With 1 game left on deal, Suns’ Ish Wainright is more valuable than ever

Feb 15, 2023, 3:29 PM

Ish Wainright #12 of the Phoenix Suns shoots against Patty Mills #8 of the Brooklyn Nets during the...

Ish Wainright #12 of the Phoenix Suns shoots against Patty Mills #8 of the Brooklyn Nets during their game at Barclays Center on February 07, 2023 in New York City. (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)

(Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)

PHOENIX — The Phoenix Suns have drafted one player in the last three years but that hasn’t stopped them from having some developmental success stories.

The biggest one has been forward Ish Wainright. Originally brought in on a two-way contract last year, the then-27-year-old rookie impressed immediately with his work ethic and engaging personality.

After bouncing around post-college career at Baylor with some pro ball time overseas and a brief stint on the NFL’s Buffalo Bills, Wainright took advantage of every slim opportunity he got. His standout performance was as a small-ball 5 in a win over the San Antonio Spurs, a victory Phoenix picked up because of how he swung the game.

Wainright stood out enough that once the playoffs rolled around, Phoenix waived beloved but injured teammate Frank Kaminsky to open a traditional roster spot for Wainright so he could be on the postseason roster. He deserved it.

In the offseason as a free agent, Wainright participated for the Summer Suns and was prominently featured within Phoenix’s summer league offense. He could have declined, opting to avoid risk and keeping himself healthy for free agency. After all, he had more than earned consideration for one of the 15 regular spots on the Suns or somewhere else.

But there he was in Vegas, working with a smile on his face as always.

Wainright returned this season on a two-way deal again, but with those contracts back to their default state after the league previously tweaked them because of the pandemic, he’s running out of games. Thursday’s against the Los Angeles Clippers is his last before Phoenix has to convert him to a standard contract or let him go.

The Suns’ post-deadline roster stands at 14 players, plus Wainright and Saben Lee, so they have the slot for Wainright. There’s also more movement to come on the buyout market, where Phoenix already snatched up guard Terrence Ross and could get another key pickup.

But in the meantime, the choice is clear. Wainright needs to be retained.

The 6-foot-5, 250-pound wing had a few cracks at legitimate minutes in his first NBA season but this year has offered him a real chance at a role. In the last two months, thanks to how injury riddled the Suns were, Wainright has played in 28 games and averaged 17.7 minutes a night. He’s posting 4.9 points, 2.4 rebounds. 1.1 assists and 1.0 steals per game.

For reference, he reached 18 minutes in three total games last year.

A large reason why for the run this season is his defense.

When getting his feet wet last season, Wainright was primarily only guarding 4s, mostly staying off the ball. But now, he’s firmly on it, defending 1-4 and proving himself as one of the most switchable pieces on the team. The Suns have elected to switch more frequently this year, which makes Wainright all the more valuable.

The whole “got a shot at tight end with the Bills” part should illustrate this for you already, but just in case you skimmed by that, Wainright is a terrific athlete. He is an absolutely massive, strong human being that has quicker feet than you’d think.

Those athletic attributes are coming together for him defensively. He’s been great this year about staying attached to his man and funneling them into the Suns’ shot-blockers.

This role just got a whole lot more important in the last week after the Suns traded Mikal Bridges and Cam Johnson.

“I love it, I love it,” Wainright said Tuesday of defending the point of attack. “We lost the best on-ball defender in the league. … We lost him so now it’s us. We have to step up and replace that role and do whatever we gotta do to keep that momentum going on the defensive end.”

A few clips in there are from the Suns’ in Boston earlier this month, arguably Wainright’s best performance of the season.

The Suns were coming off some terrible losses and a few of them had similar themes when it came to Phoenix’s lack of forcefulness defending the ball. Head coach Monty Williams found it hard to answer some questions on what went wrong those nights because it was as simple as not letting a ball-handler have its way with the defender.

Wainright came into that Celtics matchup and provided Williams with exactly what he was looking for. The head coach, as he always does, rewarded that with 31 minutes, Wainright’s career high to that point outside of Phoenix’s final game of last season when it rested a handful of key players.

Celtics wings Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown are at the top of the food chain athletically, so they are used to having their way with people in order to create space for their shot.

