Suns add House as life without Booker begins; Ulis’ game evolves
PHOENIX — With little room for error as is, the Phoenix Suns’ loss of the NBA’s 10th highest scorer, Devin Booker, will certainly magnify the roster’s imperfections.
What will the Suns do for the two or three weeks without their leader? They hope it can help prove a point or two.
At least through one game, a 109-99 loss to the Washington Wizards on Thursday, the young team already has video evidence that life without Booker can be rewarding — even if losses pile up.
“We feel like we executed well early,” point guard Tyler Ulis said of the game film. “I think it’s a good time for us to see where we are as a team without having Book as an outlet to score the ball anytime he wants. It’s going to help us play a little bit better as a team.
“Now we have to probably work together a little more, move the ball, make Josh (Jackson) and T.J. (Warren) more of an option.”
Phoenix found some success against a John Wall-lacking Wizards team, but the roster hole left by Booker showed in the hot-and-cold plus-minus scores.
The Suns jumped out to a fast start, and four of the starters ended with positive plus-minus scores by the end of the game. The exception was Warren, who led the Suns with 23 points on 9-of-20 shooting but needed to play 44 minutes — much with the bench players — to keep his team afloat. Warren’s plus-minus came as a result of the bench struggling to produce.
Of the bench players, only Jared Dudley’s even plus-minus wasn’t in the double-digit negatives.
“I think our biggest thing is what we worked on today is our execution. How well can we execute our sets all the way through all the different options? Teams are going to take away one or two; we got to get to that third option,” interim coach Jay Triano said.
Although valuable lessons about the importance of such things can be learned through life without Booker, the roster limitations without him needed addressing.
The Suns on Friday signed wing Danuel House to one of their two two-way contracts. That was opened up with the team’s two-way deal with point guard Mike James, who is now on a standard contract, expiring Thursday.
House, 24, averaged 17.7 points, 6.3 rebounds and 2.5 assists per game in the G League with the Rio Grande Valley Vipers this season. At 6-foot-6 and 220 pounds, he gives Phoenix a versatile scorer off the bench who can play with Warren, Jackson and Troy Daniels.
“He can score. That’s the big thing,” Triano said. “We want to be able to not play T.J. as many minutes as he did last night. Josh is going to get more minutes, obviously, and Troy but, you know, we need to have that fourth wing right now.”
House worked his way onto a roster spot with the Washington Wizards after going undrafted out of Texas A&M last season but broke his right hand after making just one brief NBA appearance.
“I was excited. Had to start over from scratch and prove myself,” House said of joining the Suns after his first practice Friday.
Ulis distributes — and redistributes his shot
Statistically, Ulis’ best game came Monday in a 115-101 win over the Philadelphia 76ers.
Ten of his 12 assists went to either Booker, who scored 46 points, or Warren, who added 25. Now without Booker, it’s about building chemistry with others.
“I feel like I’m in a good rhythm, but I feel like it’ll get better as the team gets more chemistry in knowing each other a little more,” Ulis said.
It’s also about building upon his strong rookie season.
Ulis got off to a rocky start in 2017-18 after missing Summer League with an ankle injury. Inserted into the starting lineup in place of Mike James on Nov. 13 to act as a setup man for Booker and Warren, he’s found a rhythm since.
In 13 games as a starter, he’s averaging 9.5 points and 4.8 assists while shooting 45 percent overall and 40 percent from three. Compared to his rookie season, he’s cut out about 11 percent of the shots categorized as pull-ups, per NBA.com. At 5-foot-10, that’s taking away a lot of the midrange attempts he’s needed as a non-three-point shooter and player who could struggle at the rim.
Where have those shots gone?
Despite his size, he’s increased his distribution by 6 percent inside 10 feet since rejoining the starting unit and is shooting better there: Ulis is hitting 55 percent of those looks in the last 13 games compared to just 44 percent as a rookie.
As significant toward his development, about 5 percent of his shot distribution has increased in catch-and-shoot attempts, and nearly all of that production is from three-point range. Since returning to a starting role, his 1.9 threes per game at 40 percent shooting are dramatically improved over his 29 percent in the first 14 games of the year.
“I’m more of a midrange player, but I understand how you win games now and I have to start letting the ball go from deep, getting more of those shots up,” Ulis said.
Triano, on Warren ranking third in the NBA with six technical fouls: “When I asked him (why he’s getting technicals), he said that he really cares about winning. And I like that. I said to him the other day, I said, ‘I have to be better at helping you.’ I tried to get him off the floor in Toronto before he picked up the second one, and I said, ‘you got to let me help you.’ Like if I come out there, there’s a reason I’m trying to get you off the floor. I need you in the game and I’m trying to save you some money.’ I want him to have an edge.”
— Alex Len and Tyson Chandler are both questionable for a Saturday game against the San Antonio Spurs. Chandler left just before the loss to Washington for personal reasons, while Len is now dealing with a hyper-extended knee.