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Player development still big for Suns, despite trading out of Draft

The Suns have three starters and half-dozen bench players good enough for more minutes in 2021-22 but won’t get them.

2021 NBA Finals - Game Six Photo by Justin Casterline/Getty Images

After winning the Western Conference Finals and coming within two wins of the league championship, the Phoenix Suns have become true believers in continuity. They have basically run it back this offseason, keeping every rotation player that averaged more than 24 minutes per game while and adding a couple of quality backups.

I guess that’s what you do when your core is still quite young — 7 of the top 9 players were 26 or younger — and those kids have already proven their ability to win big in the playoffs.

Youth movement is over?

On the surface, the Suns appear to be selling their future to solidify the present. They sold their developmental league team (NAZ Suns), traded out of the 2021 Draft entirely, released 23-year old Ty-Shon Alexander from a two-way roster spot and are dangling a 21-year old lottery pick as trade bait for another vet.

A team that two years ago was one of the youngest in the league is now 7th oldest, and that’s even before a potential trade of 21-year old Jalen Smith for a 32-year old veteran.

Suns fans who remember the Seven Seconds or Less era are already feeling tingles of frustration with this mindset.

That 62-win 2005 Western Conference Finals team boasted 7 of their top 9 rotation players aged 26 or younger, with another four deep-bench players no older than 23. Not wanting to add any more kids, they traded away draft picks in four straight years that could have helped later on. Those picks: 2004 (Luol Deng), 2005 (Nate Robinson, Marcin Gortat), 2006 (Rajon Rondo, Sergio Rodriguez), 2007 (Rudy Fernandez) and 2008 (Serge Ibaka).

The Suns net gain on the court from those traded picks? A year and a half of 30 year old Kurt Thomas. Oh, and cash.

As a result, a once deep and youthful 2005 roster became increasingly shallow and old. The high tide from that uber-talented 2005 roster lasted just three seasons. By 2008 — just four seasons after bursting on the scene — only 3 of their top 9 players were age 26 or younger and they suffered a demoralizing first-round playoff loss, followed by the coach walking out in a huff and the team missing the playoffs 11 of the next 12 years.

We don’t want that to happen again, do we? Do we want to sacrifice the future for the now?

But it’s not a repeat...

In good news, the pattern is slightly better this time. Yes, they traded the 2021 pick but at least they got back a 24-year old shooter with upside. Now the youth acquired by James Jones since he became the full-time General Manager includes Cameron Johnson (25 now), Jalen Smith (21) and Landry Shamet (24).

Another deviation from that 2005 squad is that all the best young players from the Finals squad are still healthy and in place after the off-season. Remember those 7 young players among the top 9 in the 2005 rotation? Five of them were gone by the next season. The 2006 squad had only 3 of their top 9 aged 26 or younger.

This 2021 Suns team is still intact, and still developing.

Player development is still key

Starters Devin Booker (24), Deandre Ayton (23) and Mikal Bridges (25) are still on the rise and will only get better this coming season. They are developmental players — and a huge focus of the coaching staff.

Today’s article focuses on those OUTSIDE the starting lineup.

A great team is a deep team, able to withstand injuries to the starters and provide excellent support in the playoffs off the bench. Every great team has players coming off the bench who could start for many other teams in the league, and acquit themselves well in that role. Some of those players are wily veterans, like JaVale McGee, while some are young-ish development players still working on maximizing their talents.

The most exciting bench players are those who have the talent to someday be a lot better than they are, with the work ethic to get there. While the Suns did skip the 2021 Draft, they still have a handful of young-ish players outside the starting lineup who can continue to grow in 2021 and beyond.

What exactly is a developmental player? I’m guessing that’s a player who could — in a perfect world — go from being a small-role cheerleader to a prominent role in the wake of injury, trade or free agent defection of someone ahead of them.

Three immediate examples that come to mind are Toronto’s trio of Pascal Siakam, Chris Boucher and OG Anunoby. All of those players began their career in small roles before taking on more responsibilities in year three.

Anunoby was the 23rd pick in the 2017 Draft, played 20 minutes per game as a defensive specialist for two years before growing his offensive game and his role in years three and four. Anunoby, 23 year old, is now set to make $72 million in the next four years.

Chris Boucher, a native of Saint Lucia, got a late start to his career, went undrafted, had very small roles with the Warriors and Raptors before growing into a solid rotation player. Boucher, 28, is now in the middle of a $20 million contract over three years.

Pascal Siakam was the 27th pick in the 2016 Draft and had a tiny role for two seasons before becoming an All-Star level player in year four. The 26 year old is now an All-Star the middle of a four year, $129 million extension.

