All year, the limitations of the Suns’ roster have been attributed to the lack of talent on the roster at point guard. More than talent, though, what Phoenix has been missing from the position is consistency.
There’s actually a fair bit of talent in the building. De’Anthony Melton and Elie Okobo each should have been first-round picks but fell because talent evaluators undervalued them because of a lack of familiarity. Jamal Crawford is a fringe Hall of Fame candidate. Isaiah Canaan always felt like he had a place in the league. It’s not a complete zero.
But injuries and the rip tide of rookie seasons have turned point guard into the Suns’ biggest weakness this season. That was evident as soon as Tyler Johnson joined the team. The stability of having a guy who played smart basketball and could knock down shots was huge, and Johnson’s arrival showed just how big a hole had been there before him.
Imagine being in the locker room dealing with these fluctuations. Okobo started seven straight games from Jan. 25 to Feb. 8, then didn’t start again until Monday night at home against the Cavaliers. That meant Melton didn’t play at all Monday after starting six of the previous seven contests. Crawford plays when he’s healthy, but between games where he tallies a DNP - Old and actual injuries, he will end the season playing only about three quarters of the Suns’ games.
Johnson’s impact was immense. The Suns’ offense was 1.2 points better per 100 possessions when Johnson was running the show and he was a core part of the team’s post-All-Star explosion until he sat with a sore knee.
It’s incredible what solid veteran players can do to juice an otherwise flimsy roster. When Johnson was playing, it made sense to give him the lion’s share of minutes, but the former Heat guard played just 13 games with the Suns. Johnson’s presence actually stabilized the rotation. The bigger issue was the other 66 games in which the Suns doggedly refused to give their rookies consistent minutes even as the losses piled up.
When I asked coach Igor Kokoskov why we see nights where the youngsters play very few minutes even in of the starting lineup, he said it comes down to matchups and mistakes.
“(Okobo) opened the game well, we saw him play hard, starting with the defensive end,” Kokoskov said. “Pressuring the ball full court … being a general on the court, running through mistakes.”
“It starts with the defensive end, start with energy, start with hustle plays. We need energy from the young guys and overall he did a good job. A lot of the time the game dictates rotations, so I think he opened the game very well and he gave us what we needed from him.”
Kokoskov said he put Troy Daniels in the game Monday to give the Suns better spacing against Cleveland’s zone. He also noted Crawford had it going and the veteran helped lead Phoenix to a victory with 19 and 5 on the night.
That’s all fine when it comes to winning an individual game. Fans were surely hungry for at least one more victory after injuries decimated the Suns’ roster at the end of March. But has the team seen enough from Okobo and Melton as rookies to adequately assess their trade value?
It’s unlikely. Only Devin Booker, Deandre Ayton and Mikal Bridges are untouchable, and the Suns are expected to finally nab their starting point guard this summer. Unless they believe Melton or Okobo will be the best option next season -- which is extremely unlikely -- the Suns could be put in a situation where they have to move one of the rookies to free cap space or acquire an upgrade via trade.
General manager James Jones frequently says the team knows much more about their players than fans or opposing teams. That’s true. But players don’t win championships in practice, and Okobo and Melton each played fewer than 1,000 minutes this season. That doesn’t strike me as enough time to properly judge their progress nor their fit with the other core players.
In fact, it begs the question of how much either guy was involved in Phoenix’s future plans the minute Ryan McDonough was fired. Many of the picks during his tenure fit the mold of a scout’s pie-in-the-sky developmental project. Considering how dramatically Jones has pivoted away from that model, players with raw, undeveloped games like Okobo and Melton may not be deemed worthwhile by the new front office.
Their playing time showed as much. It was not a priority to find the rookies minutes, even as the season slipped away.
We will get to see both players quite a bit over the final three games of the season now that Booker has been shut down with a left ankle sprain. Maybe one will have their Alec Peters moment.
Yet the lack of organizational alignment and dedication to player development even amid a severely disappointing season could cause the Suns to undervalue their rookie guards. Drafting and then dragging the two players through the rigamarole of a broken rotation is another example of how so many of the Suns’ mistakes aren’t for a lack of trying, but for a lack of foresight in how to approach and solve issues.