EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Suns free-agency focus: Wings, modern power forwards of note

Jun 28, 2022, 8:55 AM | Updated: 9:13 pm
Phoenix Suns guard Cameron Payne, left, is hit in the face by Los Angeles Clippers forward Nicolas ...

Phoenix Suns guard Cameron Payne, left, is hit in the face by Los Angeles Clippers forward Nicolas Batum as he passes the ball during the first half in Game 4 of the NBA basketball Western Conference Finals Saturday, June 26, 2021, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

(AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

Within the next few weeks, we should find out what the Phoenix Suns are thinking.

Do they re-sign center Deandre Ayton to keep their core together? Will they move off any expiring deals? Can improvements be made by shuffling role players around the core group?

To get us ready for whatever changes free agency will bring, let’s look at the player pool to highlight a few targets for Phoenix while considering its current cap situation, along with who fits in functionally and in terms of team culture.

The money situation, briefly, is this: The Suns are already over the salary cap with $128.8 million in guaranteed money going to nine players under contract for next year.

If Ayton re-signs, the Suns will be a luxury tax team for the first time in more than a decade. They will have a $6.4 million tax midlevel exception to consider a rotation-level upgrade, but there is a possibility they could operate at the standard midlevel exception of $10.3 million with significant roster shuffling such as Ayton not returning.

We’ve looked at centers already. Now to peek at the wing spots, where there could be changes — if the Suns shake things up — or additions. Because you can never have enough wings.

Suns’ own free agents

(Photo by Jacob Kupferman/Getty Images)

Ish Wainright (restricted)

2021-22 stats: 2.4 PPG, 1.2 RPG, 39 FG%, 32 3FG%

Wainright will be restricted if Phoenix extends a qualifying offer of $1.8 million.

Too-good-to-be-true outside signings

Nicolas Batum (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

Nic Batum, 33 years old

2021-22 stats: 8.3 PPG, 4.3 RPG, 1.7 APG, 46 FG%, 40 3FG% in 24.8 MPG

Age has taken games from Batum a little too much over the past several years, but when healthy he’s been a 25-minute-per-night contributor. How he’s contributed has changed since he was one of the more gifted role players in the early days with the Portland Trail Blazers.

Batum has become a high-volume three-point specialist who knocked them down 40% each of the past two years for the Clippers. He’s also low-key one of the most switchable power forwards thanks to his length and smarts.

Thaddeus Young, 34 years old

2021-22 stats: 6.2 PPG, 4.0 RPG, 2.0 APG, 52 FG%, 35 3FG% in 16.3 MPG

Young’s per-game statistics for the full season were pretty similar splitting his year with San Antonio and Toronto last season, though his shooting percentages went from 58% to 47% between those two teams.

The veteran was a trade target linked to Phoenix over the past year or so because of his ability to move the ball and create some off the dribble. There’s nuance to his game that would add something alongside Jae Crowder and Cam Johnson, presuming the Suns don’t need to replace those guys with Crowder’s deal expiring and Johnson an enticing trade chip.

It’s just a matter of whether he’s got enough pop left to play more than 20 minutes per night.

Realistic options in the Suns’ wheelhouse

Danuel House Jr. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)

Danuel House Jr., 29 years old

2021-22 stats: 6.8 PPG, 2.7 RPG, 1.0 APG, 45 FG%, 42 3FG% in 19.6 MPG (25 games with Jazz)

House played 23 whole games with Phoenix in 2017-18 and would be familiar to Devin Booker as a teammate. He latched on as a legitimate rotation player the next year with the Houston Rockets while playing alongside James Harden and point guard Chris Paul, who is another current Sun who has familiarity with the 3-and-D wing. That 2018-19 season say House hit 42% from three-point land, a career-high he nearly matched in 25 games last season with the Utah Jazz.

Damion Lee, 29 years old

2021-22 stats: 7.4 PPG, 3.2 RPG, 1.0 APG, 44 FG%, 34 3FG%

Developed on a championship team, Lee has more off-the-bounce juice than most everyone on this list. He’s not the greatest athlete but can attack closeouts with the dribble to make basic kickout passes or get all the way to the rim. Even if he’s a streaky shooter, his energy would be valuable if injuries hit and welcome in the Suns’ lab.

Nemanja Bjelica, 34 years old

2021-22 stats: 6.1 PPG, 4.1 RPG, 2.2 APG, 47 FG% in 16.1 MPG

I would have included him in the center portion of this exercise if I considered where he played last year for the Golden State Warriors, but he would need a little more big man stuff to his game for me to consider him an actual center. He rebounds and passes and shoots at a pretty decent clip. Bjelica isn’t a guy you want to rely on but would be a nice end-of-bench piece at power forward — or I guess center.

Defensively there are questions, but Bjelica is a smart, team-oriented shooter who would at least make sense on the other end of the floor.

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Suns free-agency focus: Wings, modern power forwards of note