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Realistic aspirations for Suns backups to blow away expectations

The Phoenix Suns have 11 players on league-minimum deals. Can any of them break through like Strus, Robinson, Vincent or Brown?

NBA: Brooklyn Nets at Miami Heat Rich Storry-USA TODAY Sports

We are all asking ourselves who is the Phoenix Suns fifth closer alongside All-Stars Kevin Durant, Devin Booker, Bradley Beal and center Deandre Ayton. Our best guess at the answer is whoever provides the right combination of unconscious three point shooting and on-ball defense.

But that’s not quite the focus of this piece. Today’s focus is trying to identify which of the Suns’ minimum salary signings are going to turn this opportunity into a big payday the way guys like Jae Crowder, Gabe Vincent, Duncan Robinson and Max Strus have done in recent years.

Speaking of Crowder and the Suns’ 5th starter needs, it sure would be nice to have the 2021 Jae Crowder around, wouldn’t it?

As it is, that last spot looks to be a season-long tryout among the 11 players on minimum salaries, ranging from 6’3” Eric Gordon to 7’2” Bol Bol. The pool of talent looks better than a year ago, at least, but there’s not much in the way of a sure thing.

Still, I’d bet that at least one, if not a handful, of the Suns’ minimum-salary signings perform better than last year’s ‘5th guy’ in Torrey Craig and Josh Okogie. No shade to Torrey and Josh. Torrey had the season of his life, but wasn’t re-signed partially because he is 33 years old now and is a career 15-minutes-per-game deep bench guy. And I’m betting that last year’s Okogie is the worst Okogie we’re going to see.

There’s a really good chance that all of Yuta Watanabe, Keita Bates-Diop, Josh Okogie, Eric Gordon and Jordan Goodwin are more reliable and productive than last year’s bench guys (Guys like Toumani Camara and Bol Bol are complete wildcards, but hey it could happen I guess).

My question today is HOW much better?

Can any of the Suns vet mins earn big free agent cash next summer like some of these recent breakout players did? Each of these aspirational targets were after-thought signings until they broke through in a big way.

Josh Okogie’s aspiration: The 2020 Jae Crowder level

There’s a wiiiiide chasm between “2020/21 Jae Crowder” good and “better than 2022 Josh Okogie” good.

“2020/21 Jae Crowder” was a reliable 5th starter on an NBA Finals-level team (2020 Heat, 2021 Suns). Crowder has always been pretty good, starting 86 of 100 possible playoff games over 8 straight playoffs, though he only averaged 9.5 points (33% 3P) in 25 minutes per game in his career. He didn’t get his first full mid-level contract until age 30.

“2023 Josh Okogie” is a streaky 5th starter on a second-round playoff team who can get lost in the shuffle based on matchups and recent shooting performance. At age 24, he’s still finding his niche.

Like I said, a wide chasm despite fairly similar box score production (Okogie Dec 1, 2022+ vs. Crowder’s 2021), linebacker-shaped body and defensive intensity. Josh is two inches shorter than Jae (6’4” vs. 6’6”) but has the same wingspan and physicality.

Can the 2024 Josh Okogie rise to Jae Crowder levels of reliability and smarts? Or at least close the gap a bit?

Jordan Goodwin’s aspiration: The 2023 Gabe Vincent level

Vincent, an undersized iffy-shooting combo guard, went undrafted out of college and spent three years on Exhibit 10 and two-way deals before finally earning a full NBA contract with the Miami Heat. A year later, he turned a great playoff run into a $33 million contract.

Vincent’s career progression:

  • 2019-2021 — 59 games, 7 starts, 35/30/87 splits, 4.5 points and 1.2 assists per game
  • 2021-2023 — 136 games, 61 starts, 41/35/85 splits, 9.1 points and 2.8 assists per game
  • 2023 Playoffs — 22 games, 22 starts, 40/38/88 splits, 12.7 points and 3.5 assists per game
  • 2023 offseason: $11 million per year

Jordan Goodwin has a similar profile to Gabe Vincent. He is the same height (6’3”) and busts his butt on defense, but does not shoot it that well (32% on low volume 3s) and doesn’t pass it well enough to be a point guard starter.

