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Game Preview: Suns in City unis to face KAT, Wolves on Fiesta Night

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Can the Suns gain more early ground in the Western Conference playoff hunt?

What: Minnesota Timberwolves (10-12) at Phoenix Suns (10-12)

When: 7:00 p.m. AZ time, Monday night (Fiesta Night!)

Where: Talking Stick Resort Arena, Phoenix, AZ

Watch: Fox Sports Arizona

Radio: 98.7


First off, let’s get excited about Aron Baynes (probably) coming back on Monday night for the Suns after missing 9 of the last 10 games for the Suns. With Baynes in the rotation, the Suns can play average defense. Without him, it’s a constant struggle.

Coach Monty Williams said at shootaround Monday morning that the team expects Baynes to be back “in a limited capacity.” The Suns don’t want to keep dealing with shuffling Baynes on and off the injury report, but they also don’t want to jeopardize his overall health to win a couple games.

The happy medium seems to be bringing Baynes off the bench. This allows Baynes to pace himself while also prepping for the looming return of Deandre Ayton in Los Angeles next Tuesday.

The Wolves come into the game with a season much like that of the Phoenix Suns. They started the season playing good enough defense to win games with their offense, then regressed on the defensive end to fall back under .500.

The Wolves started the season 7-4 with some impressive wins, like the Suns, but have gone just 3-8 since then, also like the Suns. The Wolves suffered some injuries around their big star, just like the Suns. Their 2nd-highest minutes man Andrew Wiggins has missed 4 of the 11 games. Swingman Jake Layman has missed 8 of 11 after averaging 3rd-most 26.5 minutes per game to start the year. Yes, that Jake Layman.

But then the team-wide comparisons fall apart a bit.

When they were 7-4, the Wolves net scoring margin was just +1.4 points per 100 possessions while the Suns’ was +6.5. The Wolves have always had a middle-third offense (17th to 15th), and their defense has been middle-third the whole time as well (14th to 21st). Could missing Layman and Wiggins have that much of a negative impact on the team?

Revisiting the Draft-Day Trade

The biggest beneficiary of the Wolves injured wingmen would have to be rookie Jarrett Culver, who the Wolves took with the Suns’ 6th pick in the draft.

As you recall, the Suns traded the 6th overall pick to the Wolves for Dario Saric and the 11th overall pick that became Cameron Johnson. You could surmise that Cam was a target for the Suns all along, since they drafted him several slots higher than he was projected to be picked by the pros who never get any pre-draft predictions wrong.

The Wolves chose youth and potential over old-age and low ceilings. Dario Saric is 25 and CamWOW is 23, while Culver is just 20.

As expected, the old guys are performing better this year than the young pup.

Culver isn’t much of a shooter at this stage of his career — and wasn’t in college either — and his 43% free throw shooting bodes poorly too.

You’d think he makes up for it on defense, his pre-draft calling card, but remember he’s a 20 year old rookie.

The combination of being a rookie AND being just 20 years old makes it difficult to succeed, and Culver epitomizes that. He will flash big plays and big games, but overall he’s a minus-18 over 100 possessions with mostly starters around him and the Wolves are giving him 24 of the game’s 48 minutes.

The Wolves are playing the long game with Karl-Anthony Towns’ future, while the Suns are playing a shorter game.

We won’t know for a few years whether Culver improves so much you’d want him over Cam AND Dario from there forward, but at this moment in time the Suns have won the trade.

Suns youth brigade

Remember when the Suns were 7-4 and the biggest criticism was that they weren’t winning those games with the youngest kids? After Deandre Ayton’s suspension, Devin Booker was the only under-24 among the top 6 in the rotation. You had to get down to 7th (Mikal Bridges) and 9th (Cam) to find anyone younger. And yet, all of Booker, Bridges and Cam are 23.

Since then, during this 3-8 stretch, thanks to the injuries to Aron Baynes and Ricky Rubio, the Suns have been forced to play younger. Cam and Mikal’s minutes have increased a bit, while Cheick Diallo, Elie Okobo and Ty Jerome (all 22) have shown up in the rotation. So it’s no surprise that the bench unit has been inconsistent, because that’s where these guys reside. Just wait till the youngest of all, Deandre Ayton (21), comes back.

Is it weird only to me that the Suns don’t have anyone under 21 on this team? Ayton represents the Suns youthiest youth. He won’t be 22 until next summer. You could count 19-year old Jalen Lecque, I guess, since he’s on the 15-man roster, but I am only talking about the active roster right now. Lecque is assigned to the G-league for the season.

How long has it been since the Suns youngest player was 21? You have to go all the way back to 2012-13, Lance Blanks’ last draft when he took Kendall Marshall with his late-lotto pick to replace the about-to-be-traded Steve Nash.

GM Ryan McDonough never had a roster without at least one 20-or-under player. Usually he had 3-4 of them. Clearly James Jones has a different plan for the future.

The stars

We can’t go a whole preview without talking about the Suns and Wolves best players. On any given night, either of Devin Booker and Karl-Anthony Towns could drop 40+ points in a dominant offensive performance to lead their team to victory.

Both are having career years, and both are the reason their teams have a chance at the playoffs this year. They are close friends, both having come out of Kentucky in 2015, both earning max contract extensions from their drafting team.

One is a 7’0” center and the other is a 6’6” shooting guard, but look at how similar these guys are in some respects.

They play about the same minutes, take and make the same number of shots. Towns takes more threes and rebounds the ball better, of course, while Booker is a bit better on the free throw line and playmaking side.

Towns has gone 7-5 against Booker in their careers, though it was Booker who led the Suns to a road victory a couple weeks ago in Minny with a near triple double (35 points, 12 rebounds, 9 assists) to make him 1-0 this season over his best friend.

Tonight’s game may or may not decided by these guys’ performance. Let’s hope Booker took KAT out on the town last night and secretly drank water the whole time.

Prediction

You know me. I’m going to predict a home win over a beatable team.

The Suns will play better defense with Aron Baynes in the middle and take this game 115-105.