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Shaq Harrison continuing to prove his defense changes games for Suns

Dallas Mavericks' Dennis Smith Jr., right, drives into Phoenix Suns' Shaquille Harrison during the first half of an NBA summer league basketball game Friday, July 6, 2018, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher)

LAS VEGAS — How many players entered the NBA’s Summer League with a game-changing skill at their disposal?

It’s not a long list, but Phoenix Suns point guard Shaquille Harrison is on it with his defense and had the game to prove it on Monday in a 71-53 win over the Orlando Magic.

Harrison had five steals in the game to go along with 11 points, six assists on zero turnovers.

The 3-0 Suns have been by far the best defensive team in Las Vegas and it’s not difficult to see where that credit should go.

Head coach Igor Kokoskov said he won’t usually point to a player in particular when discussing his general observations after a game, but he didn’t have a choice postgame on Monday.

“Harrison,” he said. “That was unbelievable. Guarding the ball, locking the ball, that was a statement right from the beginning … Our activity on defense is something to really make us happy.”

The second-year guard out of Tulsa is so fast with his lateral movement that it is flat-out mean.

Watch Harrison beat the ball-handler to the spot THREE different times before taking his lunch money too.

The point guard constantly has defensive possessions like that on the perimeter, but he can make plays at the rim as well.

Harrison’s work rate isn’t just a case of a player having a high motor. Kokoskov knows it is a skill.

“That’s a talent,” Kokoskov said. “Playing hard is a talent.”

After facing Harrison in practice, rookie center Deandre Ayton was impressed at how strong Harrison is for a guy his size. Ayton was aware of the defensive identity Harrison brought but didn’t expect clips like the one above. It’s surprising how easy Harrison makes it look.

“I expect that but not really just taking it from them like candy,” Ayton said. “He was really just taking the ball from those guys.”

That has set the tone for the best defensive unit at Summer League.

“Especially coming from the point guard,” Ayton said of how Harrison’s defensive effort can become contagious.

“I’m running back on defense and I hear the crowd cheering and I’m like ‘why are they cheering?’ and he has the ball in his hands laying it up for an and-one,” Ayton said. “That’s just big-time and I love it.”

Some players struggle to identify with the role of being primarily a “shooter” or “defender.” Harrison, though, not only acknowledges that but has made it his identity.

“It’s definitely my calling card,” he said. “That’s just what I do. I love doing that. I’ve been doing that since I was a little kid.”

That is indeed what Harrison does but the most impressive part of his Summer League play has been his play as the team’s starting point guard.

Through the first three games, Harrison has 20 assists and only five turnovers. For a ball-handler in Vegas, it’s uncommon to be keeping the turnovers low.

That’s played a large part in Phoenix’s summer success.

That said, it’s Harrison’s defense that unquestionably, constantly swings the momentum in games.

Harrison proved that off the bench in his rookie NBA season and will continue to do so next season if he sticks around. In 23 NBA games during 2017-18 after making the jump from the G League Suns, the 24-year-old averaged 6.6 points, 2.4 assists, 2.7 rebounds and 1.1 steals in just 17 minutes per game.

Like Davon Reed, Harrison has a non-guaranteed deal for next year — that duo currently represent the 14th and 15th players on the Suns’ roster.

With uncertainty at point guard around the large salary of Brandon Knight and the long-term option just drafted in Elie Okobo, Harrison is the default odd-man out if the Suns plan to upgrade the position.

That’s not an unwise move if the Suns decide to make one. Harrison is not a shooter or a scorer, making him nothing more than an end-of-the-bench option.

But if Phoenix isn’t adding an NBA name that holds some weight, why not keep Harrison’s sure-thing defense around or give him the last two-way contract?

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