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Arizona Sports’ Suns season preview and predictions: Part II

Will this be the year the Phoenix Suns begin a steady rise to relevance? Bolstered by franchise face Devin Booker and No. 1 overall draft pick Deandre Ayton, the hopes are high for Phoenix under first-year coach Igor Kokoskov.

Questions linger about the direction of the team after it fired GM Ryan McDonough to start the year, but the on-the-court product has its own storylines to keep an eye on. We asked the 98.7 FM Arizona’s Sports Station on-air hosts and producers for our shows and Suns coverage to answer the tough questions surrounding the team heading into the 2018-19 season.

How will Deandre Ayton perform as a rookie?

Vince Marotta (co-host, Bickley & Marotta): You can basically pencil in 14 points and 10 rebounds a night for Ayton. What happens after that will be determined by other factors like foul trouble, the opposition and how well the Suns’ offense progresses in the apparent absence of a true point guard. He should be a top-three contender for Rookie of the Year.

Dan Bickley (co-host, Bickley & Marotta): Ayton had an excellent preseason and is one of the early favorites to win the Rookie of the Year award. I think he’ll finish behind Luka Doncic, but I’m extremely impressed with Ayton’s motor and engagement on both ends of the floor.

Jon Bloom (host, Suns postgame): Man, I’m trying to keep my expectations realistic with the big fella but it’s really tough! We were discussing potential points/rebounds averages for him up at training camp in Flagstaff, and it was unanimous that he’s either going to be getting double-doubles every night or darn close to it. My initial guess was 15 points and nine rebounds a game. I will stick to that because I still think the toughest things for rookies in the NBA is earning the whistles and fouls will limit his time on the court. I bet his numbers will be off the charts per 36 minutes though.

Dave Burns (co-host, Burns & Gambo): He’s not going to be a typical rookie. He’ll perform at a higher level than we’re accustomed to seeing.

John Gambadoro (co-host, Burns & Gambo): Should be a double-double guy every night. Will dominate some games in which opponents have no matchup. Will struggle with versatile, quick teams that force him to make quick decisions on defense. Has real good shot at Rookie of the Year. What will be interesting is that he may force opponents who like to play small to have to go big if he punishes them. A team like the Warriors likes to play small, but Ayton has the ability to force them to play a legitimate center to combat what he can do on both ends of the court. That will be fun to watch if it happens.

Doug Franz (co-host, Doug & Wolf): NBA Rookie of the Year.

Ron Wolfley (co-host, Doug & Wolf): Up and down. Two steps forward, one step back and a whole lot of double-doubles for Deandre. Hopefully, through it all, he’ll learn how to compete. He’ll learn how to bring the intensity, focus and professionalism to the floor night-in and night-out. He’s got to become physically dominant, the metaphorical body of the Phoenix Suns.

Paul Calvisi (anchor, Doug & Wolf): Like Amare during his rookie season, it’ll be appointment viewing because you never know when you’ll miss that “wow” moment that gets you off the couch with a fist pump.

Jordan Byrd (producer, Burns & Gambo and host, Arizona Sports Saturday): I think it’s going to be a mixed bag with Ayton. I honestly see him coming out of the gates to begin the season looking to prove a point. We already saw this a bit in the preseason and I think Ayton will continue to try to prove why he was taken first overall from game one. Where I’m expecting some regression is in January/February, the point in the season before the All-Star break where these rookies’ games-played figure starts to exceed what they had experienced in college. What kind of shape is the big man in? How does he respond when things don’t go his way and he becomes frustrated? I don’t believe we will get a great gauge on the answers to those questions for a couple months.

Luke Lapinski (host, The Rundown with Luke Lapinski): It’s going to be tough for him to live up to expectations if people expect him to come in and instantly be the savior. But I can’t imagine he averages less than a double-double, and his presence alone is going to add electricity to Suns games and draw more national attention to Phoenix. Winning Rookie of the Year and speeding up the team’s overall timeline are both very realistic possibilities.

Jarrett Carlen (producer, Bickley & Marotta and The Rundown with Luke Lapinski): Ayton will average a double-double a game (which is still two double-doubles per game shy of Andy Reid’s record).

Who is the most important player for the Suns this year outside of Booker and Ayton? Why?

Vince Marotta: I’ll go with Josh Jackson here. Early in the preseason, we saw a much more in-control Jackson than the one we saw for most of his rookie season. Then, over the last three or four exhibition games, the bad tendencies returned – poor shot selection, too many outside shots and questionable decisions with the ball. It’s only his second season, but Jackson is, in my eyes, at a fork in the road in his career. Either he makes the jump to a bonafide cornerstone of the franchise this year, or he takes his place among the lottery picks that just didn’t pan out over the last eight seasons.

Dan Bickley: Josh Jackson. He needs to avoid the trap that swallowed Marquese Chriss and continue to ascend as a second-year professional.

Jon Bloom: Trevor Ariza. Based on his track record and skill set, he has the potential to be exactly the type of veteran leader this team needs. I think Ariza can still play at a high level on offense and defense, and that is a key element when it comes to getting young players to pay attention and follow. In order to let Devin and Deandre do damage on offense, Ariza needs to knock down the three consistently. And in order for the Suns to improve on defense, Ariza will be called on to lock up some of the top players in the game. Now it’s time to show everybody he was worth the bag.

