The Phoenix Suns youngest player, 22-year old Duane Washington Jr., put on a show in his preseason finale, forcing the Suns to consider making him a regular rotation player, if not giving him a full NBA contract, as the new season starts.
The Suns have a definite need for a tertiary scoring guard who can initiate the offense, set up players for easy shots, take and make shots without hesitation, without giving up even more points on the other end... basically, someone who is both fearless and talented.
Who’da thunk that might come from a 22 year old on a two-way contract?
Wednesday night’s preseason game against the Sacramento Kings was Washington Jr.’s coming-out party in Phoenix. He played on-ball nearly the whole game, led all scorers by a wide margin with 31 points on 52% shooting, got to the line for 11 free throws, and just-missed the game winner.
“It was a blessing,” Washington said of getting 39 minutes in the preseason finale. “I always wanted to be in that position, and it was my first time here in Phoenix. It’s a great opportunity.”
“The scoring is something we knew that he could do well, he doesn’t have any fear,” head coach Monty Williams said after the game.
His aggressive offensive play, creating shots off drives into the paint and launching jumpers whenever open, is a breath of fresh air for a Suns team full of role players who like to be told when it’s okay to shoot. And he’s likely only scratching the surface of his NBA potential, just a year out of college.
How does that guy go undrafted, get released after a 10-points-per-game rookie year, and settle for a two-way contract with the Phoenix Suns?
Because he’s a tweener. He’s got good size for a point guard — 6’3”, 210 pounds, a build reminiscent of Ricky Rubio — but his playmaking is not quite reliable enough to be a full-time ball handler, and he’s not quite big enough to be a full-time shooting guard at the NBA level.
While he made more than half his shots and created a ton of free throws for himself on Wednesday night, he also committed a crazy-high 11 turnovers — eleven! — in his 39 minutes of play. Some of those were due to fatigue in the second half, but he’d racked up 5 in the first half and 8 by halfway through the third quarter before Coach Williams gave him a long breather.
“I thought he made some good pocket passes early that helped us,” Williams said, of Washington’s 4 first-half assists, “But 11 turnovers is something that when you have a night like that of 31 points, I’m sure he’s going to be kicking himself over some of the turnovers.”
Washington was indeed kicking himself.
“I’m very frustrated with myself,” Washington said later. “Losing the game, having 11 turnovers, but it’s something that I will chalk up and get better at.”
He was even mad at missing the potential game-winner, a baseline jumper he created for himself as the clock hit zero that looked just like others he’d made and taken earlier in the game. But this one, he missed.
“It’s a blessing,” he said of getting that chance. “I have my big bros, D-Book (Devin Booker) and CP3 (Chris Paul) hollering at me, before this game and today, telling me to learn from the last game and apply what I’ve learned. Unfortunately, I missed it, but it was a great look. I got exactly what I wanted this time.”
Suns All-Star guard Devin Booker knows all about Duane Washington Jr., who grew up in Booker’s same Grand Rapids area with dad, Duane Washington Sr., a ball player himself who had two cups of coffee at the NBA level in ‘88 and ‘93. My guess at their connection is Booker’s dad Melvin, also a pro though never at the NBA level.
Booker is just four years older than Duane Jr. but, as is the way with Book, he talks about Jr. as if he’s from a different generation.
“I’ve been watching him since he was eight years old,” Booker says, holding his hand up ‘yay high’ to indicate Jr.’s smallness. Book would have been 12 at that time.
Now Washington is all grown up, playing NBA basketball with Book and one of the greatest point guards of all time in Chris Paul.
As I said before, Washington is fearless, though he still has a ways to go. He also had chances to close out the Denver Nuggets on Monday night. You know, the game where the Suns had the late lead but Nuggets’ Ish Smith made a pair of jumpers to tie and win the game. But as Jr. said, he’s learning.
He’s no Chris Paul. Check. But he does have a good command of the ball when he’s setting up his primary defender in pick-and-roll, is able to put that defender on his back hip, and force the big man help defender to make a decision — shift onto him to stop his drive, or stay on the big to stop the lob? Unfortunately, Washington doesn’t really have the lob or pocket pass down well, and ends up just attacking the help defender and expecting the best.
Still, I’ll repeat that his fearless mindset could be great for this Suns team in a bench role behind Book and CP3. And, who better for a young guy to learn better command of the play from than All-Stars Chris Paul and Devin Booker, two of the most efficient players in the NBA?
“I know that I can score the ball at a high level, put the ball through the rim, and make shots,” Washington said. “I believe in myself. I always have and I always will. I just have to be better, and I definitely will be. I can’t wait to watch this, break it down and figure it out.”
Add better passing control to that mindset and you might have a good NBA rotation player, a real find for a Suns front office looking for diamonds in the rough.
“The next one is going in,” Washington said of taking potential game winners. “That’s the only way you can operate, mentally, and go forth because it will drive you crazy at night.”