit players, unable to carry the torch for the team. Each year, for every token veteran “playing the right way” there were 3-4 young guys gifted more court time to cancel all that out.

Hence, the 27% winning percentage since 2015.

This year, all that is changing.

Now there’s more than one playoff-tested veteran for every young player on the court. In the starting rotation, Ricky Rubio, Dario Saric and Kelly Oubre Jr. have all experienced multiple playoff seasons and all are in or entering their prime. They are there to supplement 23-year-old Devin Booker and 21-year-old Deandre Ayton. Off the bench, Tyler Johnson, Aron Baynes and Frank Kaminsky all have starting playoff experience as well, to supplement Mikal Bridges and whichever other 23-and-under joins them in the second unit.

“Our strength is going to be in our depth,” General Manager James Jones said on Media Day this week.

That’s six recent playoff starters among a 10-deep rotation. None are expected to be the team’s best player. All just need to be who they already are, and any improvement is a bonus. Among the vets, only Aron Baynes is over 28 years old.

“That was a focus,” Jones said of the acquisitions. “Winning. Production. Playing for something. All of those guys have played for something, and that’s what you need to turn things around.”

“Their experience excites me,” coach Monty Williams said. “Those guys know what a playoff day looks like. They know what a tough practice practice feels like. They know what you’re going to say before you say it. That can translate to the guys that may not understand why we have to watch film today, why we have to practice. And say, this is what winners do.”

Sure, the Suns will still only go as far as the untested Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton take them as the team’s two most talented players. Booker and Ayton alone will likely account for 40% of the scoring and rebounds and even 30% of the assists. And they will need Booker and Ayton at their best in close games.

But as the Suns proved a year ago, you can’t just win with a couple of productive players.

“It’s not just the top 6, 7 guys they’ve had here the last few years that impact the game,” new backup center Aron Baynes said at Media Day, being quite generous with that number. “First unit, everyone knows how talented they are, but the second unit that’s where good teams have been able to separate themselves the last few years. It started with Golden State when they had their second unit that was elite statistically and on the court. You need more than the first 6, 7 guys.”

For the first time since Nash left, the Suns won’t be gifting minutes to guys who haven’t earned those minutes yet. The Suns don’t even have to give minutes to anyone that hasn’t earned it.

“We have enough guys to be competitive every day,” Williams said of training camp and practices. “I learned that from Pat Riley, 26 years ago. Competitive environments, they weed guys out or they bring the best out of you.”

The Suns will still be the youngest team in the entire league with an average roster age of 23.9 years old. After the six aforementioned veterans, the whole roster is 23-and-unders who have yet to play a meaningful NBA game.

Everyone will have to earn their minutes.

“I’ve had the luxury that I’ve seen what it takes to win an NBA championship,” Baynes said of that the Suns wanted from him. “And I’ve seen what it is when you’re in a rebuilding phase and what it can lead to (Detroit). In Boston the last couple of years we were reasonably successful in our first year. Just how important it is to play team basketball throughout the season as well.”

You saw a glimpse last year when the Suns had a healthy Tyler Johnson and Kelly Oubre Jr. starting with Booker and Ayton. They had a stretch of 6-4 with wins over Golden State and Milwaukee, even with a rookie second round point guard and a ragtag bench, before injuries knocked both Oubre and Johnson out. It’s almost hard to believe in retrospect just how much impact a pair of young vets could have on a young team.

Now bring all that back, triple the investment on proven young vets, and you can see where James Jones was heading this summer. They no longer need 21-year old Deandre Ayton to be a team leader.

“Deandre’s like, 17 years old,” Williams says. “I don’t expect him to be a leader. I think that’s one of the things that the NBA has done to young players. I want him to be consistent in his work ethic and his approach, what he does on the floor, in film sessions with Mark Bryant. I think the leadership will grow over time. I think there’s moments where he can. But to cast that on him I think is unfair for a young guy that has shown great promise. Leadership will come, but I think that’s years away.”

Make no mistake: Monty is not downplaying the super-talented Ayton in any way. The coach was simply saying that maybe we shouldn’t expect the youngest guy on the team to be a leader who hoists everyone onto his back and carries his team to the promised land.

Devin Booker understands what Monty is saying.

“I think Deandre can still lead,” Booker said. “But in different ways. Not in the leadership standpoint of how to become a professional, how to come on the court, you know. I think he can lead by his energy and the way he’s playing. In different ways.

“It comes down to learning the game. You have guys like Ricky [Rubio] and Aron Baynes that I still have to learn from, that have that playoff experience and know what it takes in those meaningful games to get in one of those last few spots. You know what I’m saying? I think everybody’s a leader on the team but there’s different types of leadership.”

Booker needs to grow in the area of leadership as well. He’s never been a starter, or key player, in a winning environment since high school. He’s had six coaches in six seasons, counting Kentucky where he came off the bench as a shooter.

Monty Williams is going to focus on the environment, making everyone work for everything they get.

Booker is ready. Rubio, Tyler and Baynes are ready. Oubre and Bridges are ready. Ayton will have 20/10 games that disappoint people but still contributes mightily to winning.

That’s seven deep right there. Let’s see how all the rest shakes out in this competitive environment.

Is Dario Saric’s head “in the game”? Is Frank Kaminsky ready to contribute here? Will Cheick Diallo or one or more of the rookies step up to earn big minutes?

I can’t wait to find out.