Most every team has examples of this kind of player: start small, develop your skills, then take over in year three or four when you’re ready to win big games. Most every well-run, sustainable playoff team, that is.

The bad teams, on the other hand, play anyone right away with a pulse and some raw talent. Devin Booker, Mikal Bridges and Deandre Ayton played big minutes right out of the gate and still broke out in their own ways in year three.

Now that the Suns are very good, the careers of the young Suns will more resemble the Raptors mentioned above. If Jalen Smith had been drafted by the Suns in 2017 instead of 2020, he would have played big minutes like he did on the 2021 Summer League team, where he made First-team All-Vegas. Same with Cameron Johnson, drafted in 2019, who played himself into a small rotation spot early, but has not yet cracked the 25+ minutes per game mark.

Who do the Suns have that could grow into a much larger role this year as they further develop their skills?

The Suns skipped the draft entirely this year, focusing instead on continuity by redoubling their efforts on developing from what was already within.

I’ll start with the oldest ‘young’ players and work my way backwards. You might not consider a player in their late 20s growing from a bit part to big part, but the Suns have a pair that they feel can become

Cameron Payne, 27

Entering year 2 of his second-chance NBA career

I shared a long profile of Payne’s crazy NBA start that almost ended in a crash and burn at age 24. But then James Jones and Monty Williams came calling, giving Payne a fresh chance to prove why he was a lottery pick in 2015. Payne went from out of the league to key backup playmaker on a Finals team.

From the above examples, Payne is more like Boucher in that he is establishing himself after hitting the back half of his twenties. Hassan Whiteside is another example like Payne — a player who washed out of the league, only to return when he finally matched his skills with his effort and mindset.

At the moment, Payne is an 18-minute-per-game backup to Hall of Famer Chris Paul. He showed his potential in the playoffs, highlighted by a 29 point, 9 assist, 0 turnover game to help the Suns take a 2-0 lead in the Western Conference Finals when Chris Paul was out due to COVID-19. The Suns rewarded Payne with a similar contract to Boucher (3 years, $19 million).

Can Payne continue to develop like Boucher did? Boucher justified the Raptors investment by doubling most of his career highs after signing the contract. Now he’s a bargain, putting up 13 points, 6.7 rebounds and 1.9 blocks while also draining 39% of his threes on $6 million per year.

Payne can make threes consistently (44% last year, 37% for his career) and can take care of the ball (3.5-to-1 assist-to-turnover rate last year, 3-to-1 for his career) while setting up teammates (7.2 assists per 36 minutes).

Player development: The key to Payne’s development will be improving his scoring in the paint and/or developing a consistent floater on the drive. His scoring in the paint is lacking, at only 17% of his attempts with a below-average 55% He’s got to make the defense pay for hard close-outs on the three point line. Teams will hug Payne on the perimeter more and more, so he has to make them pay once he gets inside the line.

Prognosis: As Chris Paul’s backup, Payne’s role is likely to increase this year. Maybe not every night (All-Star Paul will still play 30 minutes per game), but Paul is turning 37 this year and is more and more likely to suffer nagging injuries and/or simply need nights off.

Cameron Johnson, 25

Entering year 3 of his rookie-scale contract

The other Cam is somehow both a recent lottery pick and ‘oh wow I didn’t know he could really play’ prospect at the same time. His selection in the 2019 Draft at 11th overall was met with surprise and indignation both locally and nationally, yet Johnson now arguably ranks among the top half dozen players to come out of that 2019 Draft.

Going back to the Raptors parallels, Johnson’s career arc most closely resembles Anunoby’s. He started as a small-role specialist (Cam’s is shooting, while OG’s was defense) with the flashes of tools to grow into something much more. Anunoby exploded in year three, more than doubling his scoring while jumping from 20 to 30+ minutes per game while continuing to improve on his specialty.

Player development: While Payne needs to add to his game to justify bigger minutes, Johnson already has all the skills he needs for a bigger role. He has developed into an ideal small-ball four, as long as you don’t need rebounding (which makes him great next to Ayton, the vacuum) with his quality size and defense, both in the paint and on the perimeter.

Prognosis: The Suns lost Torrey Craig in free agency, leaving a chunk of additional minutes to go around at the forward spots. Cameron Johnson is perfectly suited for the Suns playing style, and should see his minutes increase from 24 per game to closer to 30 this season (unless they acquire another veteran forward, like Thaddeus Young).

