PHOENIX — The Phoenix Suns are rebuilding and it’s something both the team and their fans are going to be reminded of for the next few years.
There are different steps and philosophies put in place during a rebuild, whether it’s prioritizing the future over the present or exchanging pieces that would help a team now for pieces that will help the team win in five years.
The Suns are continuing to fiddle their way through this arduous process, but believe it or not, the hard part is over.
The team has four players under the age of 21 that are all major building blocks for the future.
Devin Booker turned one of the sports’ most infamously hostile arenas to his side in a breakout 70-point performance. Marquese Chriss improved dramatically from one of the league’s worst starters in November (as expected) to a good NBA player in his last two months. Dragan Bender and Josh Jackson are two top-5 selections that show significant promise as defenders while possessing the prerequisites on their resume offensively to potentially be extremely effective two-way players.
With some good luck, bad luck and a whole lot of losing, the Suns now have their core four for the foreseeable future. Now, it’s on the front office, coaching staff, and most importantly, those four players to grow into the pieces they can potentially be to end this franchise’s playoff drought and achieve more beyond that.
The team’s fans know it.
There’s a reason #TheTimeline is becoming a thing on Twitter. Whether those using it are being 100 percent serious or not, they know the team’s time to win is not next season or even the one after that.
The idea of contending around 2020 has been floated by both owner Robert Sarver and general manager Ryan McDonough. A contingent of supporters appear to be behind the idea, and if those four players become the players they should, there’s no reason why Sarver and McDonough would be wrong.
For that group, the first step forward takes place at the 2017 edition of the NBA’s Summer League in Las Vegas.
Booker won’t play because he doesn’t need to. That was clear last year before his first game even ended, when he put a look of embarrassment and hopelessness on Portland’s Luis Montero’s face while jawing at him for most of his 28-point performance. He’s not only the future of the franchise, he’s the face of it right now — and still can’t order a drink until the day before Halloween.
Like Booker in 2016, Chriss will look to prove he’s one of the best overall players in Las Vegas. He was a starter nearly all season and began growing into the potential that some called limitless. When he began looking somewhat comfortable scoring on his own, making advanced passes to his teammates and being a weak-side shot blocker toward the end of the year, it looked like those people were right.
The team’s most recent first-round selection is usually the main focus of a summer league team, but that won’t be the case for the Suns this time around because of Bender.
The Croatian only had brief glimpses of looking comfortable last season. Inconsistent playing time, being on the floor out of position in order to compromise for that and an ankle injury when he was finally going to get his real minutes ruined his rookie season.
Despite those aforementioned problems and being the youngest player in his class with a noted lack of offensive pop in his game coming out, he’s already not being mentioned at the top with the team’s top prospects and players. Some are even calling him a bust.
Less forgettable and more memorable for its lack of shine, Bender has to put that season behind him in a hurry and it begins by him establishing his game in Vegas.
There were murmurs when Jackson was selected that he didn’t look particularly thrilled after he heard his name called. That’s not because of the team that drafted him, it’s because he was angry with where he got picked. If that wasn’t clear, hear what he had to say that night to the media.
Jackson plays with the dynamic combination of fire, swagger and edge that makes athletes special. He has it, and if you watched the Suns at any point last season, you can see most of his young teammates have it as well, based on the amount of scuffles they got in.
There are people — including the person writing this — who have hesitations regarding if Jackson can be an elite perimeter defender, or if he can get a consistent jumper or if he can become a go-to scorer.
With the way Jackson carries himself, however, it would be foolish to doubt him in any regard.
Jackson was asked Tuesday after the team’s first practice if, as a rookie, he has thought about the possibility of trying to do too much initially and maybe settling in first.
He looked somewhat puzzled, asked for the question a second time and then still appeared mildly flummoxed before giving his answer.
“If I’m trying too hard then I’m sorry. I don’t know what to tell you,” he concluded.
The concept of taking in his surroundings and getting acclimated is foreign to players like Jackson. They just aren’t wired that way.
When the media walked in toward the end of the Wednesday practice, there’s a reason why it look less than five minutes for us to see him nearly dunk on someone.
That drive is what will make Jackson successful and what will make this group successful.
For the time being, the four of them have been handed the keys to the future of the team. Now it’s up to them to take the franchise where they need to go and this summer’s stop in Las Vegas is their version of pulling out of the driveway to their final destination of successfully becoming the team’s foundation.
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