EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Jock Landale, Duane Washington Jr. show out in Suns’ preseason finale

Oct 12, 2022, 11:09 PM | Updated: Oct 13, 2022, 7:49 am
Duane Washington Jr. #4 of the Phoenix Suns handles the ball against Davion Mitchell #15 of the Sac...
Duane Washington Jr. #4 of the Phoenix Suns handles the ball against Davion Mitchell #15 of the Sacramento Kings during the first half of the preseason NBA game at Footprint Center on October 12, 2022 in Phoenix, Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
(Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

PHOENIX — A shorthanded Phoenix Suns team for the preseason finale against the Sacramento Kings, a 105-104 loss on Wednesday, allowed the back-half of the roster to get some shine.

Head coach Monty Williams elected to rest his four healthy starters. Chris Paul, Devin Booker, Mikal Bridges and Deandre Ayton joinedΒ Landry Shamet (left hip strain), Cam Payne (right finger sprain), Cam Johnson (right thumb sprain) and Dario Saric (personal reasons) as out for the game. With Phoenix’s current roster of 19 also without Jae Crowder (not with team), the Suns were down to 10 guys.

Those 10 guys played really well considering the Kings only had two key players out. Phoenix actually led by three at halftime before a 29-19 third quarter for Sacramento opened the game up. The Kings’ whole rotation of 10 players to that point sat in the fourth quarter, giving the Suns’ group a chance to get a win in a game that came down to the last possession.

The two standouts were center Jock Landale and point guard Duane Washington Jr., a pair that has been impressive throughout the preseason and are two names we wouldn’t have necessarily highlighted two weeks ago.

Landale ended up with 17 points, eight rebounds, three assists, three steals and four blocks in 32 minutes while Washington scored a game-high 31 points on 10-of-19 shooting to go along with two rebounds, four assists, three steals and 11 turnovers in a game-high 39 minutes.

Landale has surprisingly appeared to win the backup center spot, a place many (including myself) would have projected him behind Saric and Bismack Biyombo. He’s a glass eater for rebounds, is always moving and is more skilled and mobile than you’d think.

Landale said after shootaround on Wednesday he prioritized his offseason program about increasing his mobility and you can see the benefits already. The extra bit of quickness has helped him everywhere.

It’s letting him get in the right spot sooner offensively, where Landale’s shown a good feel for hook shot finishes within 10 feet of the basket. The whole “right spot sooner” thing, though, is really going to aid him more on defense.

Landale is a high IQ player and he’s in better positions now to make plays on the ball.

“It’s something that I’m not sure where he learned that or it’s just him but he’s made plays like that in practice, he’s made them in preseason games where he gets his hand on a ball,” Williams said, noting how the coaches are excited by how Landale defends pick-and-roll.

In 589 minutes last year in his first NBA season, Landale recorded 10 steals and 14 blocks. Across 89 minutes this preseason, he finished with five steals and six blocks.

Landale jokingly said he doesn’t know what’s going on with such a rise in those numbers before stating how the Suns’ defensive coverage really suits him and he understands it better. The Aussie had lots of conversations with fellow countrymen and 2015 Second Team All-Defense center Andrew Bogut on defense.

Landale, who played in Australia two seasons ago, credits some of it as well to adjusting better to the NBA compared to FIBA, where he was discussed as a potential Defensive Player of the Year.

“Last year, I felt a little bit out of my depth defensively,” he said of his rookie NBA season. “Just kind of that extra spacing, understanding it was a lot of 2-on-2 basketball defensively.”

He’s going to put together a lot of multiple efforts across more than one possession like this going forward.

Washington is, in pure terms, a hooper. The 22-year-old rarely looks uncomfortable or too sped up on the ball, a crucial trait for him to possess due to his lack of high-end burst. Washington is a tough shot-maker off that and wants to score through contact in the paint.

His passing, even with the turnovers, has been the most pleasing development.

Something to know about Washington is that this is his first time playing point guard in the NBA. The full weight of the offense and being handed the car keys can be a lot to take on. Williams pointed out how a lot of those turnovers came deep into Washington’s long shifts.

“It’s not an excuse but I thought he was just spent,” Williams said. “There were a few turnovers where he just had nothing in the tank. When a guy hasn’t played a ton and then you get him to 39 minutes, that’s a lot. So I would give him a little bit of grace with the turnovers.”

Washington, who said he was very frustrated by the 11 turnovers, clearly 1) can read the floor off basic ball screen actions and dribble drives while 2) throwing the right pass when he sees the opening. That was not evident in his rookie season because, well, he wasn’t playing point guard!

Having him at full go consistently attacking defenses is obviously going to produce a mixed bag with his experience level but the arsenal for an occasional on-ball role is present and is how he would be utilized. The Suns’ bench lacks offensive pop, something Washington can provide in bunches with his mentality as a scorer.

“He doesn’t have any fear at all,” Williams said of Washington. “Sometimes it helps and sometimes it gets him in trouble. But I thought the ability to make tough shots, attack the paint — I thought he made some good pocket passes early that helped us.”

Defensively, there’s a handful of tricks of the trade Washington has to get down that all young players do. The good news is he is attentive and willing on that end, with some decent on-ball chops already thanks in part to some long arms for his size.

Washington attempted slightly more 3s than 2s as a rookie last year for Indiana, a compliment to how great of a shooter he is and was in college at Ohio State. But there’s more to his game, and if he can knock down his 2s enough (at 43.4% last year and in need of an uptick) while progressing with the little things, there’s a rotation-caliber NBA point guard in there.

“He’s a diligent worker,” Williams said of Washington. “He’s been in our gym for darn near two months, if not more, before the season started. We saw some things with him that excited us as a development guy.”

“I learn something new every single day,” Washington said. “I pride myself on learning something new every day. Helps me get better as a player, helps us get better as a team.”

The Suns’ depth has, rightfully so, been questioned heading into the season. But hitting on at least one player outside the top-seven of the rotation, like a big man acquired for cash or a two-way signing that was only cut by the Pacers because of their offer sheet sent to Ayton, would do wonders for the team’s balance in the regular season.

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