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Center of the Sun: Only a few familiar faces will return to the Suns for the 2019-20 season

Can Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton become the centerpieces of the next great Suns team?

Original art by Logan @lcgreig03 on Twitter

Welcome to the weekly news roundup of your Phoenix Suns.

On October 17, 2018, the Suns trotted out this starting lineup on opening night:

  • Isaiah Canaan
  • Devin Booker
  • Trevor Ariza
  • Ryan Anderson
  • Deandre Ayton

In less than a year, James Jones has transformed that lineup into this prospective opening night lineup:

  • Ricky Rubio
  • Devin Booker
  • Kelly Oubre Jr.
  • Dario Saric
  • Deandre Ayton

Even the bench has been transformed as Mikal Bridges and Elie Okobo are the only remaining players from that opening night bench. There are a grand total of four players returning from the 2018-19 opening night roster that Jones largely inherited from former GM Ryan McDonough.

He’s also brought in an entirely new coaching staff headed up by an experienced NBA head coach, Monty Williams. Monty is the first head coach with NBA head coaching experience that the Suns have hired since Alvin Gentry was fired (it was reported that Gentry and the Suns “mutually parted ways” but I doubt that was Gentry’s idea) midway through the 2012-13 season.

This is a huge amount of turnover for the entire franchise and we have no idea how well all these new pieces will work together. What we do know is that this team has been designed around Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton. It is - at least on paper - a much better roster than last season’s. It should be able to win many more games than last season’s team did.

Just how many more is dependent on quite a few factors although few are more important than how Booker and Ayton perform in this new situation.

Booker’s role has steadily increased in his four years in Phoenix and offensively he has responded to the increased responsibility. Nobody expected much from the baby-faced 18-year old in his rookie season but he eventually started to wow Suns fans as injuries pressed him into a starting role by late December of 2015. The most common 5-man lineup that season was Ronnie Price, Devin Booker, P.J. Tucker, Alex Len and Tyson Chandler which resulted in a 23-59 finish.

In Booker’s second season, he moved ahead of veteran Brandon Knight into the opening night starting lineup. The team around him seemed a little better but it was also Earl Watson’s first - and only - full year as head coach of the Suns. Injuries again played their part in holding the Suns back but not so much as the bad coaching and a power forward rotation made up of rookies Marquese Chriss and Dragan Bender... along with Jared Dudley. Knight also had a terrible season coming off the bench and trading away their best defender - P.J. Tucker - at the trade deadline didn’t help the team’s fortunes either as they finished the season 24-58.

When the 2017-18 season rolled around, Booker was the presumptive star of the team. Unfortunately, the dysfunction that had haunted the Suns since before he had arrived reared it’s ugly head again early on as Earl Watson was fired following an 0-3 start and Eric Bledsoe publicly stated that he wanted out. Jay Triano took over as interim head coach and Bledsoe was sent home to await a trade. The Suns actually went on a 4-1 run after that but soon the lack of a starting quality point guard - along with Chriss, Bender and Dudley still making up the PF rotation - led to more and more losses and a 21-61 season. Booker missing 28 games due to injuries didn’t help either.

Since the 2018-19 season is still fresh in everyone’s minds, I don’t feel the need to recap any of the problems that arose in it. The team’s 19-63 finish speaks volumes by itself.

There are a lot of negative things that I could have mentioned but chose to leave out regarding the situations that Devin Booker has had to deal with in his first four seasons in Phoenix. That’s because this is an article, not a book. Through it all, Booker has continued to work to improve himself even as dysfunction and near chaos surrounded him.

He’s been criticized for not being able to carry his team but I say you should look first at the teams he’s been forced to try and carry.

This year he will have the best team around him and the best head coach he’s had since leaving Kentucky.

I have no doubts about his ability to carry a good team and this might just be the year for him to really show what he’s capable of and turn doubters into believers. That depends a lot on the people surrounding him though, especially Deandre Ayton.

