EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Phoenix Suns host 2-game series vs. upstart, underrated Blazers

Nov 3, 2022, 7:00 PM
Josh Hart #11Jerami Grant #9, Jusuf Nurkic #27, Damian Lillard #0 and Justise Winslow #26 of the Po...
Josh Hart #11Jerami Grant #9, Jusuf Nurkic #27, Damian Lillard #0 and Justise Winslow #26 of the Portland Trail Blazers react during the first quarter against the Phoenix Suns at Moda Center on October 21, 2022 in Portland, Oregon. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images)
(Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

PHOENIX –Phoenix Suns fans will remember the 2013-14 iteration of the team, one that was picked to finish near or at the bottom of the Western Conference before winning 48 games and barely missing the playoffs.

That was a handful of undervalued players who just wound up on Phoenix together at the right time.

There was the All-NBA caliber play of Eric Bledsoe and Goran Dragic. P.J. Tucker began establishing himself as one of the best role players in the league, and Gerald Green’s failed potential almost a decade in the making finally materialized into a microwave sharpshooter capable of dropping an avalanche of 3s at any time.

Ditto for Channing Frye in some regards, a former top 10 pick who reshaped his game to mold himself into a stretch big every franchise wanted in the new NBA. Markieff and Marcus Morris brought even more scoring pop off the bench and Miles Plumlee as the starting center was competent. First-year head coach Jeff Hornacek knew what to do with a roster like that and they were off to the races.

There are two teams in the West right now where the question should be asked if they are some version of this. There is of course the 6-3 Utah Jazz that compare the most directly, but if you’ll allow me to slightly cheat and grab a team that was still expected to be in the play-in mix, how about the Portland Trail Blazers as this year’s overachievers?

Off to a 5-2 start, a two-game baseball series in Phoenix on Friday and Saturday will give us a better read.

Damian Lillard (right calf strain) could play if he’s on the better side of a one-to-two-week timeline while free agent signing Gary Payton II (core muscle injury) has yet to make an appearance this year.

Last season, Portland traded C.J. McCollum, Norman Powell, Robert Covington and Larry Nance Jr. in a near-complete fire sale of the core around Lillard. But what the Blazers appear to be trying is their own spin on what the Golden State Warriors are doing, with one generation of older players paving the way for the newer one that they hope will know how to win by the time they are called upon to lead the charge. This Suns core, for example, basically did it with Chris Paul and Jae Crowder to a certain extent.

The Blazers don’t have as many diamonds in the rough as that 2013-14 Suns team but we’ll get to a few in a minute. More so, it has a few former first-round picks that have either come to bear fruit already or will soon enough.

23-year-old guard Anfernee Simons is the natural heir to Lillard. Three years ago, the Blazers were absolutely giddy about how Simons looked behind the scenes a year after going 24th overall in the 2018 NBA Draft. He hardly played as a rookie but there was buzz he could seriously contribute to a team with contending aspirations.

That, however, was them getting a bit ahead of themselves. But now, in Year 5, this is the Simons they were expecting.

Seven games in, Simons is averaging 22.0 points per game and shooting 37.1% on 10 (!!!!!) 3-point attempts a night. He is not shy and is capable of exploding at any time.

In a win over the Denver Nuggets, Simons scored 18 of his 22 third-quarter points across three-and-a-half minutes when he hit six triples in a row.

That last trey, turning down the screen to shoot going left, is some supernova stuff.

“He has everything,” Suns guard Devin Booker said Thursday of Simons’ game. “He’s one of those guys that really doesn’t have a weakness in his game.”

Booker pointed out how much it said in the Suns’ loss to Portland when Lillard trusted Simons to get the crucial shot in overtime when Lillard was doubled off the ball.

“And just the willingness to take that shot says a lot about a young player,” Booker said of Simons. “Been really cool to watch his game develop over time.”

Against the Memphis Grizzlies in a loss on Wednesday, Portland soared back into the game during a 19-2 fourth quarter run to tie it with under four minutes left that was capped off by Simons 29 and 30 footers.

“He’s not even a good young player. He’s young but he’s just a good player,” Suns head coach Monty Williams said Thursday of Simons. “The ability to make tough shots is something that I didn’t account for when I first started watching him play. Now, he’s making shots off the bounce, he’s in catch-shot, he’s in the midrange, he’s at the rim — he’s just a really good player.”

Starting in place of Lillard has surprisingly been this year’s No. 7 overall selection Shaedon Sharpe, the draft’s mystery man since he didn’t play at all in his one year at Kentucky.

Sharpe at 6-foot-6 is a bit bigger than Lillard and Simons but it’s a similar thought of a high-end athlete with tons of potential as a scoring guard. Come to think of it, I don’t mind a Green comp!

Head coach Chauncey Billups starting the kid right away speaks to a level of trust. That means Sharpe must be doing a certain amount right in the little areas that are so difficult for rookies to get down in their first couple years of NBA basketball.

And that is apparent when you watch him over the course of a full game. With all the highlight reel dunks and pretty footwork on perimeter shots, there’s also a feel for the game there too.

“He must have had a really good camp for Chauncey to trust a rookie in that role because they have guys on their bench that have played in NBA games,” Williams said of Sharpe. “His athleticism jumps out to you but when you watch him, he’s making really good plays. He’s cutting when he needs to cut, he’s spacing when he needs to space, he moves it when a guy is open.

“And then defensively I’ve watched him, he’s got a knack for staying in front of the ball using his athleticism to help him on defensive end. He’s a good player. They found a really good, long, athletic prototype wing that fits the style of play in the NBA.”

To shift back to the island of misfit toys, Jusuf Nurkic often gets forgotten about as one of the better centers in the NBA. Forward Jerami Grant, who we discussed at length as a potential Suns trade target, went on the cheap and from overrated to underrated.

Josh Hart has yet to find an organization that will fully commit to everything he does well as an undersized wing, which is where I will let the round peg slide into the round hole for the Tucker comparison. Do you still believe in multi-time If He’s Healthy First Team selection Justise Winslow? I kind of do! The 2015 top 10 pick might not be the point forward the Miami Heat tried to turn him into but he can still really defend.

Put those six (and Payton) around Lillard, still a superstar and holding a 50-40-90 season on over 30 PPG through five games, and there’s certainly enough ability. Throw in one “is this the year they put it together” nominee in former first-round pick Nassir Little (2019) and one “all the tools are there” nominee in former first-round pick Keon Johnson (2021) and that’s a rotation that could push above .500 and make things even more interesting out West.

Billups’ first year resulted in a concerning finish of 29th in defensive rating (116.3) but that was an injury-riddled roster that was also gutted a bit, so it wasn’t fair to fully judge. This time around, the principles and cohesion on that end have been solid, with a 109.5 defensive rating at 11th. It’s very encouraging and a sign things are trending in the right direction for a team that could surprise a lot of us the next couple of months.

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