Even without Dario Saric, Phoenix Suns have deep, versatile group of bigs
PHOENIX — When Monty Williams was asked a question after Monday’s practice, he took a second to pause before answering “yes,” but then he rolled through his mental rolodex of past rosters to be sure. Then he confirmed his answer a few more times.
The question was about whether this is the deepest group of big men he’s had as a coach before, a crazy proposition to make when considering that the team’s primary backup 5 last year, Dario Saric, is out for the foreseeable future due to a torn ACL.
Much has been made about how free agent signing JaVale McGee gives the Suns a fluid transition stylistically at center from starter Deandre Ayton. It’s also the interior presence they were missing off the bench, giving them 48 minutes of that play, if needed.
All of that is true and a big deal, but a vital part of last year’s rotation was the zag that Saric, as a stretch playmaking 5, provided off the bench after the Suns would zig with Ayton.
With that said, Phoenix still has that versatility from two guys: the returning Frank Kaminsky and second-year big Jalen Smith.
To start on Kaminsky, Williams said in his postgame press conference after losing in the Finals is that he wished he had played Kaminsky more after Saric went down. Williams and point guard Chris Paul, two of the brightest basketball minds you’ll come across, are both high on what Kaminsky brings to the team.
“Man, Frank is such a huge piece of this team,” Paul said Monday. “He’s one of the guys in one of those positions on the team that a lot of times outside people won’t recognize, but everyone on our locker room and on our staff knows how important he is to our team.
“Just being a pro, day in and day out, being a great teammate, working hard, staying in tune to the game, telling us what he sees — one of my favorite teammates I’ve definitely ever had.”
To go back to where we started with Williams’ answer, he said “to have Frank in that position makes it that way.”
Earlier in training camp, Williams said he was surprised the Suns were able to bring Kaminsky back.
The 28-year-old gets a hot and cold reception from the fanbase, as he has his limitations as a defender and finisher on the interior. But beyond all the intangibles Paul mentioned, guys like Kaminsky offensively are not all that common across the league.
“Frank is a guy that can hit shots, understands the game really well and is a ball-mover,” wing Cam Johnson said on Saturday. “So anytime I’m playing with Frank, it’s a good day.”
Paul described Kaminsky as a 7-foot point guard and an amazing quarterback. Now, you might be thinking, “What? Like running the offense? Handling the ball? I’m lost.”
Allow me to guide you.
When Kaminsky was told that very cool thing to be said about you from the Point God, he caught on to what Paul meant.
“When you watch Chris play, some things you just got to be able to pick up on, it’s like eye contact,” he said Monday. “I’m kind of the same way in that sense, where I can kind of see things happening before they happen. You can come down two, three times in a row, see something that’s happening and then the next time it’s an eye contact thing, like, ‘Go backdoor and I’m gonna hit you.'”
This looks like a version of that in New Orleans last year. It appears that someone realized Kaminsky could get a wide-open look in the weak-side corner of a Suns set, and the next time down, Paul ran the same exact play except Kaminsky was now already stationed there.
This next Kaminsky sequence from Chicago rules. He gets in Paul’s space on a semi-transition runout, only to pump the brakes in order to take advantage of Paul’s gravity. He misses but stays alert and cuts with no one looking.
That little dribble out by Paul after he catches the offensive rebound and fakes a shot is the setup. Very cool stuff.
“Frank is one of those guys who just makes the right play nine times out of 10,” Williams said Monday.
Kaminsky with a smile said he’s accepted that the 5 is his primary role in the NBA and that the 4 is “in the rearview mirror.” That clarity now has him getting more comfortable at that position and he spent the tail-end of last season and this offseason working on his defense in those spaces.
To those points, with Saric missing, this is something that Paul would do with Saric all the time. They had a similar great feel for making smart reads off each other.
Look at Dario’s eyes here before you see the ever-rare 5-1 ball-screen situation with Paul setting the screen:
CP3 loooooves playing with Dario. Just a quick little playcall and Dario’s got him covered pic.twitter.com/hPkAzf4KNH
— Kellan Olson (@KellanOlson) February 25, 2021
It’s a unique luxury having another guy capable enough to fill that role if Williams is entering the second quarter when Paul checks back into the game to dismantle second units, looking to run a pick-and-pop two-man game because of what the other defense is running.
“That’s one thing I valued with Dario, is that when we were playing against teams that were in a drop with their bigs, Dario was a way to bring that big away from the basket,” Williams said Saturday. “And that not only helped with his three-point shooting but it helped you on the boards because you were typically bringing the best rebounder away from the basket because they had to pop with Dario.
“Or it created lanes to get to the basket for Book, Chris and all of the guys to attack. Frank can do that.”
Then there’s Smith, who could be a convenient extra weapon that gives the Suns a hybrid of both roles. Smith is a great rebounder and shot-blocker but also has a good-looking shot from 3. Plus, as Williams pointed out, he’s an athlete that can run quickly up and down the floor as we saw on Sunday night in Los Angeles.
Jalen Smith runs the floor, gets rewarded and finishes ahead of the defender pic.twitter.com/Hp0jroAEGa
— Matt Petersen (@TheMattPetersen) October 11, 2021
In his second season after being selected 10th overall in the 2020 NBA Draft, Smith has put on almost 15 pounds since his rookie year, adding muscle so he can play more physically inside. Again, this is something he showcased against the Lakers in the preseason.
Bench likes physical Stix pic.twitter.com/O9HjOfCqmh
— Kellan Olson (@KellanOlson) October 11, 2021
Williams said they saw that on film from Smith at Maryland, that he didn’t shy away from contact and would shoot right back up if it knocked him down.
“When he makes plays like that where he not only owns his space but gains real estate and goes up and finishes like that, it’s a sign that he’s working his tail off, he’s in that weight room and he’s getting more comfortable,” Williams said Monday. “I think last year it would have been a fast panic shot. He was under control, went up and finished with force.”
The odds are that Ayton and McGee get just about all the minutes out of the foursome, but the Suns will be armed with options, and options that do various things on the court. For a rapidly changing position that is utilized differently across the league, that’s a crucial element for the team to still have.