By the time the Suns play their next regular season game, if that is still what we’re calling it, the break between contests will have lasted nearly as long as a typical offseason. Depending on where you are psychologically, you probably really miss sports, even if the whole proposition appears increasingly iffy. Yet sports seem like a far-off dream, at least to me, after all these months without.
Watching a bunch of golfers I’d never heard of somehow score in the -20s last weekend with Jim Nantz crooning atop the CBS broadcast was delightful, but it felt like I needed a reset. Announcers are citing stats from “the last five matches” even though they took place in March, and the sports-related coronavirus news of the day mostly serves as a reminder that, oh, yeah, Jabari Parker and Alex Len are on the Kings now. It’s been a while.
With that in mind, here are three things to remember about the Suns for when they next take the court:
Mikal Bridges was starting to get hot from deep
One of the most bizarre subplots of the Suns’ season was Bridges, a guy who made nearly half his threes as a senior at Villanova, completely falling off thanks to a creaky hitch in his jumper. To make it weirder, Bridges (convincingly) told reporters throughout the year that he didn’t really notice the hitch until assistant coaches addressed it with him in the video room and started to work on fixing his release.
Still, Bridges was able to pull it together by the midway point of the season and look like his usual self. Bridges shot 43 percent from deep on 49 attempts in February, then 35 percent in March before the shutdown. The guy who was known for pulling up in transition and having an impressive range in college was finally acting the part again.
Without Kelly Oubre (whose injury I didn’t think I needed to remind you of), the Suns will need a more aggressive version of Bridges in Orlando. According to NBA.com, Bridges had just a 12.5 percent usage rate when Oubre was off the floor this year, meaning he didn’t necessarily become more aggressive on the whole when Bridges checked out. That has to change, and it can begin with bombing away from three when he’s open.
Aron Baynes is a free agent
Maybe nobody forgot, but it’s worth monitoring. Basically the entire Suns’ frontcourt is able to hit the open market this offseason, with Baynes chief among them. His impact on this group is unmistakable, and he fits their offensive system well. One could even imagine that his comfort might allow the Suns to nab him for a price tag beneath his $10 million cap hold. What happens over the course of the eight games in Orlando could be the deciding factor for Baynes’ future in the Valley.
First, what comes of Baynes’ shooting? It was a breath of fresh air but also quite streaky for the Suns this year. Baynes would rattle off an unfathomable 7-11 night and then follow it up with an 0-2 clunker in which he was hesitant and uninvolved from the perimeter. The Suns don’t need Baynes to be Kevin Love from back there, but it would be nice if he could be Al Horford, taking what’s available and at least being a respectable threat. All the other aspects of his game are perfectly reasonable for an upper-tier backup big man, and we know the Suns like him.
Much also has to do with Deandre Ayton when it comes to Baynes. The Suns in the mid-2000s never invested in a big-money backup point guard because, well, they had an MVP in the driver’s seat. That investment was better placed elsewhere (though they also never really found wing depth, either, but that’s for a different time). The same could be said of Ayton.
Though not an MVP candidate, Ayton of course is someone the Suns can reasonably expect to play 34 or so minutes of All-NBA caliber basketball in the next few years, so they have to be smart about how much they invest in that player’s backup, especially considering how painful it was when the two played together this season (though, go figure, that two-man unit had a plus-9.8 net rating in 54 minutes).
The Suns could do a lot worse with $5 or $6 million than Aron Baynes, but they also figure to be among the only NBA teams with cap space thanks to the recession our country finds itself in. Whether that space is best used by re-signing Baynes and adding a cheapish third guard or by shooting for the moon, letting everyone go and trading for or signing a starter or better-level power guard or forward is a fascinating question that will be answered in part by what the Suns see from Baynes in July and August.
The rookies have had a weird go of it
The Suns picked an unlucky year to play things patiently with their rookies. After holding Cameron Johnson and Ty Jerome out of Summer League, they were rewarded almost immediately, by an ankle injury to Jerome that prevented him from being the integral part of the rotation they expected in camp. As for Jalen Lecque, the end of the season could have served as a crash course in NBA professionalism after he spent much of the year in Prescott Valley in the G League. That was stolen from him.
By drafting two older rookies, the idea was they’d be groomed patiently with the understanding they’d need less time overall. Johnson looked ready in training camp, learned quickly, and so was gifted a spot in the rotation from the jump. After Jerome’s injury, the Suns were maybe even too aggressive in trying to boost his development, and he crash-landed on a road trip and was banished to the bench for a while.
Intermittently from that point on, Johnson and Jerome each struggled with injuries and inconsistency, leading to a situation in which neither played more than 50 games or 1,000 minutes. Johnson turned 24 shortly before the shutdown and Jerome will turn 23 just as the Suns set up for camp in Orlando. This team is not built to play casually or go through the motions of competition — it’s not in their blood thanks to how Monty Williams has coached and the leadership at the top of the roster. But my view this whole time has been that Orlando should be about building chemistry, experimenting, and giving the young players reps. There may be nobody more in need of reps than the three rookies.
There’s so much more at stake here as well, but we’ll get into it as we make our way toward July 30. Let this piece serve as a scheduled reminder of what was going on in Suns land prior to the shutdown.