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Examining the Suns’ potential to improve their three-point shooting this season

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Can last season’s weakness be turned into this season’s strength?

NBA: Phoenix Suns at Utah Jazz Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

When I first decided to take on this article, I thought it would be a fairly straightforward endeavor. It was not.

In it’s most simplistic form you can just look at the three-point percentages of the players on the roster this season and compare them to the players on the roster last season. That’s part of it but certainly not all. Hitting a high percentage of threes doesn’t have as a great an impact if the attempts per game are low. Pace figures in as a slower pace leads to fewer shot attempts overall. With a new coach with a new offense, you really don’t know whether he is going to give players the green light to shoot threes or try keep them within the confines of his offensive sets.

As Dave King outlined a few days ago, Monty Williams’ teams in New Orleans played at a relatively slow pace. While that may or may not be the case for the Suns this season, a slower pace might mean fewer attempts but also could mean higher percentages if his half-court offense works. I noticed that under Monty, New Orleans never averaged higher than 22nd in three point attempts but averaged in the upper half of the NBA in percentage in 4 of his 5 years there.

Williams seemed to rely on his three-point shooters as part of his offense, giving them the green light and probably building his offensive sets to incorporate their shooting skills. Going off his past, Monty isn’t likely to bring back a SSOL type offense but I doubt he’s going to slow things down to a crawl either. His offense is likely going be deliberate with opportunities for getting good open looks for his three-point snipers built into his sets.

Don’t expect the Suns to be challenging Houston - which averaged 45.4 attempts per game last season - for the league lead in three-point attempts this year.

That is not a bad thing though. The Spurs lead the league in 3-pt percentage while averaging fewer attempts than any other team and wound up with a pretty good 48-34 record.

The Suns have a long way to go improve their shooting from downtown. Last season they finished dead last as a team in three-point shooting.

Dead last.

Unfortunately, this wasn’t a new thing. They were also dead last in 2017-18 and have been in the bottom half of the NBA in three-point percentage every year since the 2013-14 season when they were tied for 7th with a 37.2% team average and were 4th in attempts per game. It’s no coincidence that was the last season that the Suns finished with a winning record.

In today’s NBA, it’s very difficult to be competitive without three-point shooting. The Suns certainly want to improve on that this season but doing so isn’t a sure thing. Only six players shot above 33 percent from three for the Suns last season and five of those players are gone ... but many of the really poor three-point shooters are gone as well.

Where does that leave us for this season? Good question.

Of the returning players, Mikal Bridges shot 33.5 percent from three, Devin Booker shot 32.6 percent, Kelly Oubre Jr. shot 32.5 percent, Tyler Johnson shot 32.1 percent, Elie Okobo shot 29.5 percent and Deandre Ayton missed all four of his attempts from three.

Devin Booker and Tyler Johnson shot threes at well below their career averages last season (35.4 percent and 36.4 percent respectively) so hopefully their averages will revert more to the norm this season. Kelly Oubre shot very near his career average (32.1 percent) so we can hope for but not realistically expect better. Mikal Bridges career average in college was 40 percent and he improved it every season at Villanova. I don’t think it unreasonable to expect the same in the NBA. As for Elie Okobo, I honestly don’t expect him to be a factor this season and very likely will not be with the team on opening night.

The Suns added quite a few players that could improve their team three-point shooting. Dario Saric has a career average of 35.8 percent from three and hit on 38.3 percent of his attempts in Minnesota last season. Frank Kaminsky has a career average of 34.9 percent and hit his threes at a 36.0 percent clip last season in Charlotte. Then there are the two rookies, Cameron Johnson and Ty Jerome, who were two of the best three-point marksmen in the draft.

Cam Johnson’s college career 3-pt average is 40.5 percent. Last season he shot 45.7 percent and hit 46.3 percent of his attempts from NBA range (75/162). Ty Jerome’s college career 3-pt average is 39.2 percent and his lowest 3-pt percentage in his three years at Virginia was 37.9 percent in 2017-18. He also can hit from NBA range and connected on 40.6 percent of his attempts from there last season (56/138).

