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Summer League Primer: Suns assistant coach Brian Randle prepares his team for the Vegas run

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Briand Randle has the task of coaching the Summer Suns in the Las Vegas Summer League.

It’s Summer League time, baby! It seems like just yesterday we were excited for the Phoenix Suns to be playing for the Summer League Championship. Remember rookie Devin Booker going off for 31 points on 10-of-17 shooting in the semifinals against the Pelicans? Yeah, we lost to Las Vegas Summer League MVP Kyle Anderson and the San Antonio Spurs, but we knew something special was coming.

Here we are, six years later, and I’m not sure if the majority of Suns’ fans even care about the Summer League. Phoenix didn’t have a lottery pick in the 2021 NBA Draft that will be showcased in Sin City. The team just came off an epically memorable run to the NBA Finals. There isn’t much hype around the players attending the Summer League like there was in year’s past.

If that is the case, I am clearly in the minority. I am excited to tune into ESPN2 tonight and watch some Suns basketball.

The Phoenix Suns are sending a roster to Las Vegas filled with veteran players, both from overseas and the G League, with some second-year players we are hoping to see grow. (cough) Jalen (cough) Smith. The team is also putting the task of coaching these NBA hopefuls to second-year assistant coach Brian Randle.

You may recall that Randle joined the team following the departure of assistants Steve Blake and Larry Greer.

Randle, who played collegiately at the University of Illinois, came to the Suns after working with the Minnesota Timberwolves in player development. He was an experienced player overseas, playing 10 seasons in Germany, Italy, and Israel.

He is now the head coach for the Summer Suns. It is an excellent opportunity to not only develop a team, but to develop himself. “I’ve gained a great appreciation for what it is to be a head coach and I haven’t even coached a Summer League game yet,” Randle said at a Summer League press conference on Friday.

“From the basketball side,” he added, “it’s just thinking about what you want to teach, what’s the most important to you offensively, defensively. You get on the board and you want to draw up a play making sure that, not that just guys are in the right spot but that you’re explaining it the way that you want. A lot of the details that maybe you don’t think through as an assistant, having to think about those things and execute them so guys aren’t looking at you’re crazy.”

It’s been a wild ride for Brian Randle since joining the Suns. His first season with the Phoenix Suns was, as Randle put it, “a crash course for me.”

“I’ve been fortunate to be able to move up pretty quickly as far as the coaching ladder and coming into the season I had done the video room, I had done player development but this was my first year as an assistant. Some of the responsibilities were new, even though looking on from the outside, being around the assistant coaches was something that I had done. But when you get into the fire and everything that you think, ‘I’d do that’ and ‘I’d do that’, then you have to do it.”

“And you have to take a step back and be like ‘Wow, I really have a lot to learn’. It was good. It tested me. That’s kind of been my path, getting thrown in, figuring it out, and I’ve been fortunate to be around some really good coaches. Smart, veteran, and being supportive. It was a good year.”

The next step in his personal development is leading the Summer Suns in Las Vegas. One advantage the coach has? The roster that has been constructed for him is filled with G League players and guys from overseas.

“We got guys — some of them have been in the G League and some have been exclusively overseas — but they all have experience. Two years, three years, four years of experience,” Coach Randle said. “So that teaching aspect when you come in the first day of camp, it really changes that learning curve. Guys pick up things quick.”

“They’ve been in different countries, different coaches, so it kind of fast forwards you in what you’re able to do in the first couple practices. We were fortunate enough to have that. Our front office did a great job constructing this roster.”

Of course many eyes will be on second-year forward Jalen Smith. He did not get much of a chance to display his abilities in the 2020-21season as the Suns were playing every night for a chance to be the best team in the NBA.

Coach Randle will be doing what he can to assist in Smith’s growth, understanding what success looks like. “When you’re a lottery pick, the assumption is there is a ton of expectation on you,” Randle commented. “For us I believe what coach Mark Bryant, obviously coach Monty, and the rest of our staff, we try what we tried to do with him is say, ‘You know what? 10th pick, 1st pick, 20th pick. It doesn’t matter what you are. Take a breath, you’re here now, we’re going to help you, we’re going to try to teach you.’”

