PHOENIX — The Suns’ starting lineup received quite the shakeup on Wednesday against a Sacramento Kings team likewise trying to casually sink in the standings while resting its veterans.
Rookie Tyler Ulis took Eric Bledsoe’s starting point guard spot, while center Alex Len returned to the linup after missing the past few games with a hip contusion. It’s the first career start for Ulis, who in 20 minutes per game is averaging 8.9 points and 5.3 assists in 10 outings since the All-Star break.
With backup point guard Brandon Knight out with back spasms — he hasn’t played since the All-Star break — that leaves Phoenix with Devin Booker, Leandro Barbosa or Ronnie Price as a backup point guard assuming Bledsoe, who is dressing but not injured, doesn’t play.
Sacramento submitted a pregame lineup that included starting point guard Darren Collison and forward Anthony Tolliver out due to “planned rest.” The Kings are also without Rudy Gay (Achilles rupture) and Malachi Richardson (hamstring tear).
Earl Watson lived the NCAA Tournament as a point guard at UCLA.
He’s invested in March Madness, too. The Suns coach heads an AAU club team named after himself, and Arizona forward Chance Comanche is arguably the biggest name playing in the Big Dance among the team’s alumni group. Watson isn’t letting that distract from the fact that he himself is a Bruin.
And Bruins aren’t huge fans of Wildcats.
“Exciting for me because of my school,” Watson said of the tournament Wednesday before the Suns faced the Kings. “I’m very proud of the way they played all season. I know Arizona is said to be Point Guard U, but I don’t think their list really matches you when you talk about point guards over the last 30 years — UCLA to Arizona.
“Dominant point guards in the league this year, All-Star games with Russ winning MVP and Zach (LaVine) winning the dunk contest (last year). We have a pretty good point guard coming out this year so it’s continued to get back to where it’s supposed to be.”
The all-in-fun — we think — knock at Arizona from a proud UCLA fan may or may not be fueled by the team’s last meeting with the Wildcats, when Arizona coach Sean Miller called a timeout with a second left and his team up by four possessions.
In any case, it’s a sign Watson is ready for the Big Dance, even though he’s yet to fill out a bracket. He can’t wait for his UCLA team to meet the Kentucky team supported by Suns guards Eric Bledsoe, Devin Booker and Tyler Ulis.
“We get into that more once Kentucky and UCLA meet,” Watson said. “Those guys, they owe me some money from the last couple of games but somehow they never have their wallet when I ask for it, you know how that goes. I tell them, at least my kids will always be rich since they owe me forever, right?”
ONLY AT B-DUBS
Whereas Watson lived big-time college hoops, Sacramento head coach Dave Joerger didn’t.
He played college hoops at Concordia in Minnesota before going to Minnesota State-Moorhead. As a coach, he got a start in the D-League before jumping to the NBA as an assistant with the Grizzlies. Maybe that’s why he’s not as invested in the tournament as his Suns counterpart.
“They had a bracket on the plane the other day that coaches and staff were gonna do and I was like, ‘I haven’t seen one minute,'” Joerger said. “Unless we’re at Buffalo Wild Wings or something on the road and, ‘Oh, there’s so-and-so that’s like a pro prospect.’ But it’s an exciting time of year, it’s fun. Somebody made the comment that this is the month where fans of not basketball become fans of basketball.”
THE TRADE THAT WAS AND THE TRADE THAT WASN’T
Dave Joerger touched on touchy subjects of a Suns-Kings trade that happened and one that was rumored but never came to be.
Marquese Chriss was picked by the Suns with the Kings’ No. 8 overall pick on a draft-day deal for the No. 13 pick (Georgios Papagiannis), the No. 28 pick (Skal Labissiere) and the rights to Bogdan Bogdanovic. He’s also a Sacramento native.
“I’m a big fan of his. I think he’s gonna be a heck of a player, to be honest with you,” Joerger said, before cracking, “hate it.”
Taking a question about how to handle the Suns’ backcourt, Joerger also inadvertently listed off a rumored Suns trade package from the DeMarcus Cousins sweepstakes. According to John Gambadoro, Phoenix discussed a deal with Sacramento that included a Suns package of T.J. Warren, Alex Len and a pick — it didn’t include Booker or Bledsoe.
“One of the best backcourts in the league and I love T.J. Warren, I love Marquese Chriss,” Joerger said. “P.J. added a lot of toughness to them, no matter what role he played … that’s not there anymore. I’m a big fan of Alex Len. I really like their team. Their team is very talented.”
Cousins, of course, was traded to the New Orleans Pelicans on All-Star Sunday.