EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

The if of the 5th: Keita Bates-Diop is Phoenix Suns’ frontrunner

Sep 26, 2023, 1:55 PM | Updated: 1:58 pm

Keita Bates-Diop #31 of the San Antonio Spurs shoots against the Washington Wizards during the firs...

Keita Bates-Diop #31 of the San Antonio Spurs shoots against the Washington Wizards during the first half at Capital One Arena on March 24, 2023 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

(Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

The unofficial start to the NBA season in media day is within a week, and who the Phoenix Suns make the fifth starter alongside Deandre Ayton, Bradley Beal, Devin Booker and Kevin Durant is unknown.

It is a compliment to the depth Phoenix has built up but also a point to how it has to figure out who that guy is. We are going to roll through seven candidates, one a day, with respect to names like Damion Lee, Chimezie Metu and Ish Wainright that could hypothetically start games this season as well.

While much intrigue is percolating in regards to the player receiving the nod on opening night in the bay, we will instead preview all of the options under the optics of who starts the first game of round one in the postseason.

This means our conversations will naturally trend toward what these players have to do over the course of the regular season to earn that spot and how they can differentiate themselves over that time, as opposed to keeping it more theoretical by projecting how training camp and such goes.

That is likely how this will pan out. Head coach Frank Vogel will try different looks and grant various opportunities across a seven-month period. Injuries will force him to do so anyway. Could the Day One starter secure that job immediately? Sure. But Vogel and his staff would be wise to sift through everything he’s got.

Our series begins with the safest bet to get the call.

Keita Bates-Diop’s case as Phoenix Suns’ 5th starter

Why should they start: To start with positional integrity, which is becoming less and less important in the NBA, Bates-Diop is the most traditional “small forward” or “3” on the roster. At 6-foot-8 with a 7-foot-3 wingspan, his improvement in San Antonio had him grow into an impactful defender. He also took steps forward as a 3-point shooter, meaning Bates-Diop very well could be a 3-and-D that was hiding in plain sight during free agency. If he is that, the spot is his and he’s going to make a whole lot of money next summer.

Pros: It goes back to size again. Bates-Diop provides the Suns a second defensive option to defend some of the larger No. 1 options on opposing offenses. Phoenix lost this in the Kevin Durant trade by trading not one, not two but three of those guys. Looking at strictly the Western Conference, Phoenix needs someone to defend Paul George, Kawhi Leonard, LeBron James, Zion Williamson, Luka Doncic and Lauri Markkanen. This is why Torrey Craig had to start in the first round last postseason. All of that responsibility not falling on Durant is important and would be a huge asset in the physical form playoff basketball evolves into.

Additionally, Bates-Diop critically makes the Suns a bigger and more athletic team overall. This is an area of the floor Phoenix has been behind the eight ball on for a few years previously. But now, with all the length and size across the depth chart, it can match other MonStars type of lineups far better and help clean up some previous rebounding issues as well. Durant’s underrated prowess in that department was already a boost and having someone like Bates-Diop, a solid contributor there, helps too. Opponents have feasted on the offensive glass for three straight postseasons.

In the limited amount of tape I went through from last year, Bates-Diop’s off-ball defense was the most encouraging. It feels like he can be a solid connector in the defensive sense, giving Frank Vogel someone reliable to nail the proper rotations and keep the integrity of the defense’s shape in check. There’s some Mikal Bridges potential here, but not in the way you’re first thinking of. Monty Williams could rarely bring Bridges off the floor because of how much he meant to the defense in that way, so while Vogel will want to get more offensive pop in place when members of the Big 3 rest, having one of his better overall defenders on the floor is a plus worth considering too.

The shooting uptick deserves another shout here. Bates-Diop is an active cutter and solid passer as well. All of these are important and borderline necessary traits in his role.

Cons: To return to Bridges, the incomparable luxury he provided of defending perimeter ball-handlers of all shapes and sizes is where I’m not sure yet on Bates-Diop. When asked about what to watch for at the start of the season, my No. 1 question has been “Who is guarding Stephen Curry opening night?” Does Bates-Diop have the type of agility to keep up with that caliber of assignment?

I don’t know yet, but if he can’t and Vogel doesn’t want Bradley Beal or Devin Booker to take that on either, other options like Jordan Goodwin and Josh Okogie could end up having an edge in the most important part of the equation. The list of smaller guards is more daunting. To again go with strictly the West, it’s Curry, Ja Morant, De’Aaron Fox, Russell Westbrook, Anthony Edwards, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, C.J. McCollum and Kyrie Irving. Let’s say it’s the Sacramento Kings in Round 1. The top of every Kings scouting report is how to limit Fox, and starting someone who gives you the best chance of doing so seems like the most logical way to go about this whole exercise.

Elsewhere, I’m a “wait and see” guy on most things but particularly with if off-ball players offensively can do the 0.5 job right. When the defense overcommits to the trio and Bates-Diop has to figure out if he’s 1) shooting, 2) passing or 3) driving and going through steps one and two again, how consistent is his execution? This will come up for every guy we cover in this series. I’m fairly confident Bates-Diop will be good at it given the previous attributes covered. But it’s a different beast on a contending team, and some players respond to that differently. We are all anxiously awaiting that key moment that comes for these guys, and the tale of two halves was Josh Okogie and Ish Wainright against the Dallas Mavericks, albeit in the regular season.

Likelihood: Strong. Bates-Diop is the leading candidate. If Vogel and his staff see what they want to see out of the 27-year-old in training camp, he could do enough to hold a firm grip on the job heading into the season and all the way up until our moment in the playoffs. If the faith is wavering by April or sooner, though, that opens the door for more of a revolving door with different options based on the right matchup like last year if another bench player doesn’t emerge.

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The if of the 5th: Keita Bates-Diop is Phoenix Suns’ frontrunner