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How Ish Wainright’s game evolved to be the perfect complement on a contender

Wainright was the veteran leader on the Summer Suns, but his role still reflected what it will be with the big club

2022 Las Vegas Summer League- Sacramento Kings v Phoenix Suns Photo by Bart Young/NBAE via Getty Images

Over a short time in the Phoenix Suns program, Ish Wainright has transformed his game in ways that can only be explained as “intentional”.

We’re still a ways out from the anniversary of Wainright initially joining the squad back on Oct. 22, 2021, and he isn’t technically part of the official roster at this moment, as he remains unsigned despite an impressive showing in the Las Vegas Summer League, where he served as team leader and example.

But the ways that Wainright has developed are evidence that Phoenix wants him to play alongside their stars — as well as the stars not on the roster yet.

In five Las Vegas Summer League games, averaging 23.8 minutes:

  • 11.0 points (42.1/41.4/84.6 shooting splits); 76.3% of his shot attempts were from deep
  • 3.4 rebounds
  • 2.2 assists to 1.0 turnovers
  • 1.2 steals and 0.2 blocks

Wainright’s three-point volume — 41.4% on 5.8 attempts from deep per game — is the most enticing development to me, especially when you consider the variety of shot types happening for him in these games.

The Suns’ development program built upon the already-pretty good spot-up shot, adding looks off movement, off the dribble, and even a stepback here and there.

Focusing his shot attempts on those looks from deep works well to build habits toward that being his calling card in the offense, but it also just simplifies the game from Wainright’s perspective; only having a few key responsibilities on either end.

Whether it’s in lineups alongside Devin Booker, Damion Lee, or whoever else up and down the roster, there’s room in a lineup for a 40-plus percent three-point shooter who can play any defensive position.

As for that defensive versatility, he does a great job of making it matter.

For example, playing small ball with Wainright at the 5 doesn’t functionally make a difference if Wainright isn’t able to both hold up inside — which he did, albeit in Summer League — as well as come out to the perimeter when plays dictate it necessary.

Quite a few of these steals come with Wainright at the 5, my favorite coming at the 0:24 mark where he reads the incoming pocket pass and steps in front of it. Correctly reading the ball handlers’ intentions is one of the most important aspects of defending a pick-and-roll, and Wainright does it beautifully and correctly there.

He also does a great job of pestering ball handlers out on the perimeter, especially when the offensive player is bigger and Wainright is able to match the physicality with his Baylor football tight end frame. My favorite example of that comes at the 0:10 mark.

When you have a utility player like Wainright who already excels at deep shooting and defense, any playmaking feels like a luxury. Luckily, his distributing — even on low volume — is pretty high-level stuff.

While there is an example of a beautiful lob out of a downhill pick-and-roll action, that’s not the type of play I want to focus on, since there’s a slim chance that — all other things held equal — Wainright runs more than 10 pick-and-roll possessions all season, including garbage time.

I’d instead like to focus on his ability to find shooters and cutters from the wing and mid-post, because that’s a direct effect of the 0.5 offense. Those possessions stem from actions happening that open up passing lanes.

At the 0:06 mark, Wainright lifts from the corner for what sometimes is a winged three attempt, but here as Jo Lual Acuil Jr. dives ever so slightly, it opens up the pass from the right wing to the left corner, which Wainright delivers with about 80% accuracy; a solid mark for such a difficult pass.

The following example at the 0:12 mark is so translatable to minutes with the “big” team as he sets up on the right wing and leads the cutting Louis King for an easy basket. It’s not hard to imagine that being Mikal Bridges or Cam Johnson in King’s spot.

The Suns aren’t all that versatile up and down the roster, even among their stars, and that just makes Wainright more valuable.

I do believe he’s capable of being the focal point of an all-bench lineup, but I also believe that if you put him in Jae Crowder’s spot with the starters — not that I think Wainright should start, it’s more of a lineup example — Wainright would fit well alongside the guys like Booker, Bridges, and Deandre Ayton.

(And not to be overly persistent, but Wainright would fit very well alongside Kevin Durant too; look no further than Bruce Brown as a similar example of archetype.)

Unfortunately, this and many other “prospect”-focused ideas come down to whether the newly-extended head coach Monty Williams is willing to give them chances to fail. To this point, he hasn’t allowed many Suns to do so, though he talked about wanting that to change after the defeat against Dallas in the playoffs.

We’ll find out if this exceptional summer showing is just another flash in the pan or if it’s another indicator of a trajectory pointed sky high in the Valley.

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