Vincent, like Crowder in the prior section, just kept working and turned himself into a guy you rely on to make winning plays and step up in the moment.

The Suns hope Jordan Goodwin can make a similar career progression. If the Suns stars are healthy he won’t get much opportunity to start, but he can still build himself into a reliable rotation player who can start in case of injury.

The Gabe Vincent level — full-time playoff starter, turned $11 million per year contract — might be a bit much for Goodwin in the near future. Especially considering the only way he’d be a full-time starter here is due to injury, which lowers the Suns ceiling dramatically.

So let’s lower the bar a bit. Can Goodwin be better than Cam Payne? Payne had some high highs but way too many low lows and just couldn’t stay level, especially at playoff time. Can Goodwin become a more reliable version of Payne, who turned his best NBA run into a $6 million/year contract?

Yuta Watanabe’s aspiration: The 2023 Max Strus level

Max Strus, a three point shooter who holds his own on defense, followed the same path as Vincent: two-way, to league minimum, to what is now $63 million over 4 years, with a $15.75 million average annual salary. Another shooter with a similar path was Duncan Robinson, who parlayed a similar bomber role as Strus back in 2020 into his own $16 million a year contract to stay with the Heat.

Strus and Robinson fit the same mold: good shooters who became reliable enough, and good enough on defense, to win playoff games with their impact. Neither is supremely talented, but they developed enough skills to help win Finals games and turned that performance into $15+ million per year long term contracts. Such is the pay for good shooting.

Yuta Watanabe probably won’t become the ‘next’ Strus or Robinson but he fits the mold enough to give you hope. Last year, he made 50% of his corner and wide open threes, and is long (6’9”) and active enough to hold up on on the defensive end. The key will be consistency.

If Watanabe can reprise the Strus/Robinson role, the Suns will be in great shape.

Keita Bates-Diop’s aspiration: The 2023 Bruce Brown level?

This one’s a stretch, I know. I thought about including KBD in the Crowder level, but KBD just doesn’t launch as many threes at Crowder would. So, I looked around a bit and settled on an unexpected match.

They don’t profile with the same body type (Brown is 6’4” and Diop is 6’8”), but Brown fits the KBD mold of being really active on defense without having any kind of offensive game.

Brown’s path was close to Jae Crowder without the three pointer: passed from one team to another on minimum deals for years despite being a starter more than half the time, including playoff appearances.

But the reason I chose Brown for the Bates-Diop comp is because of Brown’s lack of shooting. Brown barely took threes (less than 2 per game) and hardly made any — making less than 30% of his threes until year 4, where he made 40% but still was let go by the Nets because he just never took them (1.3 per game).

In the summer of 2022, Brown was a man with a lot of hustle but no team, and he even went the whole first day of free agency without a single offer. A year later, after a magical season with the Nuggets, he’s a $22 million per year player.

Bates-Diop also went the first few years of his career barely taking or making threes, before finally making 39% of them last year in San Antonio on a career-high 2.1 per game. He was always a good player, an active defender and has the perfect defensive size at 6’8”.

Now he joins the Suns in free agency with a golden opportunity to play a big role on a great team, just like Brown in Denver. If he can parlay his jumper into being a threat who has to be defended, he can make that leap.

This year’s Phoenix Suns will give a lot of players big chances to succeed this year, and they’re counting on a couple of them to step up in ways no one expected.

Let’s see how it shakes out!


Which is most likely to happen?

This poll is closed

  • 17%
    Okogie reaches prime Crowder levels
    (97 votes)
  • 5%
    Goodwin reaches Gabe Vincent levels
    (30 votes)
  • 48%
    Watanabe reaches Max Strus levels
    (271 votes)
  • 28%
    KBD reaches Bruce Brown levels
    (161 votes)
559 votes total Vote Now

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