No one is going to have their way with Wainright and his shoulders that could knock over most mid-tier sedans with the same fury of a dozen belligerent Philadelphia Eagles fans.

Tatum absolutely bowls into Wainright here to get some post separation on a guy he’s six inches taller than. Nothing.

Brown’s trying to carry Wainright on his hip after a ball screen to draw a foul. That’s like carrying a boulder the size of a dresser.

Wainright’s increased role has given him more time to assimilate to the NBA pace and make more plays offensively.

This year, he’s taking more risks by going off the bounce and attacking closeouts. That’s Williams’ 0.5 basketball and something everyone has to do.

“I’m driving the ball now! Did you see that?!” Wainright exclaimed. “Work on so much, everything’s been coming together.”

“Playing in 0.5 and attacking the paint too,” Williams added on Jan. 8 of what Wainright’s improved at. “That’s something that we didn’t see with him. He’s had a few turnovers but I like the fact that he’s taking those chances. Sounds like a broken record but the more you do that the more you understand what it takes to achieve success in those environments as opposed to not doing it and being afraid of it.”

Part of that has to do with the league now having a proper scouting report on him.

Wainright is now known for being out there to shoot.

“It’s crazy because you check on the court and coaches are like, ‘Hey, shooter,'” he said on Jan. 21.

Wainright shot 33.1% from 3 over four years at Baylor and attempted just 20 total in his first two collegiate seasons.

Now, he’s “shooter.” Could he have seen that coming five years ago as his label in the NBA?

“Nah, not at all. Not even going to lie to you,” Wainright said.

It has been a long, arduous process for him to make precise adjustments to his shot. You often hear someone say how anyone can learn to shoot but that discounts how much freaking work it takes. You have to want it, bad.

Wainright does. When media walks into the practice facility after a practice or shootaround, we assemble near the basket Wainright shoots at. We’ve seen first hand how much the form on his shot has improved and found consistency in the last year and a half.

“For sure it’s the shooting piece,” Williams said on Jan. 8 of Wainright’s growth since last training camp. “He’s worked on his shot about as hard as anyone.”

Wainright has compacted and sped up his movements into a singular, fluid, pretty motion.

He can now get that thing off in a hurry.

On the season, Wainright’s shooting 33.9% from deep, a below-average number he will have to get up to be more relied upon. At times, you can see him going through the battle of moving too quickly with his shot when he’s put so much time into perfecting just that.

We all know what it looks when a guy takes one in rhythm.

The biggest positive is that he’s overcome any hesitation. He is going to keep shooting, as his teammates urge him to do so.

In a Jan. 21 win over the Indiana Pacers, Wainright hit a critical triple in crunch time to put the Suns up three.

He spoke on the year-to-year development with his mindset as a shooter.

“Nah, I probably would have passed up the last corner 3,” he said afterward. “Confidence is up, so, and coach is telling us to keep shooting. Let-it-fly mentality.”

Check the score on that game in that last clip, and then check out that last play from the off-the-dribble reel. Yep, that’s Wainright scoring or assisting the Suns’ next five points to win a game.

He has been consistently making Phoenix better the last month, the best stretch of his basketball career. Whether his role the rest of the year is pivotal in replacing Bridges and Johnson or he’s just another gym rat that’s great to be around, the value in Wainright is undeniable.

Earlier in the season when Wainright missed some time due to the passing of his father, Devin Booker was asked how nice it was to have Wainright back once the forward returned, and you could tell the way Booker answered how genuine his response was.

“Aw, man. Missed him,” Booker said on Nov. 16. “Locker room is a whole different dynamic with Ish here.”

Seems like a no-brainer to keep Wainright around.

“I hadn’t even thought about it,” Williams said of Wainright’s games left on Tuesday. “It’s not my decision. We play him because he’s a really good player and he’s helped us a ton and that’s something we’ll figure out when we need to but it’s not something I’ve thought about.”

“I’m not worried about it,” Wainright said prior to the Suns’ victory on Tuesday. “I got two games to play and two games to play my best and do whatever I gotta do to secure my future. … It’s not gonna get to me because if I play my game, whatever else happens, happens. It’s out of my control. I’m just ready to hoop.”

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