EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Monty Williams will take where Suns are at in unique training camp

Dec 10, 2020, 4:19 PM
Phoenix Suns head coach Monty Williams talks with Phoenix Suns center Deandre Ayton (22), guard Jev...

Phoenix Suns head coach Monty Williams talks with Phoenix Suns center Deandre Ayton (22), guard Jevon Carter (4) and forward Cameron Johnson (23) during the second half of an NBA basketball game Sunday, Aug. 2, 2020, in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. (AP Photo/Ashley Landis, Pool)

(AP Photo/Ashley Landis, Pool)

It took rookie Jalen Smith saying it after the Phoenix Suns’ first practice for it to click.

“That’s probably the first time I’ve played against so many people in months,” he said Saturday.

Ah, of course. While a lot of focus on the 2020-21 NBA season is a short turnaround from the bubble and a compact 72-game schedule, there’s no real way for these players to come into training camp as fresh as they normally do. That’s because they’ve been staying safe during the COVID-19 pandemic and keeping workouts very limited, not getting much, if any, 5-on-5 run in over the past few weeks.

Head coach Monty Williams said by now players will have been running pickup games for 4-6 weeks to stay loose before camp, so he painted the picture of why it’s difficult to even properly assess where they’re at roughly five full practices in.

You can tell Williams would like to get much more out of this time right now, but they have to once again adapt to a unique situation.

“I can’t say I’m overly excited about where we are but I’m not upset about it,” he said.

“It’s just a lot to deal with,” he added. “This kind of setup is different than anything we’ve ever dealt with. I think coaches around the league are probably dealing with the same set of circumstances … The timing that has to happen. And you gotta get that timing back. (And) when that takes place [is] gonna be different for different guys.”

Williams has always been excellent with this particular aspect of coaching. As he would say at the start of the 2019-20 season, he’s always going to read and react to how his players were taking in the ramp-up before the start of the season. He won’t strictly rely on a specific timeline that has proven successful in the past and is not afraid to adjust, an invaluable quality for a coach to have in the league’s second go of a mid-pandemic season.

Another, let’s say, distinctive year for the NBA brings unknowns. For example, when Williams was asked how many minutes third-year center Deandre Ayton was going to play, he said he genuinely didn’t know. The coach assumes playing back-to-backs in the same city will help, but it’s a condensed run of games with lots of three games in four nights-type of stretches. They’ve never played this type of schedule, so how are they supposed to know?

“We are where we are,” Williams said. “I’m not really grading it, because I don’t think you can. I don’t think it’s fair to the guys in the situation we’re in.”

In Thursday’s practice, the Suns’ gradual escalation for scrimmaging got up to a quarter-and-a-half. Williams saw his guys still fresh after that, so, once again, he’ll take it.

“I think they’re in decent shape,” he said. “I don’t think they’re in great shape but I don’t know if any team is going to be in great shape right now.”

LOOSE BALLS

— The Suns announced Thursday there will be no fans at Phoenix Suns Arena due to the spread of COVID-19. Case numbers have hit record highs in the state, with post-Thanksgiving tests done on Nov. 30, Dec. 1 and Dec. 2 reaching over 7,000 per day, according to the Arizona Department of Health and Services.

The previous high before November was 5,452 on June 29, and the daily number had held below 2,000 from July 22 to Nov. 2. A second wave of the virus has hit the state hard since, like the majority of the country.

Phoenix’s first home game at the renovated arena is on Wednesday in preseason play against the Los Angeles Lakers. From there, it’s that same matchup on that Friday before the season opener on Dec. 23, when Phoenix will host the Dallas Mavericks. The announcement came after the team’s media availability, so responses from the players and Williams will be coming Friday.

— When Williams was discussing Ayton’s minutes, he brought up Dario Saric and said he will play some center, as Saric did rather successfully in the bubble. Saric’s presence will obviously block some opportunities for Smith, who, like Saric, figures to slot in at the 4 and the 5.

The question of if the first-round pick Smith cracks the rotation is one of the most intriguing to monitor in the preseason.

Here’s what Ayton said of Smith:

“Jalen can shoot, man. For a tall dude like himself, you can tell that’s a legit stretch 4. Guy has a great personality as well. Cool kid, very mature for his age.”

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