Suns’ dip into unknown starts with Williams, players in COVID-19 protocols

Dec 27, 2021, 6:42 PM | Updated: 7:57 pm

The Phoenix Suns stand during the national anthem ahead of the game against the Los Angeles Lakers ...

The Phoenix Suns stand during the national anthem ahead of the game against the Los Angeles Lakers at Staples Center on December 21, 2021 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Meg Oliphant/Getty Images )

(Photo by Meg Oliphant/Getty Images )

PHOENIX — It felt inevitable, and on Sunday, COVID-19 finally struck the Phoenix Suns this regular season.

Forward Jae Crowder and point guard Elfrid Payton were placed under health and safety protocols, joined by head coach Monty Williams and Deandre Ayton on Monday prior to a matchup at home with the Memphis Grizzlies.

The unpredictability that faces this situation was already made evident prior to the game when Payton was cleared a little over 24 after being ruled out. Timetables on players being out, as well as the possibility of more players and coaches missing time, make it a difficult situation to traverse that most teams have already been facing.

Assistant head coach Kevin Young, who will serve as acting head coach in place of Williams, said this was a day he was already mentally preparing for given that fact.

The omicron variant of COVID-19 that initial studies show is more contagious but less prone to hospitalizations has run rampant on professional sports in December. The NBA has had 192 players enter the protocols this month, with 169 of them coming in just the last two weeks. Those numbers are as of Monday afternoon and will surely rise in the last few days until the new year, especially with the league increasing testing on Sunday.

With the Suns’ and Oklahoma City Thunder’s additions on Monday, the Utah Jazz are now the only team in the league that has not yet been affected by the protocols in December.

Instead of a full pause to the season like the NHL conducted last week, the NBA is trudging forward, invoking tweaks to the hardship exemption so teams can continue with enough players even if a roster is decimated by an outbreak.

 The Athletic’s Shams Charania reported that if a team has two positive tests, it is required to sign one player to a 10-day deal on the hardship exemption. Three positive tests and it’s two players, and for four or more positive tests, three players must be signed.

The Suns on Monday made the signing of forward Emanuel Terry on that exemption official. It’s even more required for Phoenix because of long-term injuries keeping Abdel Nader (right knee injury management), Frank Kaminsky (right knee stress reaction) and Dario Saric (right ACL tear) out. Two-way wing Ish Wainright (low back soreness) is also not going to play against Memphis on Monday.

The majority of outbreaks for teams in the past two weeks have been more widespread, with the Brooklyn Nets’ and Chicago Bulls’ forcing postponements in mid-December before the league’s rule change to expanding rosters. Looking at the 14 teams playing on Monday, six of them had at least six players out due to health and safety protocols.

Those trends over this month suggest more players on the Suns could be affected.

Recent developments, though, are allowing players and coaches to get back sooner as well. ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported Monday those in protocols that are asymptomatic and have the proper testing results can clear quarantine in six days, as opposed to the previous time period of 10 days. If two negative tests come in that are separated by at least 24 hours, that can clear a player as well.

Young himself missed a few games this month because of the protocols and is now the man in charge.

“We had a slogan going back to last year of just navigating uncertainty and here we are,” Young said.

The 40-year-old Young, who spent six years as a head coach in the G League before joining the Philadelphia 76ers as an assistant in 2017 and then Williams’ staff last season, admitted he hasn’t had much time to do that navigating and is just focusing on the task at hand.

As you’d expect, Williams has been great with helping Young out while also letting him do his own thing.

“I was kind of blown away to be honest with you at how much he was kind of handing me the keys, so to speak,” Young said. “Which was a huge confidence booster for me, just to know that a coach of his stature trusts me to be able to lead the group. And at the same time, being there for me and for our staff, joining us on the call this morning and so forth.”

Young does get a benefit that few others in his position would get: having Chris Paul alongside him through his first game as an NBA head coach.

“For a situation that I’m personally getting put in, to have a guy like Chris being able to be right there with me, that’s big obviously,” Young said. “I don’t know if there’s another guy in the league that you would want if you’re a guy like me to have like Chris.”

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