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Suns notebook: GM Jones reflects on offseason, decision to sit rookies

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LAS VEGAS — There was a lot to cover with Phoenix Suns general manager James Jones when he spoke to the media on Sunday in Las Vegas. Too much, actually.

Due to the league’s moratorium lifting on Saturday morning, allowing the Suns to make a few trades official, Jones had not discussed any of the team’s offseason movement, including two draft-day trades, two players picked in the draft and the shedding of forward Josh Jackson’s contract last week.

“We set out in the summer to fill our power forward and point guard position,” Jones said. “We did that via the draft (and free agency). We wanted to add positional depth and balance. We did that by adding Frank (Kaminsky), adding Aron Baynes. The addition of Ricky Rubio addressed the point guard position, Dario Saric addressed our power forward position.

“And then from there, in the draft adding Cam (Johnson) and Ty (Jerome), as well as Jalen (Lecque), gave us some more guard depth and we made some moves, some transactions that kind of cleared some cap space for us to be able to make these moves happen and to kind of clear a pathway for guys to compete for an opportunity to move forward for us.”

Like I said, too much to cover.

The main talking point out of the summer league in Vegas was the Suns’ decision to sit rookies Ty Jerome and Cam Johnson. They did not practice with the team due to them not officially being on Phoenix’s roster until Saturday, when the Suns’ trade down from sixth to 11th, where they took Johnson, and a trade of the previously acquired Milwaukee Bucks first-round pick for the No. 24 pick (Jerome) and Baynes were allowed to be finalized.

This did not appear to be the Suns setting a trend, as other players and their teams in similar positions — like Atlanta’s De’Andre Hunter and Bruno Fernando along with Memphis’ Brandon Clarke — played on Sunday despite those circumstances.

Some, like Clarke, looked like they had been preparing with the team the whole time and thrived in their debuts.

Jones provided the explanation for why he sat his players, saying the choice was not a hard decision.

“Given the way the schedule fell as far as those guys not being able to be with us in Phoenix with our coaches, go through practices — for them realistically, I don’t think they’ve probably played 5-on-5 since March,” he said. “So to go three to four months without playing 5-on-5 … we had two-a-days, we had morning practices, night practices, shooting sessions.

“I just didn’t think it would be fair to them, but more importantly, to their teammates who’ve been, throughout our summer league training camp, they’ve been really getting after it and trying to put something together.”

The choice leaves only two players under contract with the Suns on the summer league roster: point guards Elie Okobo and Lecque.

Jones said that Jerome and Johnson will stay with the team throughout summer league and then participate in the Suns’ regular offseason programs.

Later on Monday, The Athletic’s Shams Charania reported Minnesota will hold No. 6 pick Jarrett Culver out of summer league, giving similar reasoning to the Suns.

For those curious if the NBA will change things going forward to avoid a similar situation next year, Jones said they’re already discussing potential changes.

WHY CAM?

There isn’t a GM across the league who would know what to look for in a shooter more than Jones.

That made it an easy question to ask him what he saw in Johnson, the North Carolina product who converted on over 45% of his 3-point attempts as a senior.

“Just consistency,” he said. “Every shot he shoots looks the same regardless of he’s on-balance, off-balance, if he’s coming off screens or if he’s running in transition.

“I see his length, the ability to shoot it easy, effortlessly at 6-foot-8 and a half,  it makes it tough for defenders to really challenge him so I think adding that dynamic to our team will stretch defenses and give Deandre (Ayton) and Devin (Booker) a lot more room and space to operate.”

Shooting was never really the question with Johnson. Draft experts agreed he was the best shooter in his class.

The question was who Johnson defends.

He plays smaller than his size and looked overmatched physically against power forwards, while two-guards look too quick for him to defend. That leaves small forward, where, again, there are concerns about how he matches up defensively and if he can cover his man.

The flipside, however, is that if Johnson can alleviate those concerns, you’ve suddenly got positional versatility in a premium shooter.

With how Jones talked about Johnson’s fit on a depth chart, you can see why the team reached on him at No. 11.

“He’s a guy that’s agile enough to play the 2, versatile enough to play the 3 and tall enough to play the 4,” he said. “I’ll see him all over the floor. I don’t think you can ever have too many shooters and he’s a guy that can fit somewhere on the floor.

“You’ll find a spot for Cam.”

