As I walked into the brightly lit, wood-paneled home locker room of the Findlay Toyota Center in Prescott Valley, home of the upstart Northern Arizona Suns, I was greeted as an outsider. One can assume G League teams don’t get much media attention. As the players saw me stride toward Tariq Owens, signed to two-way contract on Tuesday, they busted up.
“First you get a two-way contract, now you’re doing interviews?” joked Shawndre Jones as Owens readied himself for my questions.
It wasn’t unlike walking into the Phoenix locker room this year, where camaraderie and positivity have reappeared after nearly a decade in a coma. There were jokes to be had about the attention Owens was getting, but Jones and fellow Texas Tech alum Norense Odiase were clearly happy for their teammate. Odiase even put me in his Instagram story to celebrate, though the evidence has disappeared from his account.
When I asked Owens about his reaction to being offered the two-way contract following a 123-114 victory over Sioux Falls, he said it was unexpected.
“They told us early in the morning before we were leaving so it was a surprise,” Owens told me. “I’m just appreciative, I couldn’t have done it without the guys we got in this locker room. It just speaks to them and myself, putting in the work as a team and getting better.”
Owens signed the contract after spending Summer League and training camp with the Suns. While injuries prevented him from getting on the court in Las Vegas, he played a bit during the preseason and ultimately came on recently for Northern Arizona. Halfway through the 50-game G League season, Owens is averaging 9.1 points and 7.3 rebounds in 24.3 minutes per night.
The stops and starts to begin his pro career made it difficult for Owens to put together the athleticism and instincts that made him interesting to the Suns in the first place coming out of Texas Tech, but head coach Bret Burchard said the organization is finally starting to see what it expected out of Owens.
“In the last month, we’ve seen more of what we thought we were gonna get at the beginning,” Burchard told me. “Now, we’ve got him in a position where we think he can be effective, teammates are learning how to play with him. He’s protecting the rim, blocking shots, dives on pick and rolls and puts pressure on the rim, so he’s starting to get into a groove of where he can really impact the game.”
Since the start of the new year, Northern Arizona is 5-3. Burchard attributes everyone’s recent uptick to the addition of veteran talent via trade as well as the slow burn of chemistry-building among the younger players. The feeling-out phase for the team seems to be coming to a close.
Owens’ thin frame and relative lack of strength means further adjustment is needed as he moves through his professional career.
“He’s gotta learn how to stay on balance and take hits and keep playing,” Burchard said. “He’s learning how to use his quickness and not try to battle strength for strength, learning what his advantages are.”
The Suns wanted to reward a hard worker and promising talent with the second two-way slot, which is why they ultimately landed on Owens. The two-way deal will allow Owens to more easily participate in the day-to-day routine with Phoenix and interact with the main roster. While fellow two-way man Jared Harper has really only come to Phoenix during holiday breaks, maybe that changes as the season moves along.
Two-way players get a steep raise ($79,568 compared with $35,000), but two-way players also get a prorated rookie minimum salary (which is 10x the two-way salary) for each day spent on the NBA roster, according to Larry Coon’s CBA FAQ. That means calling a two-way player up to the main roster comes at a steep price. After the G League season ends in late March, two-way players are allowed to spend the remaining week-plus of the NBA schedule with the main roster.
No matter what comes next, using this team-building mechanism is important, as the Suns did not make any real use of their two-way contracts last season, signing then waiving Jawun Evans and leaving the second slot open all year.
Owens clearly fits the archetype Phoenix wants in its centers. Like Deandre Ayton and Aron Baynes, he plays physically, works hard on defense and on the glass, and reads the game. Northern Arizona runs a ton of the same stuff as Phoenix, and Owens is often the big man at the top of the key running the offense. Owens is a smart ball-mover from the top of the key in dribble handoff and pick and roll sets, and can make the defense think a little bit with the ball in his hands at the elbow. His shooting is a work in progress, but you can see why the Suns see Owens growing in their system.
However, Owens’ and Harper’s two-way contracts are each for just one season, sources said (two-way contracts are allowed to extend for up to two seasons). If the Suns want to keep either player on another two-way deal or a new NBA contract, they may want to think about elevating them to the NBA roster sooner rather than later. Two-way players are unrestricted free agents unless they accrue 15 days on the NBA active roster.
As for Harper, he’s killing it up north. Anyone who watched last year’s Auburn team during their miraculous March run knows to fear Harper’s pull-up three from the top of the arc. I was especially impressed, though, by Harper’s play-making. It’s easy to tell he knows this offense well and is the leader of this team.
Nwamu on fire
After Ike Nwamu’s second straight 28-point game for Northern Arizona, as the Findlay Toyota Center PA announcer was listing Nwamu’s stats as the player of the game, Nwamu walked over to the stands, high-fived a few fans, bee-lined toward a woman in the stands and planted a kiss on her face.
Nwamu had plenty of reasons to celebrate with his partner.
Since being acquired on Jan. 8 from the Fort Wayne Mad Ants, Nwamu has averaged 18.8 points for Northern Arizona.
“He’s shot the ball incredibly so far, and I don’t anticipate that continuing all year, like I’m not going to ask him to go 10-13 every night, but what I like about him is he’s mature,” Burchard said.
That brings up another sign of cohesiveness between Phoenix and Northern Arizona. Both know the value of veterans when it comes to developing younger players and aren’t afraid to be aggressive to go out and get more experienced guys.
“Everybody on our team is first or second year out (of college),” Burchard said. “(Nwamu’s) fourth-year, so he knows a little bit and he’s seen a little bit, and he plays a little more steady, so I think that impact is going to help us.”
Northern Arizona traded for 23-year-old point guard Matt Farrell last week as well. He plays a lot like Harper but is not much of a scorer.
Front office coming out in support
Another example of how the Suns are trying to build a culture is how the Phoenix front office came out in full force to support Northern Arizona while Phoenix was on the road. A half-dozen Suns executives were in the building for the Sioux Falls game on Friday night, and one told me this has been a regular occurrence this year to build connectivity throughout the organization and support the G League outfit.
Northern Arizona has long been a breeding ground for the Suns front office, even if they largely ignored the team-building possibilities of the G League under Ryan McDonough. Phoenix executives Bubba Burrage and Dylan DeBusk both began in Northern Arizona and worked their way up. Coaches such as Cody Toppert and Jay Ellis did the same before leaving the organization.
As new general manager Jeff Feld feels his way through his first year on the job, he is spending a fair bit of time in the Valley around the Phoenix braintrust as well.