Ayton has to grow up a bit this season. As a rookie, he seemed a bit too wide-eyed and awed at just being on an NBA court and playing against the best in the basketball world. He has to get over that and prove that being selected number one in the draft wasn’t a mistake. He needs to prove that he is that second star that will eventually return the Suns first to relevance and then back to contention alongside Booker.

This is it. This is the season in which the Suns prove whether they have chosen wisely or not in regard to their future.

The West is still tough and it will be a hard road to travel. Some might be happy with a win total in the low 30s this season. If the injury bug returns to haunt the Suns’ season again, maybe I will too but if this team stays relatively healthy for most of the 2019-20 season then only 40+ wins will actually make me happy and convince me that the Suns are finally back on the right path.


Fantable Questions of the Week

Q1 - What sort of improvement do you hope to see from Deandre Ayton this season?

GuarGuar: I’m looking for more defensive improvements than offensive from Deandre this season. We really need him to become a much better rim protector. It’s very difficult to win in this league with a poor defending center. His anticipation and overall IQ need to be improved this year. He was a half second too late, or flat out didn’t jump to attempt a block way too many times last year. He’s got a year under his belt and a better coaching staff, so that should help.

On the offensive side, I really want to see him get better at drawing fouls and showing aggression. Ayton’s free throw rate was exceptionally awful last season. He’s efficient as is, I can’t imagine if he learned how to draw fouls at a league average level. I would also like to see him expand his shooting range to 3 pointers. Even if that means just 1 a game, I’m ok with it for right now. For him to become a good volume 3 point shooter, he would have to change his mechanics. I doubt that has happened this offseason, so I’m not expecting Ayton to shoot volume 3s right now.

Sun-Arc: I hope he keeps the efficiency with far more shots and usage. He deserves it. He’s smart, strong, and good things mostly happen when he gets the ball. Obviously the defense needs to improve. A lot of that is also on his teammates, ensuring they stop isolating him on an island trying to guard both PnR players coming at him. And, of course, he needs to grow a pair and realize he can actually dominate over other players.

SDKyle: I mostly hope to see more assertiveness from Ayton this season. Last year he was a bit more reserved on both ends than I think many of us who wanted to draft him had hoped. This applies on offense where I’d like him to go up strong more often, and on defense where I’d love to see him take more pride in being a shot-alterer.

I realize it might not be realistic to expect Ayton to become a shot blocker, but I do think he needs to improve at least a bit as a rim protector and I’d like to see that this season.

SouthernSun: I’m hoping for two main things. First, I hope to see even more defensive improvement from him. He seemed to get better as the season went on, and I’d like to see that continue. Second, I’d like to see him extend his range out to beyond the arc.

If it’s not too much to ask, I’d also like him to realize that he’s bigger and stronger than the majority of players he’s ever going against, and use that to his advantage. By that I mean brutally bullying them in the post and then dunking all over their faces.

Alex Sylvester: Biggest thing I want to see from Deandre is to be more assertive.

We can talk about how impressive his historic efficiency #s turned out his rookie year but there were way too many games when it felt like Deandre was just one of your average NBA players on the court.

He’s too talented and skilled to not be averaging 20 PPG next season. I’ve said it in other comments but I want to see Ayton be the early focus night in, night out.

Secondly, we need to continue to see DA take strides as a rim protector and as a team defender. His rebounding and even his individual defense is pretty solid for a rookie, but these two areas are what is going to make DA either a below average defender or an impact defender.

Q2 - Which of the Suns’ 1st round draft picks - Cameron Johnson and Ty Jerome - has the best chance of earning rotation minutes early this season?

GuarGuar: I would think Cameron Johnson sees more minutes given he’s our #11 pick. I think Tyler Johnson will be our backup point guard to start the year, so I don’t expect many Jerome minutes unless garbage time (at least early on). We desperately need shooting, so I’m confident Cam will find consistent minutes to begin the season. How many he will see is the bigger question. I find it hard to see him getting more than 15-20 a night right now.

Sun-Arc: I don’t expect Cam to be a very helpful player, and possibly not ever. I think his defense and physical limitations might make him barely playable. Basically I think he may turn out to be a taller version of Troy Daniels - only slower. There was a really good article by Kellan Olson on Arizona Sports about Cam that everyone should read. It will likely quell some of the excitement about him living up to a #11 pick. I could be wrong - but with Oubre and Bridges needing huge minutes, even if Cam shoots lights out in limited minutes he probably won’t have a big impact at all.

