EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Suns’ Summer League team starts to gel, wins 2nd game in a row

Aug 14, 2021, 9:16 PM

A Summer league logo is shown on center court during a game between the Cleveland Cavaliers and the...

A Summer league logo is shown on center court during a game between the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Houston Rockets during the 2021 NBA Summer League at the Thomas & Mack Center on August 8, 2021 in Las Vegas, Nevada. The Rockets defeated the Cavaliers 84-76. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

(Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

The Phoenix Suns’ results in Summer League play through two games sure weren’t pretty, but for those who stuck around to catch the next two, you’re starting to see a team that looks familiar.

On Saturday night in Las Vegas, the Summer Suns beat the Portland Trail Blazers 79-70 to make it two wins in a row, and they’ve started moving the ball and defending as a unit in the way we saw the Western Conference champions thrive all year.

The Suns went on an 18-4 run to close the third quarter, the type of breakthrough that eventually comes playing that way.

“That’s the most fun kind of basketball,” center Kyle Alexander said postgame. “It’s unselfish, competitive basketball.”

As Alexander would also mention, some of the teams in Vegas formed a bit earlier and got to play in Utah’s Summer League, so you can see this Suns group starting to mesh after some more time together.

Again, as said in this space previously, it’s a credit to Phoenix’s scouts that they’ve been able to find their type of ballplayers who like to play unselfishly and compete. That is easier said than done in an environment where everyone is trying to impress the NBA eyes looking on.

“You’re excited for everybody else’s success,” Alexander said of playing the Suns’ style. “When you’re sharing the ball, you might get your hand on an offensive rebound, somebody else scores — just competing for each other and wanting to win at the end of the day. Everybody success, I think, when you do that.”

With the team finding a bit of mojo, players like Alexander will benefit.

The 24-year-old undersized 5 who was on a two-way during the Miami Heat’s run to the NBA Finals in 2020 had 14 points, nine rebounds, a steal and two blocks. Alexander’s got a good nose for the ball on both ends, and with the ball-handlers seeing the floor better as the Suns’ system starts to seep in, that’s where Alexander can get touches.

It was nice to see guard Michael Frazier II build off a fourth quarter in Thursday’s win that seemed to get him back in rhythm. Up to that point through 11 quarters, Frazier was starting but hardly noticeable out there. That was surprising given he earned a two-way contract from the Houston Rockets in 2019-20, and came out of Florida in 2015 as a lights-out shooter.

Frazier scored eight points in that final frame against the Denver Nuggets and has, assumingly, looked more like himself since. He had eight points in the first quarter on Saturday and finished with 14. Along with that shooting skill, Frazier’s got some real quickness to his game and he uses that well to get to the basket and also moves around like an intelligent defender.

There’s an NBA player somewhere in both Alexander and Frazier. If there’s anyone to nominate from this Summer League squad for the Suns’ other two-way contract alongside guard Ty-Shon Alexander, it’s those two.

The most known commodity, Jalen Smith, has certainly had his activity level from his two years at Maryland translate to Summer League play.

The 2020 NBA Draft’s No. 10 overall pick recorded his fourth straight double-double on Saturday with 17 points and 12 rebounds. It was another low-efficiency night for Smith, shooting 7-of-19 (36.8%), but you want to see guys be aggressive in Vegas, so don’t get too up in arms about his 65 points on 63 shot attempts through four games.

Against Portland, this was more of the up-and-down performance we saw from Smith in the first two games. The bright spots of energy and shooting were there, and so too were the handful of possessions where his inexperience showed, the type of possessions you’d hope were mostly out of a young player’s system after one NBA season.

Those are the ones that make you wary of Smith’s chances of earning a rotation spot on a contender next year. Because, if he could be more solid and avoid self-inflicted errors, the rebounding and floor spacing would ensure a positive contribution more often than not when he touches the floor. I promise I’m not trying to make you shudder when I say that’s the type of issue former Suns top-5 pick Dragan Bender ran into a few years back.

But at the end of the day, the sample of basketball we’re going off for Smith is the G League bubble and one Summer League. That’s not much to use as an indicator of if Smith is ready to be the Suns’ ninth or 10th man. And while you can use that sample to arrive at what is probably the most likely reality right now, that a lottery pick in his second year is behind in his development, you can also talk yourself into minutes on a great team around good NBA players being all Smith needs.

We’ll see next season.

The Suns will conclude Summer League play on Monday against the Cleveland Cavaliers at 3 p.m. on ESPN2. If that sounds out of place to you, then by golly, you know your Summer League hoop. The league switched the format this year, abandoning the playoff and consolation brackets that teams would play in after its initial few games. Instead, the top two teams will face off in a championship game and the other 28 will match up. That way, all teams play five games each.

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