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Suns backup guards making strides, but still no consistency

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NBA: New Orleans Pelicans at Phoenix Suns Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Merry Christmas. The Phoenix Suns have lost seven straight.

Deandre Ayton has still only played two games up to this point, but the Suns’ problems extend far beyond that right now. Normally in December, one would expect rotations to start narrowing to the point where lineups become predictable.

That hasn’t been the case at all for the Suns, who played a 12-man rotation against OKC and an 11-man rotation against Houston and Denver. A puzzling question still remains: What can be expected from this team’s backup guards?

The problem Monty Williams is presented with is not that all of his backup point guards are “bad” players. This is not like having to pick your poison between Mike James and Isaiah Canaan.

The problem is that, while certain backup guards continue to make strides, none of them have been consistent enough to win over a firm spot in the rotation. And that challenge will continue to plague the team’s rotations as they try to avoid sinking in the standings any further.

Let’s start by focusing on the Houston game. With Ricky Rubio out, Elie Okobo was given the opportunity to start for the first time all season.

To the surprise of many, he stole the show and flourished with a team-high +6 in a 14-point loss. More specifically, he chipped in 17 points, 4 rebounds, and 3 assists on 6-10 shooting. But the best part was the manner in which he got his points.

You see, Okobo was mostly advertised as an above-average shooting prospect coming out of France. But his slashing game was considered a work in progress, and that proved to be true throughout Okobo’s rookie campaign. In 2018-19 he shot a dreadful 38% on all driving plays, and drew a foul on just 3.9% of those plays. That level of effectiveness rendered him useless as a scoring threat next to Devin Booker.

But that is not the Elie Okobo of 2019-20. The Elie Okobo of this season is increasingly proving to be an adept finisher, and serves as a sort of pressure release valve in the backcourt. When a defense makes stopping Booker its only priority, Okobo has been right there to capitalize. Just watch how he carved up Houston’s defense (and OKC’s in the game before) in the video below.

Furthermore, the stats back the eye test. This year Okobo is up to shooting 51% on drives, and gets fouled 10% of the time to generate even more points from the charity stripe. By comparison, Kelly Oubre is shooting just 44% on drives this year, and Rubio is all the way down at 41%.

Suddenly there’s a lot to like about Okobo as a prospect, whereas last season the 22-year-old often felt like an afterthought. If he can penetrate, hit the three at a respectable clip, and use his 6’9” wingspan to play the passing lanes, then surely he has an NBA future.

But if it were all pros and no cons, then Okobo would be a staple of Phoenix’s rotation. He’s not, having logged just 3 minutes against Denver. And that’s for a reason.

I can’t know for certain why Monty decided to pull Okobo so soon, but if I had to guess it was because of this defensive lapse. Watch how Okobo gets caught watching Plumlee in the post and leaves Monte Morris (a 41% three-point shooter) with at least 15 feet of wide open space. That’s as wide open as you can possibly leave a guy, and it likely led to Okobo’s benching the rest of the game.

For all of Okobo’s length that gives him a tremendous advantage as an on-ball defender, he still has to work on being a smart team defender off the ball. It’s the same problem afflicting much of this roster, including Devin Booker.

But defending is not an issue for one guy in particular, and that guy was the hero of Monday’s close loss to Denver.

When Okobo was pulled, Jevon Carter seized the opportunity and made a massive impact in just 15 minutes. While his basic stat line of 5 points, 2 rebounds and 3 assists may not seem stellar, his +/- of +13 speaks for itself. The two-man duo of Carter and Mikal Bridges fueled a momentum shift for Phoenix that lasted until the late fourth quarter. It’s arguable that both should have remained on the floor for the final minutes, although Monty didn’t allow it.

Carter doesn’t have the same physical gifts of a player like Okobo. But his hustle and IQ is enough to patch up the Suns’ struggling defense on most nights, and that’s reflected in the team’s defensive numbers.

Indeed, he contributed 3 steals in just 14 minutes on Monday, and all 3 were well-earned. In two of the clips below, you can see just how well Carter rotates as the nail defender, cutting off the Nuggets’ passing lanes and denying a kick out pass. In the third clip he riles up the crowd with a tremendous dive to the floor, recovering a loose ball.

Carter’s limitations remain obvious. With a usage rate of just 13.7%, he forces all potential backcourt partners to shoulder a heavy offensive load. You can only get away with playing him when Booker is on the court, and even then the offense can look sluggish.

But statistically, all that matters is that the Suns are 4.3 points per 100 possessions better with Carter on the court. For all of his offensive struggles, you can call him a net positive for now.

Finally, I’ll end this column with a quick word on Ty Jerome. Unlike the other two, Jerome has struggled mightily. Even in a 15-point outburst the other night against Houston, he was a -17 in the box score. He hasn’t found his three-point stroke yet, he doesn’t create enough separation to open up passing lanes, and his defense has been...something else. See the tweet about defensive impact above.

Still, Jerome is a rookie who comes from the slowest program in D1 basketball. There was always going to be a transition period while he gets his NBA legs under him, and 10 games is not enough to see that transition through.

Suns fans may just have to accept that if they want to see winning basketball, Ty Jerome is not the answer right now.

Elie Okobo or Jevon Carter really could be. But in a truly ideal world, one of those two finds enough consistency to solidify their spot in the rotation going forward. If another month passes and neither of them can make that leap, then a trade to bring in a veteran 6th man could be the way to go.