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Empire of the Suns’ big picture reset for new season, faces

(AP photos)

Opening night for the Phoenix Suns is less than a week away. Before Wednesday, Empire of the Suns gets everything ramped up for the start of the season. First, Kellan Olson and Kevin Zimmerman discuss the big picture.

Kellan Olson: Kevin! Phoenix Suns basketball is nearly back, and guess what, there are a lot of new faces! This is my surprised face!

With that comes change, so what’s the one thing you are hoping to see that’s different this year with all the newness?

Kevin Zimmerman: Smart, complementary basketball. It’s the only way a team that degraded itself in terms of athleticism compared to the Ryan McDonough era can remain competitive in the NBA. The good news is that GM James Jones has a roster of 15 players who more often than not can play smart basketball.

That means making the extra pass. Not over-dribbling. Knowing where to be. Knowing your own limits as a basketball player. Not ball-watching when matched up against the best shooter on the floor.

Suns basketball made you want to pull your hair out because of dumb basketball over the last few years. The effort levels made you want to turn off the TV.

Olson: While it has been a gimmick we’ve seen here in the past, it seems like that’s where we are moving with point-five. If Monty Williams keeps everyone moving on offense and trying on defense, this team will at least threaten for 30 wins, no matter what direction individual performance skews for certain key names.

That’s because they have the right personnel in place for that and a point guard, and the point guard is a good one. While it includes a handful of fringe guys who frolic in the 33-36% range, they have shooting. Kevin, my god, I count five guys who are actually good defenders!

Because of this, for the first time in a while, I think we are allowed to logically form expectations that this will be a competent basketball team. If anything this season even remotely resembles the past year or two, they should and will absolutely get slammed for it.

Zimmerman: And that’s where I get worried. It’s fun to say point-five, but also … Igor Kokoskov’s system would fall into that bucket, too!

The preseason doesn’t mean much, but it certainly didn’t answer questions. Would Deandre Ayton cut out the lazy recoveries and that awful outing every four to five games? How does Devin Booker play in concert with Rubio?

Is this team really full of shooters? Mikal Bridges, Kelly Oubre Jr., Dario Saric, Ty Jerome and Frank Kaminsky need to swing that to “yes,” but right now Cam Johnson looks like the only real truly elite guy.

I disagree about finding five good defenders. Rubio, Bridges and Jevon Carter (who might not play) qualify. Maybe Oubre on the ball, maybe Aron Baynes with an asterisk. The lack of athletes matters on defense if the best one, Deandre Ayton, isn’t protecting the rim.

Having smart basketball players, though, will keep this team from bottom out below 25 wins, but I’m still finding it hard to peg them surprising with 35-plus victories unless all the above questions I have are answered.

Olson: Somewhere in the middle seems fair, yeah.

Looking at the roster itself for what it is, there’s also only a few proven commodities you can trust.

Booker, Rubio and Baynes have all played at their respective levels enough years in a row to earn a trusted reputation. Oubre is coming off a career year. Bridges and Ayton were just rookies. Cam Johnson and Ty Jerome are rookies. Frank Kaminsky couldn’t crack the rotation in Charlotte. Tyler Johnson wasn’t doing so well in Miami before he got moved and ditto for Dario Saric with the Timberwolves.

There are arguments to be made. Like even if Oubre regresses, he’s still useful, and both Bridges and Ayton provide desirable traits if they stagnate in year two, but it’s still worrisome.

Ayton, in particular, is the guy that swings their season. There is an undeniable correlation in his desire to show perimeter skills and believing he’s a born and raised power forward to what we see on the floor, a guy that disappears from games and posts empty stats far more than he ever should, even at his age. It’s impossible to watch him over a handful of games and at least not ask yourself for a split-second if he’s got the right mentality to dominate.

As a No. 1 pick in a loaded draft, he needs to and should be a much better player in his second year. And it’s not difficult to see how he does that. All it comes down to is being a better interior presence, especially defensively, getting to the foul line more and continuing to expand his post game. The flash and allure of shooting threes to space the floor and wanting to be a ball-handler is all crap for later in his career.

If Ayton meets the high standards of being a net positive in 7-to-9 games out of 10, this team cruises to 30 wins, at least. But if it’s only a slightly better version of what we got last year, they will be stuck in the 20s. No. 1 can only do so much for this squad.

Zimmerman: Yep. That’s why James Jones’ first year as the permanent GM remains so daunting despite his work churning the roster this summer. The Suns, no matter what happened around Booker and Ayton, are still banking on that duo progressing. I think we all know where Booker stands as an NBA talent, even if taking that next leap is difficult.

Ayton, however, is the more malleable yet uncertain piece to this equation.

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