The 5: Options in the Suns’ search for point guard depth
Brandon Knight comes off a major knee injury and a benching prior to that as the clear-cut No. 1 point guard for the Phoenix Suns in 2018-19.
He’s got a good shot at winning that job, even if Phoenix signs a point guard in the free agent market.
At the very least, he’ll have an opportunity to play a key role off the bench if the Suns grab a starting point guard. Simply put, there aren’t many starting-caliber lead guards on the market.
Phoenix, however, doesn’t have much else at the position.
Thirty-first overall pick Elie Okobo is unproven and will have a steep learning curve as a floor general, and Tyler Ulis and Shaq Harrison are on non-guaranteed deals with holes in their respective games.
The Suns need depth, so here are five point guard targets outside of the two top free agent candidates we’ve already discussed at length, Marcus Smart and Avery Bradley.
Fred VanVleet (restricted)
The backup guard for the regular season Eastern Conference champions led the Toronto Raptors in net on-off differential among those who played 400 minutes or more.
Playing for arguably the best bench unit in the league, VanVleet was the point guard for two heavily-used Raptors lineups (each with 101 minutes played together) that ranked in the top-25 across the NBA in offensive rating — one of those was 10th in overall net rating.
In short, there’s reason to believe the 24-year-old undrafted player out of Wichita State has more value than his 8.6 points and 3.2 assists in 20 minutes per game would suggest.
VanVleet isn’t a great athlete at 6-foot and 195 pounds but is a smart floor general, shot 41 percent from three-point range and doesn’t turn the ball over.
According to Yahoo Sports’ Shams Charania, VanVleet agreed to a two-year, $18 million deal on Sunday to return to Toronto.
Rajon Rondo (unrestricted)
The connection here is pretty clear. As Boston assistant general manager in 2006, current Suns GM Ryan McDonough played a huge part in pushing the Celtics to send Brian Grant and cash to Phoenix for the 21st pick, Kentucky point guard Rajon Rondo.
The 32-year-old Rondo averaged 8.3 points and 8.2 assists per game in 2017-18, but the fit is the biggest question-mark.
Rondo’s personality melds well with veteran teams like Boston’s title-chasing squads of the late 2000s and, more recently, New Orleans. But he’s an enigmatic personality who the Suns would need to feel comfortable working into such a young team and head coach Igor Kokoskov.
Known by daily observers for shining under the playoff spotlight and coasting at times during the day-to-day grind despite his ability to see the game several steps ahead, Rondo would be a vocal leader who can press a young team to be accountable — if he’s willing.
The Pelicans could re-sign him to a relatively inexpensive deal — he made just $3 million last year — so this could be a longshot from that perspective, too.
Patrick Beverley (on non-guaranteed contract)
The Los Angeles Clippers drafted two very different on-ball guards in the lottery in Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Jerome Robinson, return microwave scoring guard Lou Williams and saw passing savant Milos Teodosic exercise his player option for 2018-19. Even after flipping head coach Doc Rivers’ son, Austin Rivers, for Marcin Gortat, include second-year guard Jawun Evans and it’s a logjam at point.
So perhaps Los Angeles might want to trade Beverley or waive him outright. The expectation that center DeAndre Jordan could depart via opt-out or in a planned sign-and-trade make it clear the Clippers could be making big changes, and they have options when it comes to cap flexibility.
That makes them a very, very viable trade partner if the Suns want to get a quality defensive-minded point guard on a $5 million deal. By the way, he can shoot as a 38-percent career three-point threat.
Beverley played in only 11 games last year due to microfracture surgery and a lateral meniscus repair done in November. Can the 29-year-old recover to become the same old pest? If so, he’s a great value.
Shabazz Napier (unrestricted)
Napier got off to a disappointing start to his career after great success at UConn — and pressure by a departing LeBron James for the Miami Heat to trade up and select him in 2014 — but has taken small steps forward in each season since.
The 26-year-old finally caught on as a key reserve last year with the Portland Trail Blazers, averaging 8.7 points and 2.0 assists per game while shooting 38 percent from three and bringing energy on defense.
The Blazers don’t exactly have a point guard replacement if they lose Napier, but they’re already extremely cash-strapped and dealing with paying restricted free agent and starting center Jusuf Nurkic. Heck, they’re in such bad shape, Portland didn’t extend him a qualifying offer.
Dante Exum (restricted)
The 2014 fifth overall pick in the draft has only played 80 games over the past two seasons due to injury. Yet, the 22-year-old Exum falls into a unique category with untapped potential heading into free agency.
Exum — although in just 14 regular season games — was efficient last year playing under then-Jazz assistant Igor Kokoskov, averaging 8.1 points and 3.1 assists on 48 percent shooting in just 17 minutes a night.
He’s yet to find success from the three-point line, but the lanky and bouncy athlete proved he can become a high-level defender with enough play-making chops to run an offense. Problem is, Utah sees point guard Ricky Rubio’s contract ending after 2018-19, so plucking Exum out of Utah might be difficult for a team like the Suns.
The question here is whether throwing a lot of money at such a young player makes sense. He’s not nearly as complete, but it’s the same question the Suns face with a more high-profile restricted free agent like the Magic’s Aaron Gordon. For Phoenix entering win-now mode, it’d make more sense to save up and throw that money at a player like the 27-year-old Rubio next offseason.