What should Phoenix Suns do now, later about depth at guard?
The Phoenix Suns outscore teams by 3.8 points per 100 possessions when Ricky Rubio is on the floor. For Devin Booker, it’s 1.2, the first time in his career that his season net rating has been positive.
When they are on the court together, the number jumps all the way to 7.3. That means the Suns should be a pretty decent team or they have a serious depth problem. They have a serious depth problem.
Those numbers back up what your eyes have been telling you watching this team all year that guard play behind the starters is the team’s number one issue. If there was any semblance of stability when one of them left the court, it’s not foolish to suggest the Suns would have a handful of more wins this year.
How should they go about fixing this? Let’s sort through the group they have right now first to determine who they should prioritize.
The main reason this has been problematic is because general manager James Jones and head coach Monty Williams expected Tyler Johnson to be the guy who could play effectively with either Rubio or Booker. All the way back in June of 2019, Williams said Johnson was one of the Suns’ most important players.
He was absolutely right, but just not in the way he would have hoped.
With Johnson’s poor play eventually leading to his departure, Jevon Carter is the backup guard who has logged the most minutes.
Carter arrived from Memphis in the Josh Jackson trade with a well-earned defensive pedigree that showed often.
And when Carter was making those plays and hitting threes, he changed a few games for the Suns.
Carter is shooting 39.3% from three-point range this season on 117 attempts, a huge development for him sticking in the NBA. Roughly 57% of his shots are from there.
The theme of this group, however, is some crippling flaws that keep them from being a below-average NBA backup point guard.
Carter isn’t capable of running an offense. He’s averaging 3.1 assists per 36 minutes this season, and that’s even with a lot of time serving as the primary ball-handler, playing 348 minutes with Booker, who Williams doesn’t want to deploy as “Point Book” yet.
Even with Williams moving Carter off the ball more later in the season, that still brought on too many of these types of possessions where Carter killed them.
He would either spend too much time with the ball and bail by passing to someone else as the shot clock wound down, or he’d dribble into oblivion until he pulled up for a jumper.
Carter pulls this possession back out, resets it via a pick-and-pop with Frank Kaminsky and then misses the easy pass to Kaminsky to take one of those jumpers.
There was no way for the offense to get in any type of flow when Carter was in an on-ball role. To be fair, he is shooting 40% from the mid-range area, so he was hitting enough of the shots at least.
Secondly, and it sucks to say this because of how hard Carter works to overcome it, but he has a capped ceiling as a defender because of his size.
Again, it was repetitive seeing a larger guard score over and/or through him in his primary role as a defensive specialist.
But we can legitimately call Carter a defensive specialist because it’s a label he’s earned and deserves.
That’s where Elie Okobo has flamed out near the end of his second season, failing to distinguish himself in any way.
Okobo’s promise out of the 2018 NBA Draft that earned a mid-first round grade from some was as a scoring combo guard as he grew into being a point guard. Okobo mentioned often it was a position he was new to and had to learn, and was part of why he probably wound up being selected in the early second round at No. 32 overall, one spot before Carter.
With that, there have been clear confidence issues for him to work through and unleash that microwave scorer he can be.
He started off the year great, playing with the bravado that’s been missing and looking like he was having a breakthrough. Okobo was recognizing driving lanes, attacking them and capitalizing off them.
Then, it sort of just fizzled. Ty Jerome immediately got the backup point guard minutes ahead of Okobo less than a week after the Frenchman’s strong form was showing. That can obviously affect someone’s confidence.
Why did Williams pull the plug then? We will get to Jerome specifically in a minute here, but Okobo by far led the Suns in hair-pulling brainfarts that caused Williams to immediately sub him out of the game.
Mikal Bridges tags Markelle Fultz here so Okobo can get back but Okobo takes it for a switch and then Fultz is gonzo.
A few possessions later:
Okobo has the most skill of this group as a ball-handler and there’s no doubt a fully-realized version of him at this age is a capable rotation guard in the NBA. That’s why Williams has continued to give him minutes, even with the headaches.
As for Jerome, our story from Wednesday covers the road to how he got here, so I’ll be brief.
He got hurt right before the season started, got the spot over Okobo when he came back but then NBA athleticism smacked him in the face time and time again.
In limited minutes that mostly came from when the Suns were getting smoked or vice versa, Jerome’s potential as a high-IQ floor general with touch in the mid-range areas flashed.
So too did the reasons why he was a borderline first-round pick, that being his lack of burst and explosiveness to create enough room for himself to operate and defend at a high level.
Outside of Jerome getting thrust into the rotation immediately upon his return, there hasn’t been a clear preference shown by the Suns on either three. Williams has often shifted between them, so there’s no conclusion to draw from their play either, except that not one of them was good enough to take the job despite it being right there for the taking.
Carter is at the end of a two-year deal and Okobo’s is nonguaranteed the next two seasons while Jerome’s one year into a deal that has team options on years three and four, like all first-round picks.
Jerome’s status as a first-round pick and his contract being guaranteed next year leads you to believe they’d lean his direction. And his place as the developmental point guard, with Jalen Lecque too, doesn’t leave any room for Okobo.
Carter makes sense as an end-of-the-bench body given how he’s shot the ball, but as the team’s long-term backup point guard he doesn’t factor all that much into the discussion.
So for Orlando, Jerome is the most logical guy to play behind Rubio.
But is he for next season? It’s difficult to imagine Jerome giving the front office that much confidence to not address this spot as a priority given what we just went over.
The play of this trio was the reason the Suns went after Detroit Pistons combo guard Luke Kennard at the trade deadline, a deal that ultimately never came together.
The trade market, maybe even through revisiting Kennard talks, is always going to be there.
Free agency usually sees a few veteran guards go for a cheap price, and this class has a few candidates, such as Jeff Teague, D.J. Augustin or Langston Galloway.
The 2020 NBA Draft class is guard-heavy, and the Suns will almost surely have at least one of Tyrese Haliburton, Killian Hayes, Kira Lewis Jr. or Cole Anthony available when they pick if they want to go to the development route (again).
It isn’t often that a general manager is presented with a move that is an easy, clear-cut upgrade to the team no matter which of a dozen-plus names they pick from, but this is one of those opportunities.
Even in a world as bleak as the Suns’ the past few years, just about any young or old guard with a decent track record is going to make this team better next year by default, ala the Rubio signing.
The catch, though, is going to be getting the right one.
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