“Similar to what he did with DA, coach Bryant has been fantastic. Talking to him, teaching him to be patient, and Jalen has been in the gym. He comes on off days. He works. Plays one-on-one with Ty-Shon, five-on-five with lower minute guys and even some of our coaching staff. I’ve been encouraged and we’ve been encouraged with the work that he’s put in and some of the growth that we’ve seen.”

“The hope is now he can come into Summer League and not have to feel burdened, like he has to do everything. Again, we have a veteran team, guys who can hopefully take some pressure off of him, and he can just go out and play and kind of be free a little bit.”

Phoenix Suns Portraits Photo by Barry Gossage/NBAE via Getty Images

How will success be measured? Probably not the way that the fan base measures progress. We typically look at the box score rather than the film, making assumptions based on metrics rather than actual effort (see: Deandre Ayton). Randle sees it differently.

“Every time he steps on the court, hopefully he’s growing and he’s learning, feeling the game out,” Randle said. “But it’s not a situation where we want him to score 30 and say, ‘Hey, you gotta shoot 20 shots a night’. That’s not what we’re looking at, that’s not what we emphasize, that’s not what we value. We just want him to get his motor going and feel the game.”

The abilities Smith possesses will allow plenty of versatility. They key for Randle is figuring out where Smith not only fits in, but is comfortable doing so. Per Basketball-Reference, Smith played at power forward position 73% of the time and at center 28% of the time. That’s right, that is 101%, so who knows how they calculate those metrics.

“We gotta figure out where he’s comfortable,” Brian Randle observed. “Where he feels, ‘Okay, I’ve worked on these things throughout the year and I’m good in this situation.’ If we want to push you at the five, where do you feel good? How are your movements? How are your handoffs? It does give us some versatility but at the same time we know with young guys, you can throw too much at them, it’s hard.”

“It does give us some options but at the same time we want to make sure that you’re showcasing a guy within what you do such that it doesn’t hinder or hurt him in the long run because we don’t want to mess up his growth mentally or physically as he comes into his own.”

“He’s a talented guy. He wouldn’t have been drafted 10th if he wasn’t. He has some intangibles: athleticism, length, height, strength, ability to do things physically that most people wouldn’t. Now on the other side of it, he is skilled. He can handle the ball a little bit, he can shoot a little bit, he can get in the post. He does bring a different dimension and he’s worked on so many things during the season.”

“If he gets there after Summer League or during Summer League, it’d be great. If it takes some time, it takes some time. It’s being a young guy. I think it would be a bit of a disservice to Stix if we feel like, ‘Well, he doesn’t get it in Summer League, he can’t do it’. That’s not the case. We’re teaching, he’s growing, and we’re patient. He’s a good player and we believe in him.”

2021 NBA Finals - Phoenix Suns v Milwaukee Bucks

As for Randle himself, he understands that the opportunity before him has plenty of challenges. It is a chance for him to grow as well, to see the game differently.

“Breaking the game down. Thinking about, ‘Okay, what’s our pick and roll coverage going to be? What is it look like off ball? How can we take away these major actions?’. You watch them and you see them. You see that they’re successful against this team and not successful against that team.”

“Can we copycat? Can we come up with something creative? Figuring out how to really slow your mind down and tell yourself, ‘This is what’s paramount. If that doesn’t work, we got this next layer, here’s the next layer’. Really figuring out what you want to do, what’s best for your team in your system.”

“But then also having backup plans. I think that was one of the biggest things for me. It took some time to figure out and get comfortable with. That was probably the biggest adjustment; being able to look at things and see the wrinkles and slow the process down in your mind and saying, ‘This is what I want to present’. Let’s see how it works”

Best of luck to Coach Randle!