PHOENIX — If there is reason for hope, a reason to believe the Phoenix Suns are headed in the right direction, then look no further than the four players acquired via the draft or trade in the past two seasons.
Center Alex Len, guard Archie Goodwin, forward T.J. Warren and guard Reggie Bullock are pieces, young pieces, according to the Suns, to a puzzle that they feel will help end a five-year postseason absence and ultimately form a championship-caliber team.
The biggest piece, literally and figuratively, is Len.
Standing 7-foot-1, Len showed flashes this season, being both that rim protector and post-up threat the Suns envisioned when they selected him with the fifth overall pick in the 2013 NBA Draft.
After an injury-riddled rookie campaign that sidelined him for half the season, Len bounced back to play 69 games and lead the team in rebounds (6.6) and blocks (1.5) while averaging 6.3 points in 22 minutes per game.
“The most important thing for me was like health-wise, just being out there,” he said. “I think it was a good season. It was up-and-down, so I just got to learn from it. I think it was a good experience. It was a good foundation block for the future.”
Len, 21, had some of his best performances once he was inserted into the starting lineup six weeks into the season. Fourteen of his 16 double-digit rebounding efforts, including a career-long run of five straight games, came after he supplanted Miles Plumlee on Dec. 15.
Len recorded 10 double-doubles, all but two coming as a starter.
“When he was at his best we were really good this year,” said Markieff Morris, referring to the Suns’ 23 wins with Len joining the first unit. “He was protecting the rim really well, finishing really well. He just had that fight in him for us that we needed. He’s going to be really good and he’s going to be a big, real big for us again next year.”
Injuries, and perhaps some bad luck, did rob Len of 13 games. He twice sprained his right ankle, costing him six games, and then he missed the final seven with a broken nose.
“He’s just going to keep continuing to get better and better,” Brandan Wright said. “Obviously, he had some health issues his first couple of years, but it’s just part of being in the league, part of taking a pounding, but he’s going to be a great player, and I’m looking forward to working with him in the future.”
The confidence Len gained from this season, even with its ebbs and flows, can’t be overstated.
“I think just keep building on what I have right now,” he said. “Develop a post game and just keep getting stronger. Pay attention to the little things.”
Goodwin played 11 fewer games in his second season, though roughly the same number of minutes as he logged as a rookie.
The reason was twofold. Goodwin, 20, benefited from the Suns’ trade flurry before the Feb. 19 deadline and an injury to point guard Brandon Knight.
In 25 games following the All-Star break, Goodwin averaged 6.7 points, 2.1 rebounds and 1.2 assists in 14.9 minutes.
And as he did a year ago — a career-high 29 points at Sacramento in the season’s final game — Goodwin saved his best for last. He scored a season-high 18 points on six-of-11 shooting in the season-finale against the L.A. Clippers.
Playing time was hit-and-miss, though more miss for Warren in his first season, especially early.
That changed, as it did for Goodwin, after the break when the lottery pick (No. 14) out of North Carolina State made 24 of his 41 appearances.
Warren, 21, received his most significant court time over the last nine games, averaging 9.6 points on 51.3 percent shooting and 2.9 rebounds in 25.7 minutes. He scored in double figures five times, including a 10-point effort against the Clippers.
In that 82nd and final game, Warren made his first career start and played in a career-high 43 minutes, the most by a Suns rookie since Amar’e Stoudemire played 43 minutes at San Antonio on Jan. 14, 2003.
“He knows how to play the game, especially offensively,” head coach Jeff Hornacek said. “Defensively, I think he’s going to get there. I truly believe that if you know the game offensively, you know it defensively, too. It’s just a matter of brining it out probably because if you’re that knowledgeable on offense, where guys are, how they move, where they get the ball. It works in reverse on the defensive side.
“I think we’ve seen great strides in his team defense over the year. I think he can be a great one-on-one defender. Sometimes, I think, he’s a little tentative. I told him the best thing to do is just study tape all summer of all these guys in the league that you’re going to guard. Know which ones that you’re quicker than. And that’s a big key in basketball is to know the guys that you can get up on, get in their legs and then other guys, yeah, maybe you have to backup a step. Again, he’s new at it and he’s going to learn it.”
Bullock, meanwhile, played just 75 minutes over 11 games with the Suns.
He finished the season on the bench, forced to watch his teammates play the final two games without him because of a concussion.
The setback further reduced his ability to make an impression on a team that had acquired him as part of a three-team trade in late January.
The Suns had been high on Bullock, 24, ever since the Clippers made him a first-round draft choice, 25th overall, in 2013.
“I feel like this is a great place for me to be,” he said of Phoenix, which is expected to add him to its Las Vegas Summer League roster.
Bullock’s 3-point shooting peaked at 38.5 percent in 25 games, including two starts before the trade.
“They told me that they see me as a player that definitely can be great in this league and definitely can fit into this system that they try to provide here,” he said. “They love my professionalism, they love the way that I carried myself and just continue to work and work on the things and they feel like I’ll be a great player.
“I think it’s going to be great moving forward.”