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Suns take Summer League opener despite unexpected roster decisions

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The Suns beat the Knicks on Sunday in Las Vegas with the guys we expected to lead the team sitting on the bench.

2019 Las Vegas Summer League - Day 3 - New York Knicks v Phoenix Suns Photo by Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images

The Suns on Sunday night rallied to take a 105-100 victory over the star-studded New York Knicks Summer League roster, with massive contributions from Nebraska alum James Palmer Jr. and Mexican League standout Rayvonte Rice.

The team’s anonymous roster executed well on offense and mounted a comeback late in the game that put them over the top of a Knicks roster stacked with NBA talent. The new-look coaching staff has to garner much of the credit here, as do the international players and late-bloomers across this Suns roster, who performed nicely without the team’s high draft picks on the court.

Palmer and Rice combined to hit nine three-pointers and score 42 points, but it was the guard play that put the Suns in position to hit open shots. Jared Harper, the standout from Auburn’s Final Four run this past March, sliced into the lane consistently and tallied four assists.

However, it was surprising to see him get so much run when heading into the week, the expectation was these games would feature a heavy dose of Elie Okobo, Jalen Lecque and Ty Jerome at the guard spot.

Harper took advantage of an opportunity that presented itself Saturday night, when general manager James Jones and the Suns announced Jerome and No. 11 pick Cameron Johnson would not be playing in Las Vegas.

“Given the way the schedule fell as far as those guys not being able to be with us in Phoenix with our coaches, going through practices,” Jones explained in a pregame press conference, “we didn’t think it would be fair to them, but more importantly to their teammates, who throughout our Summer League training camp have been really getting after it.”

Johnson and Jerome will be in Las Vegas with the team for the duration of Summer League, and both players have participated in practices since Saturday, when the Suns’ draft-day trades were made official. They will be part of the roster in every sense of the word, but they will be inactive for the Suns’ remaining Summer League games.

That leaves a huge opportunity for the rest of the roster to step up like Harper, Rice and Palmer did Sunday.

Summer Suns head coach Willie Green opted to play the guys who performed well heavy minutes against the Knicks, which helped the hot shooters steal a victory, but left many with no playing time. Most notably, Ray Spalding and Tariq Owens, two potential candidates for two-way contracts with the Suns this year, did not play at all on Sunday night. Okobo, the 31st pick in last year’s draft, didn’t see the floor until the second half but ultimately closed the game and finished with seven points in 12 minutes and played solid defense on No. 3 pick R.J. Barrett down the stretch.

Okobo’s minutes in the second half came at the expense of Lecque’s. The five-year high school player displayed his slick handle and elite athleticism several times early in the game but rode the bench late after racking up five fouls and missing a few shots.

Lecque said before the game his goal was to show he fit in. Athletically, it was clear right away he is ready for the NBA.

“I’m not just a regular high school dude that I believe everybody thinks I am,” Lecque said. “I just want to prove everybody wrong that I belong with these guys.”

That could have been the mantra for the entire Suns roster heading into a matchup with a team whose fans travel in bunches every year for Summer League and whose roster was the complete opposite of Phoenix’s in terms of hype and NBA-ready talent. Simply showing they could compete would have been a great sign for this Suns roster, but they went out and won the game.

Thirty points from second-round pick and Big Ten Newcomer of the Year Ignas Brazdeikis weren’t enough. Despite his hot scoring night, poor decision-making led to costly turnovers by Barrett down the stretch and the Knicks couldn’t pull it out.

The Suns took control of the game in the fourth quarter and overtime, perhaps again supporting Jones’ mission this summer of realizing the power of experience. These guys, from all over the world with experiences far and wide, beat New York’s kids.

“We want teams to know that when they come in to Phoenix, they’re going to play a team that’s going to play hard, a team that is going to play together,” Green, the head coach, said after the win. “Every night we are going to go out and compete. When you do that, you can live with the results. I thought tonight was a great example of our team just going out and making adjustments and playing together.”