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Suns season preview: Expectations for Ayton, Booker, Kokoskov

(AP photos)

The Phoenix Suns say are ready to start trending upward after a three-year run that amounted to a record of 68-178.

While they are expected to still be one of the worst teams in the Western Conference, there are several different reasons to be optimistic about the team as they target a double-digit improvement from 21 wins last season.

Empire of the Suns goes over their expectations for the team and Phoenix’s three biggest names for this season.

With seven new players on the roster and a first-year head coach, what are your realistic expectations for this team?

Kellan Olson: As we get closer to opening night, I’m leaning more toward “be competitive in most games with 26-28 wins” than “threatening for 35 wins but ultimately finishing with 31-33.” I have too many questions that contradict the latter. What’s up at point guard? Is Deandre Ayton gonna walk away with Rookie of the Year? Is Igor Kokoskov already a top-10 coach in the league? Can Ayton and Ryan Anderson not be a trainwreck defensively? Are these wings actually good fits for Kokoskov’s systems?

With that being said, as I wrote about back in early August, Devin Booker might be too good for the Suns to be bad. But, the Suns play in the West, and that’s brutal whether or not Jimmy Butler stays in the conference. They are too young and new to overcome the conference and push for 30 wins. I’m going to put them at 27, with the caveat of expecting them to play their best ball in the last two months of the season.

Kevin Zimmerman: The Suns were one of the most injury-bit teams in the league last season, not to mention the least-talented. Jumping 10 wins barring health issues isn’t out of the question, but yeah, there’s just too much stacked against Phoenix. It’s still a young team, relying on Booker to do everything and Ayton to be an above-average center from the tip of the year.

I’m not convinced the additions of Trevor Ariza and Ryan Anderson alone will help the Suns become that much better of a shooting team, but they will bring a lot of stability. At the end of the day, Kokoskov is going to have to coach this team to play with consistent effort AND passable defense to surpass 30 wins. It might be too much to ask, so 29 wins is where I’m projecting the Suns at year’s end.

#ItsJustPreseason but Deandre Ayton has been extremely impressive. How are you projecting him heading into his rookie year?

(AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)

KO: I’m looking for Ayton to establish himself beyond productivity, something we knew throughout the pre-draft process was coming and has in the preseason. If he has five total finishes off passes received at the basket and mid-range jumpers, that’s already 10 points, and we know he’s going to rebound.

The flashes though, especially on defense, have made me feel great about him as a rookie. He’s picking things up fast, and you have to remind yourself he’s only a rookie when he’s a step or two behind on something because he jumps off the screen in many different departments. His shot-blocking, in particular, is where he demonstrates a great feel for making contact with the ball and using the most of his over-the-top athleticism. That’s only a small pinch of it but is exactly why his profile as an athlete is so mouthwatering for his potential as a defender.

If he can take these first two seasons and establish his basic defensive principles while adding advanced elements to his post game, he’s gonna start taking over the league by year three. Watching him embark on that progression is how I project him.

KZ: In preseason alone, we saw extended periods of an intense motor and others of sluggish play. Even if he’s running hot seven games out of 10, he’s going to be a force. I’m surprised he still carves out so much space to be an elite rebounder. His hands are strong. He’ll catch lobs and clean up on the offensive glass to get 6-10 points a game. Throw in a mid-range jumper with so-far sound shot selection and I wouldn’t be surprised if he averaged 15 points a night.

Ayton’s rim-protecting has been rock solid to great this preseason, and now the biggest question is whether or not he becomes that much of a liability when teams immediately go into pick-and-rolls directed at challenging him, making him work on defense and thus slowing him down on offense.

He should be right in the Rookie of the Year mix, and for whatever it means, just might be the second or third most important player on the team.

What are your overall impressions of Igor Kokoskov’s system and how much he can help this team build a winning foundation it has lacked?

KO: The system functions without a primary ball-handler, but that doesn’t mean the Suns can just coast into this season without a decent point guard. They still need someone who can put the likes of Ayton, T.J. Warren and Josh Jackson in their best spots offensively, and Booker can’t do that on his own.

To extend on that point, the team has to fully buy in to the system for it to properly function. Josh Jackson has to ditch his terrible midrange jumpers,  T.J. Warren has to pass more and defend, and both Trevor Ariza and Mikal Bridges have to do positive things as a ball-handler. Those have been hit-or-miss in preseason play.

Without Booker, though, it’s hard to exactly peg where this offense is at. How much he smoothens things out will dictate a lot.

KZ: Going back to the first question, Kokoskov’s offense indeed looks like it can help hide this team’s biggest flaw, the lack of a true point guard. That said, it’s going to be a work-in-progress for the Suns to play within it without turning the ball over. Point guard or not, Phoenix just doesn’t have enough above-average ball handlers at this point.

At the end of the day, talent wins. But the biggest thing to watch for Kokoskov’s team is whether the players stick to the plan within a long season and within games. They need to show marked improvement without losing their composure as the losses add up. More than any schematic changes, do his players run offense late in close games? Does their defensive effort wane in not-close games?

So much of this project is based on individual development, and I’d argue those things are bigger wonders than if Kokoskov’s creativity as a coach work during games. Does Josh Jackson learn good shots from bad and accept his role as a defensive menace and energy guy? Can Ayton keep making baby steps toward being a plus defender? How can Booker grow?

Those are the make-or-break items that must happen to believe this team is close to playing winning basketball. And if those things happen, then Phoenix’s growth within Kokoskov’s clever schemes will shine as well.

What level does Devin Booker need to reach in order to get this team above 30 wins?

(AP Photo/Eric Gay, File)

KO: He has to be a near-lock for the All-Star team. In the West.

To me, the three balancing factors for the Suns to be a quality NBA team this season is how good Ayton, Booker and Kokoskov are. Two of those guys are new, however, which is why I think Booker has to take the biggest leap he has season-to-season so far. With what he’s accomplished so far, I’m not willing to rule it out, but the leap from a top 30-40 player in the league to a top 15-20 one is humongous and he’s only turning 22 later this month. Tough ask.

KZ: If he’s healthy, he’ll need to put together a Damian Lillard-snubbed-from-the-All-Star-Game type of performance.

If I make that bet very literal, then Booker will have to put up between 25-27 points and 6-7 assists per game on 42-45 percent shooting overall while hitting 37 percent from three despite taking around eight per game.

That’s what Lillard put up in 2015-16 and 2016-17. And Booker wasn’t far off from those numbers last year. But yeah, he’s going to have to miss less than 10 games for the Suns to push for 30 wins.

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