LAS VEGAS — The first few days of Suns training camp this fall might be best spent with the coaches walking through some ice-breaker games or taking roll call to learn names. Another summer of change means the work is cut out for players and coaches alike to get acclimated and comfortable enough to put a better product on the floor.
This offseason saw the Phoenix front office turn the roster over again, this time with the goal of bringing in experienced, high-character players who could play smart basketball right away. Throughout the draft and free agency, the Suns prioritized the capacity to sacrifice and improve over raw talent.
“At some point, you have to focus on today,” general manager James Jones said Sunday before the Suns’ first Summer League game. “We’ve done that in the past, focused on potential. I think the guys that we drafted have the capacity to come in Day One and impact us in a positive way.”
Jones and his staff drafted two upperclassmen on draft night and acquired two older depth pieces in trades for Dario Saric and Aron Baynes. From there, he grabbed a solid playmaker and point-of-attack defender in Ricky Rubio who is 28 years old and coming off two playoff seasons in Utah. The final piece was another early-career shooter, Frank Kaminsky, a potential reclamation project who was pushed out in Charlotte last season after his rookie contract expired.
Rookies Cameron Johnson and Ty Jerome stuck out to Jones because of their polish, passion and intelligence. Some questioned the Suns, after lottery night stung them and plopped them into sixth palace in the draft order, for trading back and falling even further away from what was believed to be a top-heavy draft. The team feels it was able to become deeper and more experienced by trading back from No. 6 and then back up to No. 24 over the course of draft night.
“There were a bunch of guys at the top of the draft who were really good, but for us, we wanted more than one thing, we wanted to add more than one player, and trading back was a vehicle to do that,” Jones said. “If you look at it holistically like we do, we walked out of the draft with three really good players and a young prospect with tremendous capacity and potential.”
That young prospect was Jalen Lecque, the one exception to the rule of making the roster older and more NBA-ready. That contrast puts greater focus on how he adjusts to the NBA and ingratiates himself in Phoenix. The spotlight is only brighter considering he is the only Suns rookie under contract playing in Summer League.
“He’s young, he’s a project in some regards, a young guy that will have to continue to grow, but he was phenomenal with us in a short time and he picked things up so quickly,” Jones said. “At 19, rarely can guys pick up the terminology, but he was right there at the top of our workouts.”
Lecque caught on quickly, but after jumping straight from his fifth high school season to the NBA, he’s still adjusting.
“I just finished my finals a couple months ago, and now I’m in the NBA,” Lecque said Sunday. “This has always been my dream to be in the NBA, and at least get there and to learn from these guys, and I knew that I could become a great player and a great asset to the team. I just want to prove everybody wrong.”
Lecque made himself available for the NBA draft last month but went undrafted. He had a deal lined up with Phoenix, though, that works like a first round pick, giving him two guaranteed years on rookie minimum salaries to prove himself, then two more years non-guaranteed. Now, he wants to prove to those other front offices, as well as anyone who questioned his decision, that they made a mistake.
The edge and excitement with which Lecque speaks — and plays — seem to fit the culture of development Jones is trying to build in Phoenix, even if he’s younger than all of his teammates. The Suns expect Lecque to spend time in Prescott Valley with the Northern Arizona Suns of the G League, while on the other hand, Johnson and Jerome appear ready to contribute right away.
“(Johnson)’s a guy that’s agile enough to play the 2, versatile enough to play the 3 and tall enough to play the 4, so I see him all over the floor,” Jones said. “I don’t think you can ever have too many shooters, and he’s a guy who can fit in somewhere on the floor. We’ll find a spot for Cam.”
Of Jerome, Jones added: “He’s a winner, he’s directed multiple really good players on the floor, and he comes from a really good culture and program. When you put all those factors together, and you think about what he can do in our environment, it was exciting.”
The team will have to wait to see how their draft picks respond to NBA competition, as they decided to hold the pair out of Summer League due to a lack of familiarity with the schemes and their teammates.
“I love playing, I love competing, it’s what I do, so I was really disappointed, but I trust the front office, I trust the coaching staff,” Jerome said of the decision.
If changing the approach and attitude of the roster was the focus for Jones this summer, the introduction of the three rookies certainly set the tone, as did de-emphasizing Summer League as a proving ground for draft picks the Suns are already committed to. Absent on Sunday was discussion of what someone could be years from now, or how their game needs to change. The focus was on the present.
Said Jones: “That’s my approach to everything, to every move, making sure that whoever we get can impact us in a positive way today.”