TY THE POINT GUARD

Because of his shooting ability and savvy play with size, Jerome is seen as a guard who can play either spot.

But it sounds like the Suns envision Jerome running the show.

“In our estimation, he was the best playmaker, lead ball-handler in the draft,” Jones said of Jerome.

It makes sense given the way Jerome sees the floor, particularly in pick-and-roll play, where he can expand his knowledge further playing behind Ricky Rubio and find his knack for scoring playing behind Tyler Johnson.

In terms of value, the Jerome move is the one that’s going to have to pay off for Jones the most.

By trading a protected first-round pick via Milwaukee to get back in the first round and select Jerome, the Suns also acquired Baynes.

In doing so, they added over $7 million to their cap space. Those two salaries together are roughly what Josh Jackson makes, who the Suns had to attach De’Anthony Melton and two second-round picks to in order to open enough cap space for Rubio.

In addition, the Suns already had Melton and Okobo as young point guards in waiting on the roster, along with the signing of Lecque later in the draft.

When looking at it through another lens and timeline, the Suns could have simply not made either trade, been one of the many teams to give the veteran’s minimum to a backup center and used that Bucks pick to trade Jackson if they still felt so inclined. They would then have even more space to work with beyond fitting in Rubio. Instead, they are out Melton, two more second rounders and even more money after they take on the soon-to-be waived Kyle Korver’s $5.5 million as well.

But that lens and timeline do not include Jerome and it sure sounds like that’s not something the Suns were willing to let happen.

“When you think about what he could do in our environment, it was exciting, so we decided to go up and get him,” Jones said.

THE HOMIE DARIO

Of all the moves the Suns made this offseason, the least talked about acquisition is the one that has the best chance of making the biggest long-term impact.

The Suns drafted Johnson and Jerome, but if both players have positive outcomes as prospects, they are expected to contribute as role players. There’s a reasonable expectation that Rubio will be an above average point guard in Phoenix for at least two seasons.

But Saric, who the Suns received from Minnesota by trading down in the draft, is a 25-year-old power forward that could be the present and future frontcourt partner the Suns are looking for to go next to Deandre Ayton.

As Jones would say, Saric is a proven commodity in the league at the position despite having only three years of experience.

“He’s a young guy who has been a starter, who has been in a very competitive environment and has thrived, so with us, we think he can be a true veteran,” Jones said of Saric.

The Croatian was in Philadelphia for the rise of the Ben Simmons-Joel Embiid era and was seen as a crucial piece for the 76ers alongside Robert Covington.

But when the 76ers saw the chance to add another star, they pounced on it by trading Saric and Covington to Minnesota for Jimmy Butler early last season.

Saric never looked comfortable as a Timberwolves player and will reset his career in Phoenix, where new head coach Monty Williams has a brief familiarity with Saric while coaching the forward in Philadelphia while he was an assistant this past season.

“He raves about his work ethic and his basketball sense,” Jones said of discussions with Williams about Saric.

The power forward isn’t what you would call a cozy fit next to Ayton. He’s a bit slow, clunky, and isn’t a consistently shot creator while not offering much in versatility or playmaking as a defender.

But he’s a skilled player with the ball and makes play after play by welcoming physical contact and hustling to the right spots with the aforementioned basketball sense. If his respectable 35.8% from 3-point range on over four attempts per game in his career and other pluses can stick with the Suns, there’s certainly reason for Phoenix to look into extending Saric or bringing him back when he enters restricted free agency next summer.

“I think you have to see how does Deandre fit next to him,” Jones said of Saric next to the franchise center. “Dario has been really good for a long time and DA for the first time in his career will play with a bonafide starting power forward so that’ll help his growth.

“Dario will have a tremendous impact on Deandre and you’ll see a different Deandre because of Dario.”

NO OUBRE UPDATE

Negotiations continue for the Suns with restricted free agent Kelly Oubre Jr.

Because of the quick-fire dynamics of free agency, nearly every NBA team was out of the type of money an Oubre offer sheet would command by the second and third day in July.

As of Monday, the Dallas Mavericks are the only team with above $13 million in cap space, and even then, Oubre would be a tight squeeze.

That makes it seem like it’s just the Suns left for the 23-year-old wing.

Jones said there’s no further update on Oubre.

“We’ve demonstrated time and time again that he’s someone that we love and we value and we’ll continue to talk,” the GM said.

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