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Trevor Ariza provides guidance for young Phoenix Suns

Trevor Ariza on Suns media day looks forward to his first season with Phoenix's young roster. (Photo by Justin Parham/Cronkite News)

PHOENIX – Trevor Ariza has been here before.

Not in Phoenix. This is his first year with the Suns in a 15-year NBA career. But he is in the familiar position of mentor to a young franchise trying to find its way.

Throughout his career, Ariza has been known as a selfless three-and-D forward — a three-point threat and strong defender — who can make an impact on the court with or without the ball. Now, his veteran experience has landed him in a familiar role, helping young players tap into their talent and fulfill their potential.

“When I look at our team and the amount of younger players that we have… It’s similar to a situation that I played on in Washington,” Ariza said. “You’ve got young, talented players that are trying to find their way, and it’s all about how they come together and how fast your team meshes together to all be on the same page.”

The 6-foot-8 Ariza signed a one-year contract with the Suns this summer, the sixth team of his NBA career.

He is joining a group of wings in Phoenix that also includes returning veteran T.J. Warren, second-year player Josh Jackson and rookie Mikal Bridges. All four players could reasonably start for the team this season, and without a definitive starting point guard, they will all be looked upon to provide playmaking for the Suns.

“What we have is multiple people that have high IQs, and that know how to play basketball,” Ariza said. “Whether you need a one (a point guard) or not, that’s not for me to decide. That’s not my job.”

That job falls to Suns general manager Ryan McDonough, who has assembled a versatile group of wing players capable of sharing the playmaking duties whether it be with one of the team’s young, unproven point guards or a new floor leader that McDonough obtains.

“One of the things we’ve talked about is being creative with our wings, with our playmaking wings,” McDonough said of the team’s offense this season under first-year head coach Igor Kokoskov. “Our wings have positional versatility. They’re all between 6-6 and 6-9 and most of them can play two positions.”

Positional versatility is a growing trend in the NBA and a hallmark of many of the league’s best teams. McDonough mentioned during the club’s media day the success that teams such as the Houston Rockets and Boston Celtics had last season by playing lineups with multiple wing players.

Without emulating those teams precisely, McDonough hopes Phoenix finds its own twist on that formula this year through an offense based on good shooting and positional versatility.

“Conceptually, what we were trying to do with our roster is adding more shooting and having multiple ball handlers,” Kokoskov said.

In his second year with the Suns, Jackson figures to be a key piece in operating the kind of scheme McDonough and Kokoskov envision.

“One of the things we like about Josh, with this roster with the added shooting that we talked about, is he has unique ability and size to get into the paint, break down defenses and either get to the rim, get to the free throw line or spread out to a court that should be more spaced with shooters around it,” McDonough said.

Last season, before they knew they would be teammates, Ariza recognized the potential in Jackson and made it a point to talk with the then-rookie after their teams played each other. Now that they’re on the same side, Ariza sees an opportunity for that potential to be realized.

“I think Josh was in a weird situation (last season),” Ariza said. “Lottery pick, a bunch of younger players with him at the same time trying to figure themselves out with not really a lot of player guidance or people that have been in a situation like him. So, I think just being around veteran players, being around older players that have been through a lot, is going to help him a lot.”

An unsung yet pivotal player for most of his career, Ariza stressed the importance of doing the little things that may not be apparent in the stat book but are necessary to a winning team.

“There’s more to basketball than just scoring baskets,” Ariza said. “So, if you’re not scoring, what else are you doing to contribute to help your team win? Rebounding, deflections, loose balls, passing the ball: things that you have to have on your team to help your team win.

“I’ve never been the leading scorer on any team that I’ve played on. But I’ve always done the intangible things that don’t show up in the stat sheet. Things that get our team going.”

Ariza sees similarities to himself in another young Suns wing. Ariza believes Bridges possesses a lot of the same qualities that are conducive to a winning culture.

“He does all the intangible things that don’t show up in the stat sheet,” Ariza said. “He’s the type of player every team needs because he does all of the things that you need for a team to win.”

After finishing 21-61 last year – the worst record in the NBA – developing winning habits sooner rather than later is a priority for the Suns.

And having too many players who can spread the floor, defend multiple positions and take on playmaking duties is a good problem to have for a modern NBA team.

“There is a lot of competition, especially on the wing,” McDonough said. “We have a lot of depth there, more than we’ve had in the past … It’s an open competition, so whoever earns the minutes will play. And whoever doesn’t, won’t.”

The glut of wing players will limit floor time for some, but the battle for playing time may be healthy for a young team seeking an identity and a competitive atmosphere.

“None of us are out there trying to kill each other,” Bridges said. “We’re just out there all playing basketball and trying to figure out playing with each other, finding each other’s tendencies.”

The Suns have four preseason games left to come together as a team and find a rhythm before the regular season begins.

Ariza will help the rest of the team’s wings meld and complement the franchise cornerstones, Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton.

“Some people play this sport; some people love this sport and hate to lose, and Trevor is one of those guys,” Booker said. “You can see it by the way he plays.”

This season, the Suns hope that the crowded rotation of versatile forwards, led by Ariza, will spark a new culture of winning that is built to last.

“The only thing I know is that I’m here to compete to help this team win and that everybody here is on the same page,” Ariza said. “We all have one common goal, and that’s to get better and to win.”

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