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Phoenix Suns backup, or possibly starting, point guard spot is up for grabs

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As the Suns approach their first game action since the pandemic rocked the world, the roster and point guard spot remain a mystery

NBA: Phoenix Suns at Oklahoma City Thunder Alonzo Adams-USA TODAY Sports

Whether Ricky Rubio plays his usual starting point guard spot when the Phoenix Suns resume play is still unknown, but either way the Suns still need one of their slew of backups to step up and take his place as the primary guy behind Ricky.

“You want somebody grab a hold of that backup point guard spot,” Suns head coach Monty Williams said on Saturday during media availability. “It’s mine and nobody’s taking it and I should be starting. That’s what you want from a backup point guard.”

Since flying to Orlando to be a part of a self-contained “bubble” of NBA teams for an 8-game restart and then full playoffs, the Phoenix Suns have not had to release a game-day active roster. And due to federal HIPAA privacy rules, they have not revealed who missed the trip due to COVID-19 diagnoses other than an admission that the roster is short a few players who would join the team later in July.

Yet, none of the snippets of released video out of Orlando nor the daily Zoom media availability have produced an image of either Rubio or his primary backup, Elie Okobo. We haven’t even gotten a sasquatch-like blur in the background, and believe me the internet sleuths have been freeze-framing everything for clues.

That doesn’t mean Ricky and Elie are out of Orlando. It just means we haven’t seen them. We will find out for sure on Thursday when the Suns season starts.

So who will play the point? Ricky Rubio has been the only effective point guard the Suns have had since Eric Bledsoe visited a hair salon nearly three years ago. Besides Ricky, the Suns have gone through something like 1,424 point guards.

The most often used at the point guard position next to Devin Booker since Bledsoe (those still on the Suns roster in bold):

  • Elie Okobo (107 games, 19 starts)
  • Tyler Ulis (71, 43)
  • Jamal Crawford (64, 0)
  • Ricky Rubio (57, 57)
  • De’Anthony Melton (50, 31)
  • Jevon Carter (50, 2)
  • Tyler Johnson (44, 15)
  • Isaiah Canaan (38, 16)
  • Mike James (32, 10)
  • Ty Jerome (28, 0)
  • Shaquille Harrison (23, 2)
  • Elfrid Payton (19, 19)

That’s all of them, over only the last 2.75 seasons of Suns basketball, during which they’ve posted a collective 66-163 record for a 28% win rate.

You’d think that, since even a broken clock is right twice a day, one of the backups would have panned out, but no. None of them. Of the guys no longer on the Suns, only half are still in the league and only Payton is still a primary point guard.

It’s even murky among those point guards still with the Suns. Neither of Okobo nor Rubio have even shown up in videos/pictures from Orlando, leaving potentially only Jevon Carter, Ty Jerome and newly signed Cameron Payne running point right now.

What does Monty Williams want to see out of these backup options in Orlando?

“It’s a guy that can run both teams [starters and bench], he’s a bit of a connector,” Williams replied. “And up until this point we haven’t had that.”

Indeed, Rubio is the only one of that motley crew who’s had success running the team, and he can only play 30-32 minutes a night, leaving 30% of the game in someone else’s hands. I know that Monty said he’d like to trust in Point Book more often going forward, but he does not want that kind of burden heaped on Booker every single night.

Okobo is still finding his way in the league, and has been fairly ineffective on both ends. Carter, like Melton and Harrison before him, is probably better suited in a backup combo guard role who rarely handles the offense. Jerome is still an overmatched, under-athletic rookie.

Enter free agent Cameron Payne, who was signed just before the Bubble to join the ranks of backup options. Payne has the most NBA experience (4 seasons), has the measurements (6’2” with 6’7” wingspan) and has the passing ability. But never did much with his NBA minutes and found himself in China and then the G-League this past season at only age 24. He can pass, but his shooting prowess makes Rubio look like Stephen Curry by comparison and left him with the worst offensive advanced stats of the whole backup bunch.

Still, Payne was the highest-drafted of the bunch, taken 14th overall in 2015 right behind Booker, and has the most natural talent.

“His basketball IQ is big,” teammate Dario Saric says of Payne. “He really understands on the court what Book needs, what DA needs. He can control the game too. Really good defensively. He looks like he’s been with us from day one.”

The Suns now have four picks from the top half of the 2015 draft in Frank Kaminsky, Devin Booker, Cameron Payne and Kelly Oubre Jr.

“The biggest thing in a backup role is to be consistent and be very sound defensively,” Payne said of the job. “Take control when you’re out there on the court, and be vocal. As the backup point guard you really have to be a starter in a sense.”

His words mirror those of coach Williams, so that’s a plus for sure. But we won’t know which of these guys will really step up until the real action starts.

The Suns are just now about to start their 4-on-4 and 5-on-5 action and they might possibly be doing this without Rubio, which makes it imperative the Suns find someone who can effectively lead the offense or it might look disappointingly like 2018-19 all over again.

Former Suns head coach Igor Kokoskov just felt a bead of sweat on his forehead as he read this (yes, let’s pretend he’s reading our blog). Now Monty Williams might have to go without an effective point guard like Igor had to for all of his lone season as an NBA head coach.

“Ricky’s been the guy for us in that starting spot,” Williams said. “And now in these next few games and practices, because we’re gonna get after it and be allowed to compete, I want to somebody grab a hold of the reins and take that spot and every day, command the respect that it deserves. We haven’t seen that yet and I’m hopeful that we will.”

Good luck, coach Monty.