Phoenix Suns storylines to keep a close eye on in preseason play
The Phoenix Suns begin their preseason schedule Tuesday in Portland. Despite coming off the second-worst record in the NBA last season and adding no substantial experienced pieces in the offseason, there’s a fair amount of intrigue surrounding the squad.
With that comes several rotation questions and other tidbits as the team gets ready for the start of the season on Oct. 18. Here are a few to watch out for.
Who starts at small forward?
The answer is very likely T.J. Warren.
Warren signed a four-year, $50 million extension this offseason, and at 24 years old in his fourth year as a pro, it’s time for him to finally have his breakout campaign.
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While fourth overall pick Josh Jackson does his best work on the defensive end, he’s still a rookie, and it’s a rarity in the league to see a rookie be a positive on the defensive end.
That’s not suggesting Warren is that, but he has incrementally improved as a defender each year and will help the Suns more on the boards and in other areas of the game with his NBA experience.
The bigger question here is who starts 60-70 games into the season and beyond.
Jackson is far and away the better “two-way” prospect, meaning he contributes more consistently on both offense and defense than Warren. Warren’s skillset is also perfect for a sixth man role, and the team currently lacks any real scoring punch off the bench. That logic makes Jackson starting from the jump something to not completely rule out, either.
With that being said, Warren is capable of averaging 17 points and seven rebounds a game while 50 percent from the field. Per Basketball-Reference, the perimeter players to post that line since 2010 are Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kevin Durant and LeBron James.
If Jackson meets expectations, he’s the better player, but it’s close, and that will force the Suns to be creative in finding ways for them to play together.
That leads us to…
How will the team play faster?
The Suns were second in pace last season, but a definitive takeaway from the team’s media day was that they are prioritizing speed even more with their style of play.
The obvious answer on how to do so is by playing small.
They have two centers in Tyson Chandler and Alex Len but don’t have major commitments to either. Chandler is in the second half of his four-year deal and won’t be looking to play more than 22-25 minutes a game and Len gave the Suns anything but confidence in his play last year.
It’s no secret the Suns are going to be one of the worst defensive teams in the NBA, so “punting” on defense for the sake of more offense might be the best route to success.
The degree to which how effective they will be at each spot varies, but the Suns have players at each position who can go down a notch positionally.
Eric Bledsoe could play some two-guard while Tyler Ulis runs the offense. Devin Booker can’t guard small forwards, but most small forwards can’t guard him. Derrick Jones Jr. has the potential to guard four positions. Warren and Jackson both have the rebounding and toughness to step down to power forward, and both Marquese Chriss and Dragan Bender have enough unique attributes that don’t qualify them as a “traditional big” playing center.
Add and mix all those up, and the Suns could push the tempo with some very interesting combinations of lineups if everyone can hit their perimeter shots at an average rate.
It was one small window of a practice, but those changes were already being experimented with in a practice on Monday.
In the media viewing portion of practice, Phoenix's second unit initially rolled out Jones Jr. at the 3, while Jackson played small-ball 4.
— Evan Sidery (@esidery) October 2, 2017
Len and Chandler both switched in and out with the second unit. Bender and Chriss rolled exclusively with the starters from what we saw.
— Evan Sidery (@esidery) October 2, 2017
Who does Tyler Ulis mesh with next in the second unit?
Perhaps the most enjoyable thing to come out of the 2016-17 Suns season was the play of Ulis and Alan Williams on the second unit.
The two were perfect for each other. Ulis capitalizes off an extremely active dribble inside the three-point line and Williams is always ready for the ball with his soft touch from inside 12 feet.
Unfortunately, though, Williams will miss most of the season, so the Suns will be without their signature offensive duo off the bench.
The question now becomes who Ulis can run a two-man game with, or, moreso, make better like he did with Williams.
The player who makes the most sense is Bender.
While Williams thrived with Ulis because of his finishing around the rim, Bender can be a finisher at 7-foot-1 while also attacking closeouts and making the extra pass.
Bender gave Suns fans their first real look at this part of his game in summer league play in July.
It’s worth noting for Bender that he has struggled with some of the big man aspects of his game, such as rolling to the rim consistently.
With that being said, Bender’s versatility gives Ulis more to work with, and at Bender’s apex in year two, the Suns could have three legitimate playmakers in the second unit with Ulis, Bender and Jackson.
The other two players to watch in that role would be Troy Daniels and Len.
Daniels is an elite three-point shooter who will benefit Ulis as much as Ulis benefits him. There won’t be much of a “partnership” with the two, but they will help each other’s loads.
Len is simplifying his game, and that along with Ulis putting him in the best possible spots to finish could put him in line for a career year.