The first dozen young players brought into Talking Stick Resort Arena on Thursday for Suns pre-draft workouts came away intrigued not only by the rhythm of the on-court drills but with how their prior relationships give them a connection to the Suns.
It has to be great for the organization to know that its young players are developing positive relationships with other players around the country. The knowledge that draft prospects see Suns players as mentors and friends despite the franchise’s losing ways provides evidence that building through the draft and developing talent has been a successful strategy for Phoenix.
Grant Williams, a versatile big man projected to go in the early second round (right near where the Suns will pick at No. 32), said Thursday the Suns stick out to him in particular as an interesting landing place because of his closeness with Mikal Bridges.
The friendship began during the 2017 Battle 4 Atlantis tournament, when Williams’ Tennessee Volunteers played Bridges’ Villanova Wildcats (the Wildcats won, 85-76). With Bridges in town all summer training at the Suns’ facility, he ducked into Williams’ workout on Thursday morning to see his buddy.
“He’s an intelligent guy, he’s competitive,” said Williams of Bridges. “He doesn’t do much trash-talking, but he’s a competitor. That’s something I respect and I saw on the court when we played each other, and I reached out and kept in touch afterwards. As you know, he’s one of the most lethal defenders with his length and he’s athletic and he’s going to be good for the Suns.”
The perspective of a draft prospect is the ultimate outsider’s point of view, but it certainly splits from the pervasive negativity that surrounds the franchise within the Valley and around the league. The more positive outlook of someone like Williams likely also speaks to the recent change within the Suns.
After workouts on Thursday, many of the prospects identified the Suns’ workout as different and more engaging than those with other teams. Coach Monty Williams was on the court with all the players, walking through drills and helping to stage game scenarios. Before breaking out for on-court work, James Jones and others from the front office sat down to talk with the prospects. For the morning, Jones said, Coach Williams treated each player like they were his player.
Indeed, one of the guys in Phoenix for a workout actually did foster a closeness with someone on the Suns’ roster. Most will know guard Cody Martin from his 2018 Sweet 16 run with Nevada, but Martin began his college career at North Carolina State, where he developed a relationship with T.J. Warren that continues today.
“You all know TJ, he stays in the gym,” said Martin. “That’s what he does, he improves his game.
“To be able to have somebody like him around and see how he does things and how professional he is, he’s somebody that is all basketball 24/7. There are not many people like that, so he’s one of a kind.”
While many set apart Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton for the special things they’ve already done on the basketball court or touted their own versatility, Martin and Williams identified lesser-known members of the Suns roster that impressed them.
It can’t be seen as a coincidence that the players brought in for workouts because they were identified by Suns scouts as high-intelligence players were the ones who had relationships with the role players on Phoenix’s roster. Warren has improved tremendously since his freshman year of college, and Bridges is the ultimate NBA role player. Any player who respects those two likely values the smaller contributions each made to the Suns last season and therefore see the importance of buying in and getting better.
“We’re trying to impress upon them that basketball is a complex game,” Jones said Thursday. “We just want to make sure they leave this workout with something that will help them on their NBA journey and hopefully when they move on if they’re not a member of the Suns, they’ll remember their time here as a pivotal point in their career.”
Fortunately, some of these guys already sound like they appreciate the complexities of the game, and more specifically they respect that certain Suns players have overcome those complexities. Jones is working to change how things are done on a fundamental level in Phoenix, and his players’ actions are making an impression as well.
The Suns will host 12 more draft prospects in each of the next two days.