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Phoenix Suns’ hot start linked to defense, ball movement

Devin Booker (left) and Kelly Oubre Jr. have both impressed the Phoenix Suns coach Monty Williams with their defensive efforts. (Photo by Karrissa D. Herrera/Cronkite News)

PHOENIX – When Phoenix Suns general manager James Jones hired Monty Williams to coach the team, he signaled a transformation for a damaged franchise that had suffered losses in 69.3% of its regular-season games over the past five seasons.

Williams, 48, was groomed by a renowned staff in San Antonio before guiding the New Orleans Pelicans to playoff appearances in 2011 and 2015. He understands the fundamental intricacies of the sport and caters to the ever-changing nuances that come with it. He emphasizes unselfishness, ensuring that the ball won’t stay in one player’s hands for too long before it is passed to someone else.

For a Suns team led by athletic, young stars who haven’t recently been accustomed to winning basketball, Williams’ systematic stylings have proven critical in the pursuit of growth and competitiveness.

The Suns, who play at Golden State on Wednesday night, allowed the NBA’s second-highest field goal percentage in the 2018-19 regular season. The team was sloppy, committing the most fouls per game while forcing the ball to franchise star Devin Booker to run the offense on his own. 

Things have changed with the addition of point guard Ricky Rubio and the implementation of Williams’ system. These factors, along with an overhauled roster that blends youth and veteran talent, has influenced the team to move the ball more quickly and show an improved commitment to defense.

“We have a lot of high IQ players that know how to play the game and know basketball action,” Booker said. “So once you’re sharing the ball and seeing both sides of the floor and everybody’s touching it, it makes shots go in a lot easier.”

Through their first four games, the Suns (2-2) lead the NBA in assist percentage at 69.8% while clocking in at No. 6 in shooting percentage at 57.4%. Not only are they keeping the ball in motion, but they’re ensuring that their movement results in open looks both around the perimeter and near the basket.

Booker, a natural shooting guard, led the Suns in time of possession last season and nearly doubled the average of point guard Elie Okobo, who ranked second on the team in that category. With an unclear backcourt rotation, highlighted mainly by inexperienced point guards, Phoenix relied on their star to carry an uncommon offensive workload for a 22-year-old. 

However, Rubio and second-year point guard Jevon Carter have since alleviated some of the pressure from Booker and allowed for a more even spread in time of possession. As a result, Rubio has leaped over Booker as the team’s most ball-dominant guard. This has helped the Suns’ marquee player to improve his field goal percentage to 47.3 percent while shrinking his turnover average by 0.6.

Through just three games, Rubio is averaging a career-high 9.3 assists per contest, which ranks fourth in the NBA behind the likes of Russell Westbrook, LeBron James and Malcolm Brogdon. 

Williams’ team-based “point five system,” a style of play that keeps his players around the perimeter with ball handlers attacking the paint, emphasizes perimeter play and the drive-and-kick. This enables Rubio to find open shooters on the edge or on quick cuts to the basket.

“I think everybody is on the same page, and that helps a lot,” Rubio said. “A lot of people here are selfless, and that has to be the identity of the team. You can have a good shot, but if you pass it for a better shot, that’s how we’re going to play.”

For as impressive as the Suns have appeared offensively, they’ve also elevated their play as a defensive unit.

With a handful of feisty guards and lengthy forwards at their disposal, Phoenix has chased its opponents off the three-point line and forced them into difficult two-point shots instead. They’ve allowed the sixth-fewest three-point attempts per game thus far, while holding their opponents to a measly 31.9% shooting from beyond the arc.

A major development in this new commitment to defense has been the breakout campaign of  Kelly Oubre Jr., whose two-way impact has proven to be tremendous in the early season. His addition sparked a revival of the Suns’ lineup after the All-Star break last season, but nagging injuries ruined an end-of-season run that rallied the fanbase.

Oubre has since regained his health and picked up steam, averaging 20.5 points, 6.3 rebounds, two steals and a block in just under 31 minutes per contest. As one of the Suns’ resounding vocal leaders and the team’s fourth-highest paid player, it’s evident that Oubre is finding his rhythm while fulfilling the potential he flashed as a prospect at Kansas in 2015.

“Kelly, sometimes he’s outmatched by 10-plus pounds and he just fights and fights,” Williams said of his starting small forward. “He’s just been a versatile player for us on both ends, but defensively, when he’s locked in, in his stance and talking on the backside, it makes us a better defense.”

In addition to Oubre’s communication and versatility, Williams said that he’s emphasized discipline to the fifth-year player. Oubre is a passionate individual whose energy at times has translated to technical fouls and defensive miscues. Williams hopes to teach Oubre to harness his intensity and raw instincts in order to help him take the next step in his development.

“I just want him to be 80-20, discipline to instinct,” Williams said. “I don’t think you can take that away from guys, especially when they have that kind of ability.”

Oubre’s instincts have served him well as he’s held his opponents to just 31.7% shooting from the corners and 32.8% on above-the-break threes. The only other NBA player averaging at least 20 points, two steals and a block per game is Karl-Anthony Towns, whose monstrous start has helped the Minnesota Timberwolves get off to a 3-0 start.

Despite the 25-game suspension given to former No. 1 pick DeAndre Ayton for violating the NBA’s banned substance regulations, the Suns remain one of the league’s hottest teams to begin the 2019-20 season. After years of rebuilding, retooling and rebooting, the fruits of this team’s labor are finally beginning to show.