Flip back in the calendar to June’s NBA Draft.
Suns general manager Ryan McDonough had his chance at adding to the monopoly on Kentucky combo guards when he selected Andrew Harrison with the 44th overall pick. As it turned out, the acquisition was a temporary one. Phoenix flipped Harrison’s rights to the Memphis Grizzlies for backup forward Jon Leuer, whose most successful of his first four NBA seasons saw him average 6.2 points and 3.2 rebounds in 13 minutes per game in 2013-14.
It was a sidenote to Phoenix drafting Devin Booker.
Jump to the present and Leuer has arguably been the Suns’ third-most productive player behind guards Eric Bledsoe and Brandon Knight.
Markieff Morris’ odd saga opened the opportunity but consider this: Leuer is the most efficient rebounder outside Phoenix’s two centers. In win shares, win shares per 48 minutes, Value Over Replacement Player (VORP), he’s top-3 on the team, per Basketball-Reference. He’s the team’s best big man passer — arguably as good as Morris — and the third-least turnover prone player overall.
Maybe most importantly, Leuer is the third-most efficient shooter behind Booker and Mirza Teletovic.
“The ability to shoot the ball as well as drive it, he’s got good quickness,” coach Jeff Hornacek said Sunday after Leuer scored 12 points to go with four assists against the Timberwolves. “He knows how to play.”
Teams have been put on notice about Leuer’s comfort taking a dribble or two off a catch and then getting to the rim. They’re also aware he’s one of the better above-the-break three-point shooters in the league. Leuer is hitting 44 percent of such threes this year. Atop the arc, he’s mirrored Morris’ ability to shoot even better from straight away, a valuable asset for trailing a transition play. Currently, Leuer has the exact same shooting success on straight-away threes as his 2013-14 campaign, hitting 13-of-21 for 62 percent in that area.
Little of Leuer’s production has come out of the flow of the offense.
“He just takes what’s given to him,” Hornacek said.
Leuer’s low, slow release on his jumper limits his ability to use it in traffic, but part of his success is knowing his abilities.
Phoenix’s draft-day trade likely happened because McDonough saw the production from Leuer’s 2013-14 season, his most successful to this point. But that year playing with the halfcourt-oriented Grizzlies, Leuer took 48 percent of his shots from 5-20 feet, where he’s not been as efficient. On the Suns this year, he’s limited the mid-range looks as only 32 percent of his buckets have come in that area.
As defenses adjust to stop Leuer spot-ups from Bledsoe and Knight kickouts, the power forward may find himself shooting more in mid-range situations.
There’s an easy answer to avoiding that and still making the right play. Lacking Morris’ ability to bail out the offense in the high post, the Wisconsin product shows more headiness facing up from atop the three-point line and making decisions off the dribble, such as this drive and bounce pass to Alex Len for a dunk.
So far, Leuer has put together 11 double-digit scoring performances, including seven in a row that ended Wednesday at Golden State.
Coming into the 2015-16 season, he had 31 double-digit games, so this is in some ways all about his opportunity.
“Anytime you’re playing consistent minutes, playing 25, 30 minutes, you’re kind of able to get in a rhythm. You don’t worry about missing a couple shots. You just keep playing through it,” Leuer said Sunday.
Defensively, Leuer wasn’t billed as a plus coming out of Memphis — yet the fact he earned playing time on one of the most NBA’s most solid defensive teams said something.
He’s arguably Phoenix’s most consistent team defender as an individual (oddly, he has terrible defensive ratings playing with Tyson Chandler but is excellent playing next to Alex Len). Even in the Suns’ ugly loss to the Warriors, he showed in a first quarter stretch of four plays that he’s athletically able to stay in front of power forward Draymond Green, recover on a Green-Stephen Curry pick-and-roll and contest the reigning MVP on a switch.
While Morris continues to sit on the bench as the trade winds blow, Leuer has given the Suns stability as other roster fit issues have become concerning.
Leuer and Teletovic have each played better than expected, giving the Suns several options at the power forward position heading into next year.
Both come off the books after this season, and though Leuer is currently the least expensive Sun on a guaranteed deal for the 2015-16 season ($1.03 million), his versatility could make him an appealing player to re-sign on a reasonable contract.
How Phoenix and McDonough react to the Morris situation obviously will dictate Leuer’s future. As one of the Suns’ most steady and versatile players, Leuer is giving Phoenix something hard to think about not only this summer, but now.