Aron Baynes added the three-pointer to his resume last season but didn’t attempt a lot of them (34.4 percent on 1.2 attempts per game). Ricky Rubio has an NBA career average of 32.2 percent from three. His best season was 2017-18 in Utah when he made 35.2%. Last season he made only 31.1 percent which was below his career average. Cheick Diallo has only attempted four threes in his three years in the league and made one of them. Jevon Carter was a 33.3 percent three-point shooter in his first and only year in the NBA.

How will all this work out this season? There’s no way to know for certain until the games are played. By itself, improving the team’s shooting from distance isn’t a cure-all but having more shooters with the ability to hit threes at an above average rate will improve the team’s overall offensive efficiency while making life easier for the bigs inside and drivers on their way to the basket.

Let’s look at the best and worst case scenarios.

Best Case

First and foremost, Devin Booker needs to at least return to his 2016-17 form (36.3 percent) and hopefully his 2017-18 form (38.3 percent) from three. With Rubio to get him more catch and shoot opportunities and him having to create less for himself, I could easily see this happening.

Realistically, we can’t expect Rubio or Oubre to make a leap in their career three-point point percentages but it’s reasonable to expect them to remain consistent. Even that would be passable as neither is really a terrible three-point shooter.

Dario Saric should benefit from having two very good distributors — Rubio and Booker — to get him the ball in the spots he likes. His best three-point shooting year was 2017-18 in Philly as a starter and I could see him possibly hitting near that 39.3 percent from three again in Phoenix.

What could benefit the Suns the most is having more three-point shooters coming off the bench than last season. For the most part, Troy Daniels was the only good sharpshooter the Suns had on their bench last year and he rarely got paying time. This year Bridges, Tyler Johnson and Kaminsky — all above average three-point shooters — will get plenty of court time off the bench and Baynes will toss in the occasional three off the bench as well. Toss in just spot minutes for Ty Jerome and Cam Johnson and the bench could be better at scoring from three than the starting unit.

Worst Case

The good news here is that I really can’t imagine that the Suns don’t improve their team three-point shooting this season. It is possible that it won’t improve a great deal though.

The 2015-16 Suns were also loaded with three-point shooters with nine payers hitting over 34 percent of their attempts and six of them making over 37 percent. They were 18th in percentage and 12th in attempts that season. That didn’t translate into many wins back then but that was more due to mounting injuries, team dysfunction and poor coaching.

The potential problems that I see for this season are outlined below.

It’s possible that Rubio and Oubre shoot under their career averages from three instead of at them. It’s also possible that Bridges will not improve offensively. Dario Saric might get off to a bad start as he did in Philly’s 2018-19 season where he hit only 30 percent of his threes before being traded to Minnesota.

Frank Kaminsky could turn out to be an even worse version than the one Charlotte gave up on. Jerome and Cam Johnson might not be capable of adjusting to the NBA game quickly and spend the majority of their time on the bench. Even if their collage three-point shooting percentages persist, defensive concerns might keep them sidelined and negate their shooting abilities. Ask Troy Daniels how much court time you can get in Phoenix if your only NBA level skill is shooting threes.

All of this happening is extremely unlikely but if enough things go wrong then other teams will feel free to concentrate their defenses on stopping Devin Booker again which will not help his shooting averages.

There are also injuries that could come into play. No need to go into detail on this one.

Summary

As I mentioned earlier, I believe it’s extremely unlikely that the Suns three-point shooting doesn’t improve this season. They have the players to make a huge team improvement in this area but how big of an improvement is likely going to depend in part on Monty’s offense schemes and philosophy and how well and how quickly the players can mesh together into a real team on the court.

James Jones seemed to make adding more long distance shooters to this team a priority and it could very well pay off in a big way.

It’s likely that fans are going to hear “Shazam!” from Al McCoy more often this season. Perhaps a lot more often.