PHOENIX — The goal is to win every time you step on the court, Marion Garnett said prior to NBA Summer League 2017. But at the same time, the offseason is about development and, with some players, experimentation.
So while the Phoenix Suns lost more than they won — they finished 2-4 in Las Vegas — Garnett called their week’s stay in the desert a positive one.
From Dragan Bender playing point guard, Josh Jackson and Davon Reed getting their first pro experiences, and Mike James showing the ability to run an offense, the Suns made strides up and down the roster during the six games plus three-day mini-camp held beforehand.
Of course, “it’s a hard barometer how much of summer league carries over to the regular season,” said Garnett, the Suns’ second-year assistant who served as the head coach in Las Vegas.
No conclusions can be made in July, only observations.
Here are Garnett’s on the Summer Suns, a team that had a half dozen players on the roster who may be asked to contribute, and contribute a lot, in 2017-18:
— As expected, the Suns put the ball in Bender’s hands. A handful of times he was asked to bring the ball up the court, “but as far as him taking (the ball) off the glass, rebounds, and pushing it up the floor, he did a number of those amount of plays and I thought he did fine,” Garnett said, pointing to Bender’s 12 assists, the second-highest total on the team.
Bender didn’t shoot the ball all that well — he went 26-of-66 (39.4 percent) and made 10-of-35 3-pointers in five games — but “I think he was taking the right shots,” said Garnett, who described Bender as aggressive and confident when on the court.
— Like Bender, Marquese Chriss struggled with his shooting. That though may just be a product of him adjusting to the weight about 15-20 pounds — he’s added since playing as a 230-pound rookie.
“It didn’t look like it was holding him down,” Garnett said. “He was still his athletic self, but it’s just being able to get up-and-down the floor, playing both ends. Obviously, he’s got to get better at that as he gets into better shape.”
Aside from his 34.5 percent shooting, including 3-of-14 on threes, Chriss fouled 23 times and earned two technicals in five games.
“He’s an emotional player, he’s a competitor; and obviously, it’s something that we want him to channel in a better way in certain moments,” Garnett said.
— Of the returning players, Derrick Jones Jr. was the only one to play in all six games. He averaged 7.3 points and 3.5 rebounds in 21.1 minutes.
The hope was to see Jones Jr. as more of a scorer away from the basket, specifically corner threes.
“I probably didn’t get him in enough of those (situations), but Derrick understands what he needs to do to continue to improve and be able to help us. His biggest asset to us is going to be using his length and athleticism defensively,” Garnett said.
— No one averaged more minutes than Jackson’s 35 per game, and during his time on the court, he nearly averaged a double-double with 17.4 points and 9.2 rebounds per game. The latter mark was good for sixth-best in Las Vegas.
“He seemed pretty comfortable out there. He was very solid,” said Garnett, who mentioned the need for Jackson, the No. 4 overall pick, to be a more efficient shooter.
In five games, Jackson was 34-of-80 (42.5 percent) from the field, including 3-of-16 on threes, and 16-of-25 (64 percent) from the free throw line.
“I don’t believe his shot is broken. We’ll look at little small details that may be able to help and help the shot but again, I don’t think it’s far off,” Garnett said.
— Even before summer league Garnett held Reed, the Suns’ second-round draft pick, in high regard. And that certainly hasn’t changed after Reed finished with the team’s fifth-best scoring mark (14.0) and second-most made 3-pointers (10) over six games.
“He’s a typical 3-and-D guy,” said Garnett, who added Reed can create his own shooting opportunities as well.
Garnett called Reed a gym rat who “wants to get better” and a gamer, explaining Reed played the final game despite a hip contusion.
— Arguably the MVP of the Summer Suns was James, a 26-year-old point guard who is expected to make his NBA debut this season after five years playing overseas. James led the team in scoring (20.5, ninth-best overall in Las Vegas) and assists (5.0; No. 5 overall), while his rebounding average (5.2) ranked fourth.
“He’s a good shooter, he’s a scorer from the point position; super athletic,” Garnett said. James’ best game saw him total 32 points and five assists against Memphis. “There’s some small things that we’ll continue to work with him as far pushing the ball and making his teammates better. I think he has all the tools to be able to lead a team, it’s just a matter of time. We’ll see.”
— One other player caught Garnett’s attention and that was 6-foot-9 center Chris Obekpa, who spent last season with the Santa Cruz Warriors of the NBA G League after going undrafted out of UNLV.
A gifted shot blocker, Obekpa had seven of his team-high nine blocks over the last three games.
“He’ll be somebody that’s intriguing to watch going forward to see if he can help us or maybe he has a career down the line even if it’s not with us,” Garnett said. “He’s someone that could be under the radar. We’ll keep an eye on him and see if there’s something there.”
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