Landry Shamet, 24

Entering year 4 of his rookie-scale contract

Shamet is a big unknown to Suns fans, who wonder whether Shamet is any better than Jevon Carter, Langston Galloway, E’Twaun Moore or whoever might have been taken with the 29th overall pick this year. Or all of them together, actually. Shamet effectively replaces them as backup shooting guard to Devin Booker.

Who is Landry Shamet? He was originally the 26th pick in the 2018 Draft (same years as Ayton and Bridges), taken by the 76ers. As a 21-year old rookie, with Monty Williams an assistant coach under Brett Brown at the time, Shamet immediately produced (40% of his threes in 20 minutes per game) before being included in the Tobias Harris trade. With the Clippers, his role increased further (45% on threes in 27 minutes per game) as he helped them make the playoffs even after trading an All-Star mid-season. The last two years, he’s stagnated a bit, playing behind All-Stars Paul George in LA and then (after another trade) James Harden/Kyrie Irving in Brooklyn. Now he gets to play behind All-Stars Devin Booker and Chris Paul in Phoenix.

If you’re into videos, our own contributor Zona Hoops made this on how Shamet fits in Phoenix.

Shamet’s strengths are obvious: he’s a great shooter, moves well off the ball to force defenses to account for him, and can handle the ball when defenders close out on him.

His limitations are also obvious: he’s not tall (6’3”) or long (6’7”) and is very skinny, so he will struggle on defense. He mitigates those limitations by being a smart and good team defender, but he just can’t survive on an island if isolated.

Player development: Shamet came into the league as a combo guard who can set up and execute an offense, but he’s been relegated mostly to shooting in his three years in the league. If he shows the Suns he can thrive in lineups where he’s a playmaker as much as a shooter, his role could increase even when everyone is healthy. He needs to re-discover that playmaking ability.

Prognosis: At the least, Shamet will be a great shooter in the second unit next to the Cams and is a better big-minute option than any of Carter, Galloway or Moore if one of the All-Stars needs to miss some time. At the best, he could develop into a Booker-lite with shooting and playmaking abilities who carves out a role that saves wear and tear on the All-Stars and earns him a big extension next summer.

Jalen Smith, 21

Entering year 2 of his rookie-scale contract

Smith, nicknamed Stix because of his long skinny legs and upright playing style, has some obvious skills and just-as-obvious deficiencies.

Can Smith have a career that resembles any of those aforementioned Raptors? He’s got the physical gifts of a Boucher, though with much more silvery spoon background than Boucher enjoyed.

Today, Stix can rebound and shoot the three ball respectably, skills he’s shown in both college and NBA Summer League. He can also put the ball on the floor better than most 6’10” players, and has a consistently high motor. He’s just not consistent enough in execution to be trusted yet. He made less than 37% of his shots while recording more turnovers than assists, and failed to quell fears of his defensive abilities at the NBA level.

Player development: Stix just needs time. Ideally, low-leverage time. On the 2018 Suns, he would have been great, likely better than any of Alex Len, Marquese Chriss or Dragan Bender — all Top-8 picks — because of his consistently high motor and quality long-range shooting ability. He also needs coaching on his footwork, while putting him in the best positions to succeed.

Prognosis: I’m not sure if Stix is ready for high-leverage minutes, which they all are when you’re playing on a Chris Paul team. He should either get good minutes on a low-leverage team (like the Spurs?) or low minutes on the Suns, until he’s shored up a few more flaws.

That’s four bench players, not even mentioning 28-year old Abdel Nader who has skills and could handle more minutes this coming season but just won’t get them without injuries to players ahead of him.

Add up the minutes-per-game from the seven returning regulars, plus last year’s minutes played by Landry Shamet, JaVale McGee and Elfrid Payton and there’s already not enough minutes for them. Those 10 players played 257 minutes per game, yet an NBA game only lasts 240 minutes. And that’s without Dario logging a single minute (knee rehab)!

No wonder the Suns didn’t get veteran players like Paul Millsap lining up to sign on — there’s simply no minutes available!

Even if you remove Elfrid Payton from the equation, there’s only 6 minutes left after the top nine get theirs.

Elfrid Payton knew this, and what’s why he needed a weekend to think about it. He’s likely going to suffer the most in terms of playing time, and no player wants to hope for injuries.

All this is to say that while the Suns have half a dozen players deserving more minutes than last year, there’s no clear road to giving them that extra time. Which is very likely why James Jones did not spend any time worried about the Draft this year. The roster is loaded with young players ready for bigger roles who have already proven themselves in a playoff setting.

That’s a good problem to have, I’d say.

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