Now that the Phoenix Suns have blown the doors off the early-season schedule, the only head scratching about the offseason left to do is by the experts wondering how they didn’t see this coming.
The Phoenix Suns are 5-2 so far this season with an entirely sustainable playing style — active, hard-nosed defense on one end and egalitarian, open-shot creating offense on the other.
Over the past year, general manager James Jones whittled down his stable of young prospects to only the very best, and swapped out the rest for “prime vets” who can help instill a winning culture.
The result? A decidedly playoff-tested group of veterans and coaches around a smaller handful of draft prospects who, collectively, still qualify as the youngest roster in the league.
“We have the players that have been in that situation before,” star guard Devin Booker said after the grinding win on Monday night over the top-seeded Sixers. “Me personally, I haven’t. You know, I’m learning. I’m learning every day the importance of every possession, taking care of the ball, and paying attention to every detail on defense also.”
Devin Booker just turned 23 last week, but has already scored 6,000 points in the NBA (eighth-youngest ever to reach that mark). Yet, he’s never played in a meaningful game thanks to being drafted into a franchise focused on purposeful losing in order to attain high draft picks.
Now, it’s time to actually win some damn games. Booker is more than ready for this, but admittedly had no idea how to accomplish it.
That’s where the veterans come in. Over the past year, James Jones has surrounded his top young prospects (aged 21-23 years old) with just as many playoff-proven role players (aged 24-32 years old).
The result is an excellent balance of youth and experience with enough depth to absorb temporary losses of two of those prospects while allowing the not-quite-readies more time to percolate on the bench.
So far this season, the prime vets are winning games while the kids watch and absorb. Among the young prospects, only Devin Booker (23 years old) has maintained the same high-minutes role from last season so far.
Sophomore Mikal Bridges (23) has gone from 30 minutes a game to 20. Top draft pick Cameron Johnson (23) is the last man in the rotation. Of the rest of the kids, Deandre Ayton (21, suspension) and Ty Jerome (22, injury) are both out while Elie Okobo (22), Cheick Diallo (22) and Jalen Lecque (19) watch in sweats or street clothes.
Meanwhile, the team’s winning surge is led by recently acquired veterans Aron Baynes (33), Ricky Rubio (29), Tyler Johnson (27), Dario Saric (25), Frank Kaminsky (25) and Kelly Oubre Jr. (24). None are stars in their own right, but every one of those players has started in at least one playoff game for their prior franchise, so they know how to win basketball games in the NBA.
“We trust each other, and we are learning how to win,” Ricky Rubio said. “It’s a process. Stuff we’re learning, we got to keep doing. It’s a process. We have to learn from our mistakes.”
Rubio, the 19th-highest paid point guard in the NBA, is the clear veteran leader on a team with the fourth-best point differential in the whole league.
He leads the league’s best passing team in assists (8.5 per game), the league’s 11th-best rebounding team in rebounds (6.5 per game, one of five players averaging 5.9 or more), the league’s second-best steals team in steals (1.8 per game) while acting as the conductor for the league’s ninth-best offense and fifth-ranked defense.
Rubio, though still just 29 years old, is in his ninth season in the NBA and his 15th professional season overall since starting as a teenager in Spain, so you can expect that he knows what it takes to win basketball games.
As he led Spain through the international gauntlet to the Gold Medal of the FIBA World Cup this summer, he consistently tweeted the mantra “not too high, not too low” to his followers on social media.
“It has to be every day,” Rubio says of winning basketball. “And don’t be satisfied just because we won three games in a row. We just have to bring it every night.”
Rubio refuses to take credit for the team’s success. When asked how they avoid letdowns after big wins and tough losses, Rubio immediately started looking around the locker room at his teammates.
“We have a lot of good veterans here,” Rubio said, glancing left and right to who was in the room. “I think (Aron) Baynes and Saric being on winning teams. They know what it takes exactly. We hope we win every game and that’s why we play as hard as we do.”
Baynes has been especially vocal on and off the court since joining the Suns, and his role filling in at starting center for the Masked Offender has been crucial to the Suns ability to not only absorb Ayton’s absence but to thrive in it.
Baynes, a career 15-minute/5-point/4-rebound backup center, has posted an eye-popping 16.7 points, 6.5 rebounds and 4.0 assists per game in six games as a starter. He has now become a dead-eye three point shooter, allowing the Suns to play a five-out offense to open driving and cutting lanes.
But more than those stats, Baynes is regularly credited for his bone-crushing screens to generate open shots. Baynes is eighth in the league in screen assists with 11 per game. He’s the team’s vocal defensive leader as well.
“We got to look at the bigger picture,” Baynes says. “And we got to make the most of every single possession. What comes to mind is the coach says ‘the next right play’. That’s what we got to do every single time.”
