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Suns treating Vegas Summer League as a testing lab for roles

(Kevin Zimmerman / Arizona Sports)

PHOENIX — Igor Kokoskov already squashed any thought of first overall pick Deandre Ayton playing a position other than center.

His role is pretty clear.

The rest of the Summer Suns might create more of a mosaic when it comes to piecing things together. The Suns’ new head coach was coy when he hinted Thursday that Phoenix will enter Friday’s Las Vegas debut without decisions on how many minutes or games players like Ayton, fellow rookie Mikal Bridges, second-year forward Josh Jackson or third-year pro Dragan Bender will play.

“Whatever is beneficial for us as a program, we’ll do it,” Kokoskov said.

A lot will probably depend on how many questions those players answer about their roles.

Executing Kokoskov’s systems for the first time in a competitive atmosphere will help the coaching staff evaluate what to make of the regular-season roster.

“That’s the beauty of coaching. It’s creating with the different personnel, different lineups, different groups on the court,” Kokoskov said. “We’re definitely going to try to see what we have. That’s (the) main reason why we play in summer league. Some guys get the opportunity to play and have different roles, see if they’re ready to take those roles and see how they feel in those different roles.”

With that in mind, here’s a peek at positional and role questions that could bare answers this week:

Bender wants to expand his offensive game

Third-year forward Dragan Bender entered training camp at 235 pounds, up 10 pounds from a year ago.

While it would indicate he could play as a small-ball center, the weight gain is also about emphasizing his 37 percent three-point shot that kept him on the floor toward the end of 2017-18.

“He is a versatile player who can shoot. His skillset is pretty good,” Kokoskov said Wednesday. “I want him to do all this stuff better: be a better shooter, play-making more for the guys, be a better rebounder.”

Bender told Bickley & Marotta on Thursday that the added weight will help him not only working out of the post but in creating for himself and others off the bounce.

That would complement his growing weapon, his three-point shot.

“Just getting stronger obviously was one of the main things for me,” the 7-foot-1 forward said on 98.7 FM Arizona’s Sports Station. “Getting stronger in the weight room, putting those weights on, trying to be more aggressive on the floor coming down, creating more towards the basket, going to the paint more and creating from that point on — passing the ball outside to the shooters and creating myself, obviously.”

On Wednesday, Kokoskov was pressed about Bender’s affinity for floating around the three-point line. From the sounds of it, don’t expect Bender to start playing out of the post like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, even if his physique holds up much, much better.

“Naturally you gravitate to your comfort zone,” Kokoskov said. “When somebody blows the whistle and says, ‘Why are you standing on this part of the court?’ it’s like, ‘Because I feel comfortable here.’ Based on analytics, we talk about the importance of the three-point line.

“We are searching and we are paying guys who can make the three-point line. I would never say, ‘too much of the three-point shooting. (There is) never enough.'”

Okobo’s scoring-passing balance

Elie Okobo spoke Thursday about acting as play-maker with a talented cast around him — a group that’s projected in Vegas with the best odds to win the Summer League title. But the 6-foot-2 point guard was known as a scorer, and how he balances scoring versus setting up teammates will be on display.

“(Kokoskov’s system is) a lot of open space, a lot of open stuff on the floor,” Bender said. “Everybody is going to be able to create and have their own actions and stuff.”

Putting that together with Kokoskov’s history and his philosophies of allowing players be themselves, it’s a good bet that Okobo won’t be dissuaded from attending to his scoring instincts.

Asked Thursday about if he’ll be more apt to pass to his talented teammates that include Ayton, Jackson, Bender and Bridges, the French point guard made sure to point out he’s plenty good playing off the ball as well — something that sounds familiar from watching Kokoskov’s Utah Jazz or Slovenian national teams that had multiple ball-handlers take turns initiating offense.

“He shows unbelievable potential, unbelievable growth in the last six months, in the last five days,” Kokoskov said of Okobo.

Jackson brings the energy

Little has been made of the Suns’ defensive identity under Kokoskov. Providing the first glimpses of that identity, the Summer League squad boasts an intriguing group of players to cause problems for opponents.

In a projected starting lineup, Bridges and Jackson respectively bring length at 6-foot-7 and 6-foot-8, while a dual 7-foot frontcourt of Bender and Ayton gives the Suns length that could only be rivaled by only a few teams.

Jackson sees his role this summer having a lot to do with that end of the floor.

“Telling guys where they need to be, making sure we have good spacing, making sure our effort or energy is there — I think every team I’ve ever been on, I think I’ve been the leader of the energy, especially on the defensive end,” he said.

Quotable

Jackson on his summer haircut: “A lot of people don’t really recognize me anymore. I get to go to the mall, I get to eat by myself a little bit without being bothered so it’s kind of cool.”

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