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New second unit transforms Suns’ offense into one of NBA’s hottest

Charlotte Hornets guard Brian Roberts (22) and Phoenix Suns guard Tyler Ulis battle for a loose ball in the first quarter during an NBA basketball game, Thursday, March 2, 2017, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)

LISTEN: Tyler Ulis, Suns' Rookie Guard

When it’s late February and an NBA team adds three players to its rotation that haven’t played significant amounts of time in their careers, that team is not concerned about winning games.

That much was made clear when the Phoenix Suns traded P.J. Tucker at the trade deadline for two second-round picks and in their first game back revealed a shocking rotation change.

Tyson Chandler, one of the team’s three best players over the course of the season, and Brandon Knight, the team’s worst player on a five-year, $70 million deal, were benched in favor of second-round pick Tyler Ulis at point guard and undrafted second-year center Alan Williams. Undrafted wing Derrick Jones Jr. would fill Tucker’s spot in the rotation as well.

If Chandler was content with the move, there would be no consequences. Knight’s woeful play over the course of the season hadn’t earned him any more playing time, and the team would get a much longer look at the three guys previously keeping their bench warm to see if they were legitimate NBA players.

While the Suns have been able to do that, what has happened because of it is not tanking. It’s been a revitalization of the Suns’ offense 57 games into an 18-39 season.

In the six games since the All-Star break, Phoenix is third in points per game and 11th in offensive rating. The Suns’ shooting is tied for a league-best 50.9 percent from the field and is tied for fifth-best in assists per game at 24.8. Compare that to their prior 19th and 29th season-long ranks in the two categories, respectively, and it’s an offensive rejuvenation.

The drastic change starts and ends with the duo of Ulis and Williams, who look like a basketball match made in heaven.

Since the All-Star break, the second unit of Ulis, Leandro Barbosa, Jones, Jared Dudley and Williams has a positive 10.3 net rating per 100 possessions in 59 minutes played, a remarkable feat given the vast inexperience of 60 percent of the group.

Ulis has begun to shake off some of the rookie cobwebs and with some added confidence is beginning to show what he’s capable of as a reader of the floor and distributor.

The combination of Ulis’ floor vision and activity as a playmaker with Williams’ great hands and delicate finishes around the rim make the two the best one-two combo on the team.

Ulis is averaging 17.6 points and 9.9 assists per 36 minutes since the trade deadline, the latter of which is top-five in the NBA among rotation players. As for Williams, it’s a monstrous 19.7 points and 14.1 rebounds per game per 36 minutes.

Ulis has been able to gain more and more confidence playing through Williams in the second unit, eventually leading to his own underrated scoring prowess shining through in Phoenix’s last two victories.

While the 21-year-old rookie has been sensational and the first player brought up by head coach Earl Watson after all three recent home wins, one player off the bench cannot remodel a team’s philosophies on sharing the basketball.

Whether it’s teammates seeing the likes of Ulis and Williams getting some playing time or because a ball-dominant player like Knight was swapped in the rotation for a pass-first guard like Ulis, the entire team’s mentality on ball movement has changed.

“When the ball doesn’t stick, everyone gets involved,” Devin Booker said after the win Thursday against the Charlotte Hornets, when the Suns had 30 assists. “We have fun out there, as you can see, a lot of smiles. Everybody’s sharing and everyone’s contributing so even if you’re not scoring a lot you’re contributing in other ways and I feel like it’s contagious. Once one person does it, the whole team starts doing it.”

Meanwhile, Jones and starting forward Marquese Chriss are by no means dynamic offensive players, but they thrive in transition, and by maintaining a top-four pace ranking in the last six games, the Suns have bumped their fastbreak points per game from 18.9 in the first 57 games to a league-best 23.5 in the last six games.

Like Williams, the two are best as finishers around the rim and are contributing to a league-best 55.3 points in the paint per game since the trade deadline.

The second unit features three of the top five players on the team in assist ratio, with Barbosa and Dudley joining Ulis. The two veterans haven’t gotten enough credit for their consistent play this season and are also contributing to the new source of ball movement.

The effect on the team has been clear. After a miraculous win against the Boston Celtics Sunday night, the team achieved its first three-game winning streak of the season.

While some may be concerned about the team losing ground in the draft lottery standings, the bigger picture is not only the Suns finding viable rotation pieces in a lost season, but a young team growing together while winning at the end of a lost season — something that very rarely happens in the NBA.

Watson’s offensive system — similar to the complicated motions of the Portland Trail Blazers — looks more crisp every game, and with the level of confidence his young players have, the Suns are no longer hesitating. They are sharing the ball in that system.

Those are legitimate stepping stones toward major improvement for next season, and the team is doing so while playing an entertaining brand of basketball.

For a season filled with disappointment up to the trade deadline, that’s an incredible feat for everyone involved.

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