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Suns targeting productive young players at deadline to surround Booker/Ayton core

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The Suns’ new front office definitely has a type for trade targets.

Detroit Pistons v Phoenix Suns Photo by Michael Gonzales/NBAE via Getty Images

Since James Jones took over the front office of the Phoenix Suns, every transaction has been made with one goal in mind: surround Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton with experienced-but-still-young NBA players.

With news of the Suns interest in Pistons guard Luke Kennard, it appears the Suns want to continue with a formula in the 23-year old, third-year veteran.

The 6’5” Kennard checks off many of the boxes of Suns needs:

  • shooting (40% career three-point shooter)
  • scoring (15.8 points per game this year, including 6.5 three-point attempts)
  • secondary playmaking (4.1 assists)
  • youth (23 years old)
  • proven (starter, 3rd year of rookie deal)
  • some playoff experience (1 series, 2 starts)
  • won’t clog the salary cap ($3.2 mil this year, $5.2 mil next year, RFA in 2021)

Former Bright Side staffer and now Suns beat extraordinaire for the local radio, Kellan Olson does a great job explaining Kennard’s value here. We still love you Kellan!

Here’s a quickie clip, too:

If the deal is consummated, Kennard would fit right into 12-deep rotation with 7 players aged 24 or younger. Only Ricky Rubio, Aron Baynes, Tyler Johnson, Frank Kaminsky and Dario Saric are older than 24 on this Suns roster.

Kennard is not perfect, though.

Like the other Suns guards, Kennard is not a plus defender though he does have a positive net rating on a bad Detroit Pistons team. And he’s injured quite often. Kennard missed 30 games over his first two years and another 24 games already this year with knee tendinitis.

He wouldn’t even be healthy this week if acquired, as his latest timetable to return is mid-to-late February.

So, he’s not absolutely perfect.

But if all he costs is Elie Okobo, Jevon Carter and a largely protected first round pick (think top-10 protection or so), that’s a great return.

A healthy rotation would look something like:

Starters

  • Devin Booker — 34 minutes per game
  • Deandre Ayton — 32
  • Mikal Bridges — 28
  • Kelly Oubre Jr. — 28
  • Ricky Rubio — 28

Bench

  • Luke Kennard — 26
  • Cameron Johnson — 20
  • Dario Saric + Frank Kaminsky — 20
  • Aron Baynes — 16
  • Ty Jerome — 8

Of course, minutes will fluctuate game to game based on performance and foul trouble, but if everyone is healthy it looks like the Suns are trending toward having a very solid 10/11 man rotation.

Left out of the mix would be Tyler Johnson, while Dario Saric and Frank Kaminsky would lose most of their minutes to the Mikal/Kelly forward tandem. Any or all of them could be traded to consolidate the power forward position much the same way Kennard consolidates the third-guard position.

Kennard and his career 40% clip on threes would dramatically help the long-range shooting prowess of the lineup, allowing the Suns to field lineups with him, Booker and Cameron Johnson around the still-struggling Bridges/Oubre/Ayton/Rubio quad who can’t shoot straight enough to keep defenses honest.

Remember that the Suns offense generates the league’s second-most wide open threes per game, but that’s been derailed by injuries and fear of shooting them. The Suns are missing their best catch-and-shooters and the guys left are running themselves off the line more often than they should.

Should the Suns be worried about Kennard’s middling defensive chops? Sure, but that area is not the wasteland it used to be.

Since Deandre Ayton returned to the starting lineup on January 2, the Suns have the league’s 9th best defense (16 games) even without the services of Aron Baynes as Ayton’s backup for most of it.

Ayton gets crap for his offensive shot selection, but he’s been playing a lot better defense than you think. A year after being a turnstile on defense, Ayton now ranks:

  • 5th in the league in defensive field goal percentage difference allowed, holding opponents 11.7% below their season average (among those defending 10+ shots per game). Players shoot less than 40% from the field when Ayton is the closest defender.
  • 6th on defending in the painted area (among those defending 5+ shots per game inside 6 feet)
  • 2nd in total shots defended per game (19.4, behind on Rudy Gobert’s 20.2)
  • 8th in rebounds (12 per game)
  • 4th on offensive rebounds (4 per game)
  • 16th in blocks (1.5 per game)

And that’s all translating to a Suns team playing top-10 defense since January 3. We might want to change the Ayton narrative a bit. He is now a highly effective defender who is quite productive but raw on offense. I’ll take that as a pairing next to Booker for the next Suns playoff team.

The Suns are just 7-9 in that span because the offense is awful (22nd overall), and that’s what the Suns need to target at the deadline.

The Suns may not end up acquiring Luke Kennard. They probably have a lot of lines in the water, waiting for the biggest fish to bite. Kennard is likely only one of half-dozen deals currently in talks. It’s just that Kennard is the only one that leaked.

But the blueprint is there, if you’re trying to predict what the Suns will do in the next two days before the deadline.

Youth, shooting, and financial flexibility are the names of the game while the Suns position themselves for the playoffs next year with a young, exciting roster in need of a big-time free agent to join in the summer of 2021.

If not Kennard, it will be someone else that fits that mold.