Dave Burns: Easy answer is Josh Jackson. It would be nice to see him complete the trio of future stars. His shooting hopefully takes a big step forward this year, but more than anything, he needs to continue to play at speed that isn’t too fast for him. Once he slowed himself down, he performed well last year. The shutdown defender we were promised when he was drafted a year ago needs to materialize. Had the Suns not traded Brandon Knight, I probably would have picked him.

John Gambadoro: Josh Jackson. If Jackson develops into the player they believed he was when they drafted him fourth overall out of Kansas, then the Suns have a Big Three to build with going forward. Jackson has all the talent in the world and should be a shutdown defender but also a player that can get out in transition and score.

Doug Franz: Josh Jackson because no one else matters.

Ron Wolfley: Josh Jackson. He’s a third of the “Big Young Three” going forward. His development in the shadows of Booker and Ayton will be critical for future success. He needs to improve his perimeter shot dramatically and his perimeter defense, while bringing the nastiness and competitiveness this team needs. He’s got to become the soul of the Phoenix Suns.

Paul Calvisi: Trevor Ariza. Can he truly impart the professionalism and winning ways that they’re paying him for?

Jordan Byrd: Whoever’s playing PG – It’s the biggest question still facing this team for a reason. So much of the team’s success and the development of the roster is dependent on who, if anyone, steps up at the position. Everything from the way Booker is utilized to the facilitating of Deandre Ayton is going to come down to who’s running the point. We have already seen what Isaiah Cannan can do, and I want to see if either De’Anthony Melton or Elie Okobo can take the role at some point this season. Even if one of the rookies can separate themselves from the rest of the pack, it’s still going to be an area that will take its lumps this year.

Luke Lapinski: Josh Jackson. He’s got more upside than anyone on the roster not named Booker and Ayton. And even though he’s kind of lost in the shuffle with so much focus on this year’s draft, his versatility allows him to impact the game in a lot of ways. He needs to improve as a shooter, but if he takes a step forward as a leader and hones his all-around game, he’ll be well worth the No. 4 pick Phoenix spent on him in 2017.

Jarrett Carlen: If Josh Jackson doesn’t take the next step and improve his shooting/scoring, all the haircuts in the world won’t make the thought of another top-five bust palatable.

How many games will the Suns win? Why?

Vince Marotta: I’ll say the Suns win 34 games this year. Ayton appears legit. Booker, now with the security of a massive contract extension, continues to develop as a complete player and leader. I’ll bet on Jackson making the move to cornerstone as opposed to bust.

Dan Bickley: Thirty-two. The Suns will be better, but they are still flawed and remain a work-in-progress. Meanwhile, the Western Conference is loaded with quality of teams, making serious improvement an arduous task.

Jon Bloom: I got a lot of flack when I completed my annual tradition of going game by game through the schedule when it’s released and came out with a total of 38 wins. Of course, at that time my best guess was that Brandon Knight would be the starting point guard, and T.J. Warren may end up getting the most minutes at power forward. Since then we’ve been left with a big question mark at PG but added one of my personal favorite players Ryan Anderson to be the 4-man. I have also seen Ayton go toe to toe with NBA centers and do more than just hold his own, and I’ve watched as this team has had predictable fits and starts while learning Igor’s offense. All that said, I’m sticking with my prediction with the idea that the ball movement will find the open man enough with or without an NBA “starting-caliber point guard,” the Suns will hit a lot more threes and the defense will be better than last season leading to what will be one of the most improved teams in the league.

Dave Burns: Suns are going to win 29 games. Ayton, Ariza and Anderson and of course a healthy Booker make the Suns a better team than a year ago. But still a long way to go.

John Gambadoro: I am sticking with 31 — a 10-game improvement, although I readily agree that without a true point guard that may be a difficult task. But there are no excuses. A 10-win improvement also means they lose 51 games! The West is tough, I get it, but not asking a lot to win 31 games.

Doug Franz: Thirty. No point guard. No GM. No experience for the head coach. No track record of success for the owner.

Ron Wolfley: Thirty. They won 21-games last year. Rarely does a team improve by double digits – especially when they are young. Thirty wins seems like a nice, round number, albeit optimistic.

Paul Calvisi: Twenty-six wins. The Suns will eclipse their past three seasons (25, 24, 21 wins).

Jordan Byrd: Twenty-seven wins. On paper, the Suns are better than they were last season. Unfortunately, they still play in the Western Conference, where they will continue to be one of the worst teams. If they were in the East and had the benefit of playing multiple teams that are at their level numerous times, then maybe a 10-win improvement would be possible. But with so many question marks surrounding this team even as the regular season is set to tip off, I think a moderate six-win improvement from last year is realistic.

Luke Lapinski: Thirty-two. That’s a solid improvement over last year’s number of 21, especially in a loaded Western Conference. But I do think last year’s number was a little lower than it should have been, since Booker missed 28 games. Not saying the Suns should’ve made the playoffs last season or anything – let’s not get crazy here – but they probably should’ve been closer to 26 or 27 wins. And that’s enough that a jump to 32 with Ayton this time around is pretty reasonable.

Jarrett Carlen: Twenty-eight wins, a slight improvement over last year. Unfortunately, with an odd mix of veterans and youth, the team’s chemistry won’t be there and they have fewer viable point guards than Coach Igor has Ks in his name.

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