Though preseason is supposed to be the time of year when everyone is available and building familiarity on the court, the Suns were unable even once during the preseason to put onto the court a real semblance of their projected 2019-20 rotation.
Minor injuries hampered wing tandem Mikal Bridges and Kelly Oubre Jr. during training camp and kept them out of the team’s first preseason game, while a migraine and right knee soreness prevented Tyler Johnson from playing in two of the four preseason contests. A nasal fracture forced backup center Aron Baynes to miss time. Starting forward Dario Saric missed the final game with soreness in his right quad.
It’s been a rough go.
So head coach Monty Williams was careful about how he structured what the team called a “second training camp”, or the nine days between their final preseason game and the regular-season opener. The Suns scrimmaged several times throughout the week as they made final decisions about the rotation and plugged in more schematic layers.
And now we hear that both the first round rookies, Cameron Johnson (calf) and Ty Jerome (ankle), are banged up and will miss the opener.
#Suns won't have same depth for season opener with rookies Ty Jerome (right ankle sprain) and Cam Johnson (left calf soreness) sidelined (w/video). https://t.co/mWiJOaIoTF via @azcentral pic.twitter.com/4A07dYlLtI— Duane Rankin (@DuaneRankin) October 23, 2019
All this makes for a group that is difficult to evaluate despite performing quite well at times during a 2-2 preseason. Here are the three biggest unanswered questions facing the Suns heading into the regular season.
Who fills out the starting lineup?
Follow me through the timeline here.
During Summer League in Las Vegas, Williams noted that while Deandre Ayton, Devin Booker and Ricky Rubio would start, the other two spots were up for grabs.
“Our team is set up to compete, and I’m so looking forward to that in training camp, watching guys compete,” he said of determining the starting lineup.
Here’s what Williams said about Oubre and the wing group when Oubre’s signing was announced mid-July: “Our guys have to be ready for those games where they put Kelly at the 4 or they put Mikal at the 2, that kind of thing, but in camp, we’re going to start out in positions because I think it’s easier to learn a new system. Hopefully as we grow organically, as Kelly said, we can learn other positions and I think he has the ability to play 2, 3 and 4.”
During the preseason, Williams added Saric’s name to the group he would rattle off as starters despite a different starting lineup nearly every preseason game.
Finally, last Wednesday as the team began its “second training camp,” Williams seemed to nod toward the solidification of the starting unit.
“Being in that starting lineup at that 3 spot for us, that’s a huge position. He’s a bit of an X-Factor for us,” Williams said of Oubre. “If he can knock down shots and attack, he’s going to guard the toughest wing every night, so that’s a heavy load.”
It seems the answer is right there: Rubio, Booker, Oubre, Saric and Ayton will start. However, if the battle was truly fought during training camp, it’s tough to see how Oubre emerged victorious so quickly. He is paid much more money than Bridges and has been in the league longer, but looked very inconsistent on the court during the preseason.
Media and fans aren’t privy to nearly everything that goes on, and Bridges has dealt with his own injuries and mechanical inconsistencies as a shooter. Bridges also struggled in a new situation last Monday against Denver, playing power forward and defending the uber-athletic Jerami Grant. Bridges called the matchup “really difficult.”
“I’m not used to guarding people on the porch itself, trying to figure out my help situations,” he said of defending on the interior.
Grant went off for 22 points and beat the Suns backdoor several times. Playing the 4 is more natural to Oubre, a bigger player and springier athlete than Bridges. Perhaps letting Grant go off was the final straw for Bridges, or maybe it was decided long before that, when Oubre inked a lucrative new show-me contract.
Who is the backup point guard?
Williams is tight-lipped on this one. The Suns coach understands the delicate situation of two young players, Ty Jerome and Jevon Carter, competing for minutes and said he wants to be respectful of his relationships with them before uncovering who will play behind Rubio.
Both got the chance to battle Booker in one-on-one situations after practice on Wednesday, getting the same valuable experience Booker said he benefited from in his first two seasons.
Book providing the education pic.twitter.com/H1Sxz7dRyr— Kellan Olson (@KellanOlson) October 16, 2019
“You have that competitive respect for someone and know that they’re not going to back down no matter who they’re going up against,” Booker said of the value of these battles. “They’re trying to get better and going right at me. That’s what I expect out of them. Everybody knows that’s how you gain respect in this league — not being scared of competition and playing your hardest at all times.”
Regardless of who wins the competition here, Jerome and Carter have been two of the main standouts in October as the team worked together for the first time. Both should see time if injuries, foul trouble or poor play take others out of the rotation on any given night.
How will the Suns use Devin Booker?
The Suns’ star guard played just 69 minutes during the preseason. In that span, he didn’t look like his usual self. Pulled out per 36 minutes, Booker put up 21.3 points, 6.2 assists and 5.7 rebounds, but shot just 42 percent from the field and 33 percent from deep. The worst aspect of his performance was continued struggles with turning the ball over, as Booker matched his assist number with just as many fumbles.
Limiting Booker’s responsibilities was part of the preseason plan, Williams said.
“He’s had a number of systems and coaches and warm-up routines,” Williams said. “You’ve gotta limit the package so he can get used to it. He’s pretty smart and picks up stuff pretty quickly, but for me, I want to let our guys marinate in this for a minute.”
Again, Booker’s shot selection was heavy on the midrange, as 10 of his 31 attempts came from there, according to NBA.com. It’s unlikely that continues during the regular season, with Rubio handling the ball and Booker operating as a finisher more often. Booker instead can settle into the post, spot up from 3, and dominate in transition. The game should open up for Booker.
After a career-high 32.9 percent usage rate last season that coincided with a half-dozen maladies that forced him out of 18 games, limiting Booker’s workload is going to be a focus. Still, for the offense to reach its peak, the fifth-year scoring stud needs to be heavily involved. Finding ways to get him a heavy dose of shot attempts without exposing him to situations that will lead to turnovers and physical punishment is the greatest challenge facing Williams at the start of the year.
Few answers came during the preseason as Williams moved slowly. Can they figure out a balance quickly as the regular season begins?