Suns general manager Ryan McDonough wants to know what he’s working with.
Doing so during the stretch run of the season means no longer giving work to Tyson Chandler and Brandon Knight. At the center position, the reasoning is easy: Is Alex Len a future piece of the puzzle? He’s now starting before becoming a restricted free agent this summer as Phoenix gives him a final test-run.
Meanwhile, backup big man Alan Williams has taken the bull by the horns, but the man nicknamed Big Sauce is getting a bit of help from 5-foot-10 point guard Tyler Ulis.
That pairing, due to the new-look rotation, has become a go-to for the Suns’ second unit, which began the year attempting and ultimately failing to build a two-man pick-and-roll game between Knight and Len.
Williams’ smarts and activity have to do with it.
But Ulis is the initiator.
“He thinks the game at a really high level,” McDonough said Wednesday on Arizona Sports 98.7 FM’s Burns and Gambo show. “He really manipulates the defense in terms of drawing double-teams and getting two defenders on the ball to free up teammates for lobs and rolls to the basket.
“He has a unique ability to get to spots and not only make shots but kind of pick apart the defense.”
Ulis scored nine points to go with a career-high seven assists Tuesday night in a loss to the Memphis Grizzlies.
The shiftiness McDonough was impressed by earned the point guard shots at the basket, mid-range shots around the foul stripe and, maybe most impressively, three buckets for Williams.
While Ulis also thrived in transition, twice throwing lobs to dunk contest participant Derrick Jones Jr., his halfcourt feel and two-man game with Williams stood out.
At one point, Ulis dribbled to the middle of the court off double screens set by Williams and Jared Duley atop the left arc. As Memphis shut down passing lanes with switches, Ulis continued toward the hoop against Memphis point guard Mike Conley. Once he drew two defenders, he hit Williams for a floater.
“They complement each other very well,” Earl Watson said Thursday. “What makes Al really phenomenal and gives the edge against most players is he understands spacing without the ball.
“He’s always in the right place. Al is always moving, quick feet, hands ready at the chest,” Watson added. “His hands are always ready, gives him a great opportunity, easier way to get it up quicker before the defense can react.”
Later, 2013 Defensive Player of the Year Marc Gasol sank into the paint as Williams set a high screen for Ulis. The rookie point guard went away from the pick, engaged his own defender, JaMychal Green, with a bump, all while keeping Gasol locked into stopping Ulis from getting to the hoop. Then, Ulis attacked the center at the baseline with Green still in pursuit and scooped another pass to Williams.
Two games prior, Ulis’ timing showed perfectly in a simple pick-and-roll with his center. While the Chicago Bulls’ weakside help to stop Williams’ roll came from Nikola Mirotic, the Suns rookie waited until the exact moment Mirotic felt the urge to get back on his man, Dudley.
And as soon as Mirotic attempted to recover to stop the potential Dudley three, Ulis instead threaded a bounce pass to Williams, who continued rolling.
McDonough said the Suns will stay on course playing Ulis as backup to Eric Bledsoe, but there is a chance Knight could find himself in the rotation at some point before the end of 2016-17.
“We haven’t made any hard and fast determinations for the rest of the year. I think the way we’re playing now is probably, generally how it’ll go,” McDonough said.
“Later in the year, I think there’s a chance you could see Brandon get back in the rotation or earn more minutes. But for now, the rotation is what it is. More than anything, it was let’s get a good look at Tyler, let’s see what he can do kind of leading the second unit.”
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