Just a few steps away, young Devin Booker was echoing nearly the same words as Baynes, which is an incredible development for a kid who’s teammates for so many years were just as naive as him on how to win games consistently.
“Everyone is saying ‘next play’ mentality,” says Booker.
Booker credits Baynes, Saric and Rubio for their leadership — both vocally and by example — but also goes out of his way to credit backup shooting guard Tyler Johnson for what he’s brought to the team since being acquired last January.
“He’s well coached and been on good teams,” Booker says of Johnson. “He takes a little bit of what he learned [in Miami], and tries to implement it with us younger players.”
Johnson embraces his role as a bench player in the league, knowing that games are won and lost by the productivity and effectiveness of the second units during crucial parts of the game.
In Monday’s win over top-seeded Philadelphia, Johnson’s unit flipped the game for good in Phoenix’s favor, turning a two-point deficit into a 6-point lead capped off by a pair of scores from Johnson.
“I’ve played in playoff games,” Johnson said of coming in when Booker had to sit with his fourth foul. “You know what I mean? This is just a regular season game. It’s just a really good atmosphere.”
This year, Johnson (27 years old) is ninth on the team in minutes per game (19.4), while making 40 percent of his threes. And he appreciates every minute he gets. Since joining the team in January, Johnson has consistently shared that good teams have quality role players, like himself.
“Going back to last year, the conversations I was having with [Jamal Crawford], just how important that role really is to a team,” Johnson said. “You can really keep the momentum going or take it to another level. I’ve always loved that role.”
Johnson’s key to successful teams is to communicate. He was clear that communication helped them go on a stretch of five wins in seven games last spring — including wins over conference leaders Golden State and Milwaukee — before hurting his knee a week later to miss the rest of the season.
“I think guys are more on the same page,” Johnson said way back on March 6. “And after a timeout and we come and we sit on the bench there’s a lot more talking. It’s not five guys sitting in silence waiting for the coach to come up and say something about what the problem was. I think we’re identifying the problem as players. And then [when we get back out there], be able to go fix it because we’re the ones out there on the court.”
And then this fall, from training camp, Johnson talked again about communication.
“When we’re out there on the floor, you hear voices,” Johnson said during training camp in early October. “You hear people talking, telling you what spots they are in. That’s huge. Everybody is doing their part. Everybody is calling out their position.”
Fifth-year guard Booker knows all too well what happens when the team is quiet on the court and in the huddles. That’s what leads to losses, and more losses.
“The times that we slip away, we’re not communicating,” Booker says.
The players often give credit to new coach Monty Williams and his staff for setting them up for success. But Williams deflects that credit, often shaking his head and saying that he’s ‘not smart enough’ to have said the right words in every timeout huddle that seemed to turn the game in the Suns favor.
“They were talking amongst themselves,” was his answer when I asked what he said to prompt the runs on Monday night that secured the win over Philadelphia.
Williams has said it before and all through training camp: the players have to coach up each other. They’re the ones on the court, making the plays. When he calls timeout and his staff huddle together to discuss the next play, he expects his players to talk amongst themselves about what just happened to force the timeout call in the first place.
He expects his players to work hard, every day, every play, because that’s the only way to earn your own success.
“Monty always says the quote, ‘everything you want is on the other side of hard’,” Booker said after the game. “I take that quote and embrace it.”
I’ll use this quote again from Aron Baynes, the sagest of sage veterans on the team at 33 years old and the embodiment of toughness on this otherwise undersized team.
It’s a long rant, so I’ll break it down with line breaks.
“How can it not be fun?” Baynes said after Monday’s win. “It’s fun for everyone here involved. That is one of the good feelings we have right now is we understand that...
when we’re playing within the system and the ball is moving and everyone’s getting a shot, taking the best shot for the team, that is when it is fun.
When we keep playing defense the way we are, it allows us to get out in transition, it is fun
Through sticking to the little things and doing the little things consistently and making the most of every single play, that is how we have our fun.
Of course it is fun out there.”
Sounds like a teacher on the joys of actually studying to get those As you want or a parent telling you peas and carrots are the best way to grow up big and strong like the other boys in your grade.
Sounds like Booker is eating his vegetables.
“Everyone is wanting to do the right thing,” Booker says. “And everyone wants to buy in on the defensive end. Because when you do it as a group, good things happen. When we go away from that, we don’t look as good.”
The prime vets are setting the stage for a successful early-season run for a win-starved franchise. If the wins keep coming, us fans’ll start eating those veggies too. We’re already lapping up these cute quotes and big wins.
And by the time some of the Suns other young players are ready to step into bigger roles later this season, they’ll have been eating their veggies for a while too. Let’s just make sure those veggies are approved by the NBA.