Another short offseason in the NBA is killing the development and growth for young players, specifically those heading into their 2nd through 4th season. The Phoenix Suns have numerous players who fall right in this category, including Mikal Bridges and Deandre Ayton. These are very important years for these young men, and the shortened off-seasons are stunting the opportunity for growth.
I am a believer that you can tell what you have in a player by his 3rd year. With the lack of off-season last year and a muted one this upcoming season, it is tough for the young players to hit the gym, add on muscle, and to make improvements to their game.
The Phoenix Suns have their young core of the future, and with the team in a “championship or bust” mentality set by Devin Booker and recent successes, there is no time to waste to show how they can contribute.
Booker will settle for nothing less then another shot at the Larry O'Brien trophy.
Mikal Bridges and Deandre Ayton (extended or not this off-season) need to prove that they belong and will continue to work at improving and playing championship style basketball in the limited time given to improve.
Here are three things from both players that I would like to see improved going into the 2021-22 season.
Both Mikal and Ayton did showed their stripes during the 2020-21 season while playing winning basketball. Suns rookie Jalen Smith did not get the opportunity, and it was somewhat expected. Any other year before last, Smith would have had the time to work on his game, like Booker did during his first five years in the league on a losing team.
It is a shame that we were unable to see any consistent minutes for Smith, because who knows, he might turn out alright. Ty Jerome, who played good minutes for the Oklahoma City Thunder last season, might be a good comparison to Smith’s situation in Phoenix. Jerome is a good player and needed time to develop, but the Suns did not have the time. Now Jerome is showing that he can be a back-up guard in this league, with the minutes allotted to him by the Thunder, a team that was on its way to losing from the first game last season.
Ayton had his rookie in Smith, but he might be gone before next season begins. Now, he just needs a back-up to spend him a good amount of minutes on the bench. The size behind Ayton is important, but the next level of play for Ayton will overshadow anything the Suns do in free agency to help.
With Ayton watch most likely going away next year, here are some things to look for when the season starts from him. The things he needs to improve on to bring his name back into the center of the ring as one of the best centers in the league.
1. Finishing inside
Being more physical would be nice, but Ayton has shown that he can handle the ball around the rim at times, and just needs to work on finishing.
His footwork and knowing where he is on the floor will help develop the soft touch off the glass. He is not as long as Giannis Antetokounmpo, but he has the angle a lot of the times, unable to finish plenty.
Hesitation in his game got him nowhere whereas slowing the game down did. At time he was able to feel the defender and make his move, then when the time was right either pass it out to a wide open shooter, or a driving teammate for a layup.
2. Getting to the rim from the perimeter
I swear that I am not trying to turn him into Giannis.
The role right now for Ayton on the perimeter is to hand the ball off and set a screen. The move he should be making is getting to the basket.
With the ball in his hands at the perimeter, the defender is usually 5-6 feet away and waiting for him to make a move. If he is able to pick a side of the basket to attack, he would be able to either draw contact for the foul or use his touch off the glass.
This unexpected play against the Los Angeles Lakers shows he has the handles and the finish.
Easier said than done from the couch. More trust from teammates like Chris Paul, might lead to more a ball-handling role in next years offense.
3. Nobody cares if you are tired, go play
I do sound like a real jerk on this one, but Ayton was the only player where I could physically see he was tired after the first five minutes of play. I am unsure of where this is going, but I just wanted to throw it out there.
I think that mentally, he knows and feels tired, but his play still needs to show as if he is in a routine. He is always counted on when the game matters and when the games don’t, it is a night off. I want him to be an all-star and I am selfish for that, so play every game like a Booker or even a Cameron Johnson.
All in all, I love having Ayton on the team, and I do not want to see trade rumors or trade machine ideas next season. Heck, the whole draft has changed because of him and Giannis. More because of the play from Giannis, but Ayton showed he was here to stay.
Bridges rose to the top of Suns rankings as a fan favorite this year. Asking him to guard the best player on the other team while trying to produce on offense was a tall task, and the effort was always there.
I am not currently seeing a ceiling for Bridges, not to say he is the next Michael Jordan, but we really don’t know the limit to his game.
Like Ayton, he is swimming to find the confidence on every possession. He is not currently a main ball handler, but he does have the potential. That is my first “must have” going into game one next season.
1. Ball handling
Confidence in handling the ball more will come from reps. Not to run the offense, but to take control of the situation in a one-on-one situation. Bridges has found ways to deal with defenders with drive-byes to the paint leading to a pull up jumper. Even when he misses, which was rare, he made me proud to take charge in trying to beat the defender.
Every play on offense in the video shown below, is to the rim on a fast break, or creating something off the dribble.
2. Pump faking
To the max! Shooting at 43% from three last season, the defense next year will defend the corners. We have to see the pump fake every single game and Bridges needs to get the ball to the rim.
This is not something that is in need of a long summer to work on. It is already an option for him. The next thing on the list will help push both #1 and #2 along.
3. Demand the ball
Running plays through Bridges will open up a lot for the offense. He is a a good ball handler that can make the pass or get to the rim. He needs to take charge and ask for the ball more. Something that Ayton needs to do, but last season, you could see how versatile Bridges could be with the ball in his hands.
He could be a role-player to this Suns team and that might be his ceiling. I see more, and I want him to come out of his shell and explore what he can do by making mistakes during next season.
We forget about him when he is busy guarding the best player on the other team. Hopefully his focus is to work on confidence to be a main focus in the offense.
The off-season will be short for both of these players and time is not on their side to make improvements. But given their career trajectory, both can make the leap heading into year four that could help bring the confetti at the end of next season.