EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Suns sprinting out of gates at camp thanks to continuity for players, coaches

Sep 29, 2022, 11:44 AM
Chris Paul #3, Cameron Johnson #23 an Mikal Bridges #25 of the Phoenix Suns react during Game Four ...
Chris Paul #3, Cameron Johnson #23 an Mikal Bridges #25 of the Phoenix Suns react during Game Four of the Western Conference First Round NBA Playoffs against the New Orleans Pelicans at the Smoothie King Center on April 24, 2022 in New Orleans, Louisiana. (Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images)
(Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images)

PHOENIX — Much has been made about the lack of change to the Phoenix Suns’ roster from this year to last.

While it’s a reason to be critical about the offseason the Suns had, it doesn’t mean we should ignore the benefits of “running it back.”

The most obvious one is continuity.

Six of Phoenix’s projected top seven players in the rotation — Chris Paul, Devin Booker, Mikal Bridges, Cam Johnson, Deandre Ayton, Cam Payne and Dario Saric — have been with the franchise since the end of Monty Williams’ first season in 2019-20, or longer. The only one who hasn’t is Chris Paul, who understands the game better than just about anyone.

This has allowed the Suns to come sprinting out of the gates in training camp.

“I think if you talk to our guys, we’re so far ahead of where we were even last year, both offensively and defensively,” Williams said Wednesday. “We’ve been able to input a lot of stuff that we already had in, we’ve been able to push it a bit because guys are familiar.

“We play more in this camp than any camp I’ve ever been involved in. We play five-on-five Day 1. We got after it. Today we scrimmaged probably three quarters. … From that standpoint, it’s been good for us. I think guys are going to be in much better shape going into the season because we played a lot.”

You can guess who is a fan of this.

“I told him that’s how I would start training camp if I was the coach,” Booker said Wednesday. “Five-on-five, let’s get after it.”

Williams took us through an example of where that extra jump in continuity mattered.

“Today, it was pretty cool. Book came up to me today because we have been fiddling with something we weren’t quite sure on, and just his input on a certain formation from a side out of bounds perspective,” Williams said. “First, second year, he was still learning all the silliness that I was throwing at him. And now he knows what to look for, we’ve been in so many situations together. And he was like, ‘Coach, why don’t we run it this way because of this, this and this?’ And I was like, ‘Run with it.’ I didn’t even question it. I was like, ‘Go ahead.’

“That’s the stuff you value. When a guy tells you what he’s thinking and it’s for the team. You’re talking about a high-level, elite player like Book. That’s the continuity that we probably missed even last year.”

Williams joked that it’s at the point where the players are running the practice because of the tier of familiarity they’ve reached.

Now, that’s the players. Oftentimes, we forget about the coaches. Big names on Williams’ staff the last two years like Darko Rajakovic, an assistant with the Memphis Grizzlies, and Willie Green, the head coach of the upstart New Orleans Pelicans, have left. And while Williams will be the first person to tell you how proud he is of those coaches and how happy he is for them, it had to have become tedious to keep replacing them.

Williams’ lead assistant, associate head coach Kevin Young, was up for the Utah Jazz head coach opening this summer. Young didn’t get it, which Williams felt bad about before saying, “I hate to say it but I was relieved.”

Williams’ staff from last year is back. Assistant coach Randy Ayers has moved into a role where he won’t be on the bench anymore but he’s still around.

And added to the staff is assistant coach Patrick Mutombo, who has received a ton of praise for his work done with the Toronto Raptors.

Williams called Mutombo “a steal” and said Mutombo’s ability to teach and relate has already stood out.

Along with that continuity for the coaches, Williams described how the extended offseason helped them. He was able to go through a process of evaluating what the Suns did, exploring new ways to get things done, troubleshooting that and using the extra time to process all of it while drawing different conclusions.

“I think it’s two-fold, man,” Williams said of having four months of an offseason. “You wanted the long offseason because we haven’t had that here. At the same time, it sucks, because you had a long offseason because you got knocked out earlier than you thought. You can cry about it, you can whine or you can use it to be productive.”

As Williams said, the Suns haven’t had this in a while.

When looking at a day counter, it was only 75 days Phoenix had between its exit in the 2021 NBA Finals and the first preseason game the following season. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic requiring the league to condense some parts of the schedule to get back to this year’s regular calendar, it put the teams making deep postseason runs in a challenging spot.

And no one more than Booker, who immediately went from Milwaukee to Tokyo for the Olympics. The number of days off shrunk to 57 when beginning from the day Booker was awarded his gold medal.

It’s safe to say he needed the four-plus months, and it sounded like a mental break was just as important, if not more.

“I do,” Booker said when asked if he feels better compared to last training camp. “Had a chance to get away a little bit and miss it, I think that’s always good. Obviously still staying sharp, staying in the weight room and getting on the court but just getting away just a little bit. That was a long two-and-a-half years, from bubble to the next season to Olympics to the previous season — I’m ready to go now.”

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