Jerome, however, may never see court time to evaluate his level because Rubio and Tyler Johnson are in front of him. And maybe even Okobo, if he’s still around. But then maybe Carter will be in front of him for all we know, if he’s still with the team. I think Ty Jerome has a better shot to be an NBA rotation player than Cam at this point, though. So maybe we’ll see more of him in a future season.

SDKyle: Cam Johnson probably has a slightly better chance as things stand because his shooting ability may well be something the Suns need to call on in a lineup that isn’t stacked with snipers. I could see him getting the call because he provides a threat the Suns need to balance their attack.

That isn’t to discount Ty Jerome’s shooting ability...but I guess I don’t think the Suns will be especially eager to have the ball too often in the hands of someone not named Rubio or Booker. When they do make that choice, Tyler Johnson remains a good bet to serve that role too. Jerome should see the court, but probably not as much as Cam Johnson.

SouthernSun: I’d say Cam and Ty have an equal chance. But maybe Cam’s likelihood is slightly higher because he’s a little older and was picked 11th. It depends on what the Suns want Tyler Johnson to be. Tyler will be getting plenty of minutes. If staff want him playing PG, then Cam will get more minutes. If they want him playing SG, than Ty will get more minutes. It may just come down to training camp, and who appears more ready between the two, since Tyler is a combo guard and can play next to either of them.

Alex Sylvester: I’m going to say Cam Johnson and here’s why. Bench units are very dependent on 3PT shooting to be a strength and I can see Cam getting spot minutes early on as a floor spacer. Now that the Suns have Rubio/Tyler Johnson/even Booker at times, I think Ty might have a hard time seeing a lot of minutes early on. Maybe they choose to slide Johnson to the two, but we’ll see when preseason begins.

Q3 - Which player do you believe could turn out be the biggest surprise (either positive or negative) for the Suns this season?

GuarGuar: I think Ricky Rubio could turn out to be the biggest (positive) surprise for us this season. I expect us to play at a faster pace this year, and I really think that can mesh exceptionally well with Ricky’s game. I don’t think he’s as bad of a shooter as people think he is. He’s got okay percentages, he is just really picky when to shoot because he isn’t very confident. I really hope his defense is still at a high level. We’ve seen plenty of “vets” come here known for their defense, only for it to fall off immediately when they join the Suns. Ricky’s presence can possibly lift Ayton and Booker to a new level, and finally get us some wins.

Sun-Arc: I’ve been in a bah-hum-bug mood about nearly all the decisions thus far. I’m certainly most positive about Rubio. And I hope he turns Ayton into a total beast and Booker into Klay Thompson (at least on offense). Just having a real NBA point guard that can actually pass will be surprising for us/me.

One of my biggest negative-nelly worries is that Saric will be somewhat helpful on offense and a total negative on defense. Meaning he will not have a positive impact overall. Meaning we will see more of an odd rotation of Kaminsky and Diallo - both of whom I think will not be as positive as a meh Saric. And that is because the coaches will keep trying to see what combinations work with these three guys and other players.

SDKyle: I’m not sure how much of a “surprise” it’ll be, but I’m hoping Mikal Bridges is the player getting more positive attention than anyone is giving him right now. I’m hoping his shooting numbers look a lot better and he solidifies his burgeoning reputation as a high-level defender. It’s a bit of an awkward situation lineup wise with Kelly Oubre, but I think the best outcome for the Suns is if Bridges becomes one of the Suns’s most important players.

SouthernSun: I think that Rubio is going to look better than he’s ever looked before. He’s in the prime of his career, he’s worked on his shot, he’s going to have a bunch of shooters around him all the time, and he has a very talented offensive big man and a walking bucket in Ayton and Devin Booker to pass it to. I truly believe Rubio out plays our expectations. He’s going to have the Suns offense looking really good.

Alex Sylvester: Aron Baynes.

