EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Phoenix Suns face NBA’s biggest surprise so far in Utah Jazz

Nov 17, 2022, 2:25 PM
Utah Jazz's Lauri Markkanen left, and Jordan Clarkson right, react during the second half the team'...

Utah Jazz's Lauri Markkanen left, and Jordan Clarkson right, react during the second half the team's NBA basketball game against the Atlanta Hawks on Wednesday, Nov. 9, 2022, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/Hakim Wright Sr.)

(AP Photo/Hakim Wright Sr.)

When the Phoenix Suns played a back-to-back against the Portland Trail Blazers, we went through some parallels they shared with the 2013-14 Suns, while noting this year’s Utah Jazz are the more obvious comparison.

Utah, like that 48-win Phoenix squad, significantly changed the top of its team this offseason. Rudy Gobert, Donovan Mitchell, Royce O’Neale and Bojan Bogdanovic were all traded after making up the Jazz’s top four players in minutes played. The Suns, albeit on a much smaller scale in terms of talent, did the same thing with three of their top-four in Marcin Gortat, Jared Dudley and Luis Scola.

Both were picked to finish at or near the bottom of the Western Conference. We’ll see if the Jazz can reach the heights of those Suns, but for now, they’re good. Utah is 10-6 and looks legit in a few ways heading into Friday’s first meeting with the Suns.

Entering play on Thursday, it is eighth in offensive rating (114.3), ninth in defensive rating (110.4), sixth in assist percentage (65.3%), 11th in rebounding percentage (50.7%) and tied for 13th in true shooting percentage (57.7%).

Under our trusty “good teams do this stuff well and bad teams do this stuff poorly” numbers, the Jazz rank ninth in points off turnovers, seventh in second-chance points and 13th in fastbreak points and points in the paint.

The alarm bells, however, begin blaring when looking at what Jazz opponents are doing in those categories. They are in the bottom third in opposing points off turnovers and second-chance points, third worst in opposing fastbreak points per game (17.6) and dead last in opposing points in the paint per game (57.1).

And that’s where we’ll point to the three-game losing streak the Jazz are on after taking defeats to the meh Washington Wizards, Philadelphia 76ers and New York Knicks. They’ve got some stabilizing to do.

Utah has the talent. It’s a grab bag of random NBA rotation players but the key there is that they are rotation-caliber pieces.

Jordan Clarkson is instant offense and ditto for Collin Sexton. That’s nearly all of your on-ball creation from an individual offensive standpoint covered.

Then there’s the shooting Kelly Olynyk and Malik Beasley bring. Beasley is firing 6.8 triples in just 25.4 minutes a night (!) and shooting 41.7% on ’em (!!!). Olynyk’s 49.0% on over three a game is ninth in the NBA.

Jarred Vanderbilt is a defensive ace that sniffs out every offensive rebounding opportunity within range. Mike Conley is a steady floor general to keep the offense in rhythm while making sure the heat-check guards don’t get too crazy.

Walker Kessler, the 22nd pick in the 2022 NBA Draft, has been a pleasant surprise as a plug and play guy out of Auburn. The 7-foot-1 rookie has a 14.1 net rating that accurately represents how comfortable he looks defensively for a first-year center, where he’s averaging 4.3 blocks per 36 minutes, the second most in the league.

That’s seven guys. What’s missing is not talent but high-end talent. With that in mind, Arizona product Lauri Markkanen on his third team in three seasons is putting his skills together to look like the All-Star he always had the potential to be. He is their Eric Bledsoe (when Bledsoe wanted to be here).

Markkanen is averaging 21.3 points, 8.4 rebounds, 2.3 assists, 1.0 blocks and 2.0 turnovers per game while shooting a tremendous 52.3% from the field despite a 34.7% mark at 3-point range on almost six attempts a contest. Which means, yes, his 2-point percentage is bonkers, at 63.5%.

Cleaning the Glass has the Finnish forward at a phenomenal 75% efficiency around the rim and 51% on midrange jumpers.

Markkanen’s ball-handling has grown enough through five-plus NBA seasons that he can now more consistently take advantage of great agility at his size. He’s never been soft, either, so Markkanen will drive through contact and also attack mismatches in the post.

That’s the most important part of his archetype as a scorer because he’s actually bigger than most modern power forwards and spent a lot of last season with the Cleveland Cavaliers at the 3.

And Utah’s first-year head coach Will Hardy has actually played Olynyk, Kessler and Markkanen together for 32 minutes across 16 games, so it’s here and there as another option in the arsenal.

Hardy will also toss Markkanen out there at the 5, where the pick-and-pop game can really terrorize defenses.

Take all that into consideration and not only is Markkanen one of the breakout players of this NBA season but he’s also absolutely one of the most unique.

I’m guessing Torrey Craig draws the assignment for the Suns and it’s going to be fascinating to see how head coach Monty Williams adjusts to the unconventional lineups Utah crafts around Markkanen.

QUICK HIT-AHEADS

Let’s go rapid fire through a few trends in the last week for the Suns before we depart.

Without Chris Paul (right heel soreness), Cam Payne has been terrific as a starter.

In four games, Payne is posting 20.8 points, 3.8 rebounds and 6.0 assists as his averages on 43.9/45.7/90.0 shooting percentages. Crucially, Payne’s assist-to-turnover ratio sits at a more than solid 3.43. He thrived as a starter for a dozen games last year, so it’s not a surprise, but Payne’s play is pivotal all year as the team’s X-factor.

Without Landry Shamet (concussion protocol), Williams slotted two-way guard Duane Washington Jr. into the rotation the last two games.

Washington was a flamethrower in his debut as backup point guard, a 21-point bonanza in less than 20 minutes against Miami. His five points, two rebounds and two assists in Wednesday’s win over the Golden State Warriors had some pizzazz to them too.

The 22-year-old is quite simply, a hooper. He knows how to get a bucket, sure, but he plays really hard and has good instincts out there on both ends of the court.

Whether it’s a loose ball falling in his lap for a quick-trigger 3, a smooth pull-up jumper in a late clock situation or two smart passes in transition, players like Washington naturally find ways to impact games.

It was cool to watch him play literally one possession across across less than 20 seconds on Wednesday before Paul was already coming up to him and pointing something out on the floor at a break in play. It’s a daunting task for someone like Washington (and Jock Landale too for that matter) to step into the rotation of an experienced, well-oiled machine that is littered with high IQ players and good defenders. Both have been up to the task.

Lastly, the Utah matchup is a specific one to bring up Deandre Ayton for. Kessler is the only natural big the Jazz play, and he’s in his first year, so Ayton will have an edge regardless of who slots in at the 5. It’s a game he could use to find some footing after a rough week-and-a-half, but something else to note is that Olynyk starts at the 5, and stretch bigs in the past have occasionally short circuited Ayton’s defensive positioning. The Jazz are top-five in offensive rebounding percentage, so Ayton’s rebounding will be needed as well.

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Phoenix Suns face NBA’s biggest surprise so far in Utah Jazz