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The 5: Most thrilling debut seasons in Valley sports history

Phoenix' s Charles Barkley celebrates as his coach Paul Westphal cheers him on as they rolled to a 104-97 victory over the SuperSonics on Friday night, May 28, 1993 in Seattle. Phoenix leads the best of seven series 2-1 with the fourth game on Sunday in Seattle. (AP Photo/Bill Chan)

Sometimes, the first season in a completely new place goes well.

Often, it leads to greater accomplishments and improvement. Other times, great debut seasons in a new location prove to be a flash in the pan.

The Valley’s sports history over the last three decades is littered with great debut seasons from coaches and players alike. Take this season alone:

The Diamondbacks’ J.D. Martinez may not be back in the desert but he introduced himself to Arizona in what could very well go down as his best stretch of baseball in his career. The slugger hit 29 home runs in just 62 games with Arizona and helped the Diamondbacks reach the playoffs for the first time since 2011. His skipper, Torey Lovullo, had a debut season that went so well that he won the National League Manager of the Year honor.

Coyotes rookie Clayton Keller is well on his way to putting together a breakout season.

But what are the best debut seasons in Phoenix’s sports history?

Here’s a subjective peek at five standout, debut seasons.

Amar’e Stoudemire (2002-03)

This was far from his best season. Amar’e Stoudemire became a six-time NBA All-Star, but his Rookie of the Year campaign set up the Phoenix Suns’ “Seven Seconds or Less” era.

Yes, Steve Nash’s return and Mike D’Antoni’s retention of the head coaching job after taking over as interim deserve credit for that run beginning a few years later, but Stoudemire’s rookie year brought more than hope.  With each touch of the basketball, it brought hands gripping the seat, expecting — and often getting — thrills of one of the most violent dunkers in the last few decades.

At the end of the season, Stoudemire had averaged 13.5 points, 8.8 rebounds and a block per game in the regular season before he debuted in the playoffs with even better numbers (14.5 points, 7.8 rebounds 1.5 blocks and 1.7 steals) in a six-game series loss against the San Antonio Spurs — and that included a banked three-pointer to set up overtime in a thrilling Game 1 win.

Paul Westphal/Charles Barkley (1992-93)

The Suns had the core in place, and the trade for Charles Barkley put them over the top, giving them a shot at taking down the Chicago Bulls in the 1993 NBA Finals.

We know how that went.

Barkley had better seasons statistically, but averaging 25.6 points, 12.2 rebounds and 5.1 assists per game for a 62-win team won him the MVP award. He had a pretty memorable playoff shot that season, too, knocking down a jump shot over David Robinson to bury the San Antonio Spurs in the Western Conference Semifinals.

But give coach Paul Westphal a lot of the credit, too. Eight years earlier, he’d retired a Phoenix player and gotten a head coaching job with Southwestern Baptist Bible College (now Arizona Christian University). After a stint with Grand Canyon University, he joined the Suns’ staff as Cotton Fitzsimmons’ assistant before taking over as the head coach for Phoenix’s run to the NBA Finals.

Randy Johnson (1999)

He had better seasons before and better seasons after.

But no season in his 22-year MLB career was Johnson more leaned upon than his debut year for the Diamondbacks. The left-hander went 17-9 in 35 starts, recording a 2.48 ERA, best in the bigs. That he only bested that ERA three times is only more impressive considering he pitched 271.2 frames over the course of the season, the most in his career by a good 11.2 innings.

The innings piled up because he also recorded 12 complete games, a career-high, as Arizona went 100-62 to win the NL West.

Since then, no pitcher in MLB has thrown more than nine complete games in a season.

Johnson won his first of four consecutive Cy Young Awards that season, powered by a National League-leading 364 strikeouts — the fifth-most in a single season in baseball’s modern era.

Ike Diogu (2002-03), James Harden (2007-08)

Let’s just call this a toss-up.

Diogu’s freshman season at Arizona State was comparable statistics-wise, but Harden’s was the first sign that — maybe, but probably not — he’d be good enough to be considered one of the best players in the world at some point in his life.

The numbers:

Diogu: 19.0 points, 7.8 rebounds, 1.0 blocks, 60.8 % FG, 37.5% 3FG

Harden: 17.8 points, 5.3 rebounds, 3.2 assists, 2.1 steals, 53.7 % FG, 40.7 % 3FG

Their teams’ records were also similar. Diogu’s 2002-03 squad went 20-12 and got two games deep into the NCAA Tournament, while Harden’s went 21-13 but only made it to the NIT.

Mike Smith (2011-12)

In his first year with the Arizona Coyotes, the goalie previously with the Tampa Bay Lightning put together arguably his best season and led the team to a Pacific Division title and a spot in the Western Conference Finals for the first time in franchise history.

Smith set a career-high with eight shutouts and a save percentage of .930. He led the NHL in goals saved above average (34.63) and goalie point shares (16.7), per Hockey-Reference, on his way to his only All-Star game.

Most astonishingly, he faced the most action that season of his 12-year career, taking on 2,066 shots and saving 1,922.


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