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Phoenix Suns’ D-League affiliate, the Northern Arizona Suns, to debut

Shaquille Harrison is one of the inaugural members of the NAZ Suns. (AP photo)

PRESCOTT VALLEY, Ariz. – History will be made here on Saturday: the Northern Arizona Suns tip-off their inaugural season.

The arrival of professional basketball 91-miles north of the Valley further extends the Phoenix Suns’ brand, while at the same time helps foster their on-court talent, which one day may play the game under the NBA logo.

That is the goal of the NAZ Suns, one of 22 teams in the NBA Development League for the 2016-17 season.

The 22 teams are a record for the NBA’s official minor league basketball organization.

Leading the NAZ Suns is Tyrone Ellis, who at 38-years-old is receiving his first head coaching opportunity.

Ellis spent the better part of the summer and early weeks of fall with the NBA Suns.

“It’s been great. Coach (Earl) Watson and (General Manager) Ryan (McDonough) have done a phenomenal job in creating a culture of family, and I believe it. They really mean it,” he said. “I feel like I’m an extension of his staff. I will run exactly the same exact things in Prescott Valley. I will preach the same message in Prescott Valley. I’m really fortunate to be in this organization and the head coach.”

Ellis used his time in Phoenix observing and studying

“I think my biggest asset is I know that I don’t know, and so that’s why I’m always trying to get better,” he said. “I’m always learning, so to have a foundation of coaches here that have been through what I’ve been through and are willing to give me advice is priceless, and I’m very thankful.”

While the offenses and defenses of the NAZ Suns and Phoenix Suns will be identical, there is one key difference with the former: the molding of young talent, teaching players not only how to win but how to be professional both on and off the court.

And that’s where Ellis will be able to stamp his own mark on the NAZ Suns.

Ellis and Watson had never met before this summer, but they knew the same people, according to Ellis.

“The great thing about it is Coach Watson and I are cut from the same cloth. We’re competitors. We get it done, and that’s it,” he said. “The core, the foundation is the same. Not because I’m copying him. Because that’s who I am as a former player. As I coach, I compete. I can’t promise you wins, but I will promise that every day we get out on the court, we will represent the organization in a positive light and we will compete.”

Added Watson about Ellis: “I hope he learned a lot on the court, but the most important thing is how to communicate and have compassion for your players, that’s our most important thing that any teacher can do. If he takes back X’s and O’s, we’ve failed. It has to be more than that. The foundation has to always be compassion, has to be love and unity.”

In the previous two seasons, the Bakersfield Jam had served as the Suns’ entry into the D-League. The Suns acquired the Jam and relocated the franchise to Prescott Valley, becoming the 15th NBA team to own and operate its D-League affiliate, meaning they run both the basketball and business operations for the organization.

The NAZ Suns will play a 50-game schedule, including 24 at home in the 5,100-seat Prescott Valley Event Center. They open against the Iowa Energy on Saturday.

Among those players on the NAZ Suns roster are Phoenix Suns training camp participants center Gracin Bakumanya, forward Derek Cook Jr. and guard Shaquille Harrison; local college product Daniel Alexander (Grand Canyon); plus forward Derrick Jones Jr., who was recently assigned to the team after surprisingly making the opening night roster in Phoenix.

Jones Jr. scored a team-high 18 points in a 113-99 home exhibition loss to the Los Angeles D-Fenders last weekend.

“We want high character guys that have a mentality of family and that’s going to embrace the process of getting better,” Ellis said.

On occasion, that may include visits from 2016 draft picks Dragan Bender, Marquese Chriss and Tyler Ulis, who are only an hour-and-a-half car ride away in Phoenix.

“I am crossing my fingers. I pray that those guys bless us with their presence,” Ellis said, smiling.

Like the players he’ll coach, Ellis’ dream is the NBA, and he only need to look at the Phoenix coaching staff for prior successes. Both Watson and assistant Nate Bjorkgren began their coaching careers in the D-League.

But for now, Ellis, who last season was the lead assistant in Bakersfield, is putting 100-percent of his effort into the NAZ Suns.

“My goal right now is to focus on being the best head coach in Prescott Valley,” he said. “I want these guys to maximize their potential, and it’s my job to help them reach their ceiling. And along my journey, if it’s in my deck of cards to be in the NBA, well so be it, but right now I’m only focused on being the best head coach in Prescott Valley.”

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