I don’t think Suns fans recognize how big of an impact this man could have on the product the Suns put out next season. In Boston, he was crucial for the Celtics when it came to defensive ratings and net ratings! It’s a cliche but the Suns have been desperate for winning players and he’s the definition.

I also see his screen setting being huge for guys like Book/Oubre to get clean looks and he should be an anchor not only for the bench unit, but potentially some closing lineups if the matchup depends on it.

As always, many thanks to our Fantable - GuarGuar, SDKyle, Sun-Arc, SouthernSun and Alex Sylvester - for all their extra effort every week!


2018-19 Season Highlights

Phoenix Suns vs New York Knicks Full Game Highlights | 12.17.2018

Devin Booker Full Highlights 2018.12.17 Suns vs Knicks - 38 Pts, LiGHTS UP MSG!

Deandre Ayton Full Highlights 2018.12.17 Suns vs Knicks - 21 Pts, 13 Rebs!

Jamal Crawford NY RETURN 2018.12.17 - 6 Pts, CAREER-HiGH 14 Asts!


Quotes of the Week

“There’s a lot of guys in this league who offensively are really, really good, but what separates the best from them, is their defense. That’s one of my mindsets. Everything starts with defense and, with that being said, it starts with the point guard because it sets the tone from the beginning.” - Ricky Rubio

”They’re everything you would expect, high character, really smart people. I thought it was a great opportunity to create something special.” - Riccardo Fois speaking about Monty Williams, James Jones and his new position on the Phoenix Suns’ staff


Interesting Suns Stuff


News & Notes

Aron Baynes: One of the NBA’s Most Physical Players. Suns.com

Suns building blocks: The potential breakout season for Mikal Bridges. Kellan Olson/Arizona Sports

The Phoenix Suns and the Art for the Overpay. Gerald Bourguet/The Step Back

Suns building blocks: Maintaining Ayton’s efficiency in expanded role. Kellan Olson/Arizona Sports

Former Gonzaga analytics coordinator Riccardo Fois settling into new role with Phoenix Suns. The Spokesman-Review

Ricky Rubio Brings Leadership & Playoff Experience to Phoenix. Suns.com

Suns Sign David Kramer. Hoops Rumors


Suns History in Video

Everything That Went Wrong with The Phoenix Suns This Decade


Suns Trivia

Devin Booker has 9 career games with 35+ points, 5+ rebounds and 5+ assists, giving him the most such career games in Suns history. The previous record was 8 by former Sun, 5-time NBA All-Star and Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame member Gail Goodrich.


Previewing the Weeks (and Months) Ahead

August 9, 2019 - USA Basketball White vs. Blue Exhibition Game (Las Vegas) 7 pm AZT

  • The Select Team members (including Mikal Bridges) will join with the National Team players in the USA Blue versus USA White exhibition game at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas.

August 31 - Last day for teams to waive players and apply the stretch provision to their 2019/20 salaries.

September 5 - Last day for teams to issue required tenders to unsigned second-round picks (those players become free agents on September 6 if not tendered).

Late September (specific dates TBA) - Training camps open.

October 14 - Phoenix Suns vs Denver Nuggets (preseason), 7:00 pm AZT

October 22 - NBA 2019-20 regular season begins.

October 31 - Last day that teams can exercise team options on the rookie scale contracts of former first-round picks.

December 14 - Phoenix Suns vs San Antonio Spurs in Mexico City.


Last Week’s Poll Results

Last week’s poll was “What total number of wins would you consider “acceptable/reasonable progress” this coming season?”

05% - 25-29.

59% - 30-34.

36% - 35 or more.

There were 530 votes cast.


This week’s poll is...

Poll

Which Suns rookie do you think will contribute the most on the court this season?

This poll is closed

  • 70%
    Cameron Johnson
    (180 votes)
  • 24%
    Ty Jerome
    (63 votes)
  • 4%
    Jalen Lecque
    (11 votes)
254 votes total Vote Now

Cover Art

A big thanks to Logan @lcgreig03 for allowing us showcase his artwork in title image! Logan shares his work on Twitter.