36 unbothered: Suns do have some continuity with returning bench players
Sep 20, 2023, 12:30 PM
(Photo by Chris Coduto/Getty Images)
Devin Booker left the Phoenix Suns’ second elimination game blowout loss in the conference semifinals without saying a word. At least to the media.
He went into the offseason without addressing what happened, both after the game and at exit interviews the next day, only posting a vague social media post “36 unbothered” afterward, two days following the firing of head coach Monty Williams. What was first speculated by fans as a reference to his and Kevin Durant’s added-up jersey numbers was later corrected by Booker: He was just cruising through 36 holes of golf.
Regardless, he unknowingly created a nickname for the Suns’ superstar duo in the process.
A lot happened this offseason. NBA-wide, all eyes are on the Suns with massive change and great expectations.
So to keep us occupied until the Oct. 24 season opener against the Golden State Warriors, which is 34 days away from Wednesday, Empire of the Suns podcast co-hosts Kellan Olson and Kevin Zimmerman will be joined by Arizona Sports contributor Erik Ruby to dish on 36 key storylines for Phoenix’s 2023-24 season.
Day 34: Phoenix Suns’ returning bench players are key
Erik Ruby: While fans surely did not enjoy how last season ended, it would be safe to assume most did enjoy the energy the Suns’ bench mob brought every night. Lost in the mix with all the superstars and new additions joining the team, Josh Okogie, Damion Lee, Ish Wainright and Saben Lee will undoubtedly bring a much-needed edge to what some have deemed a “super team.”
Damion Lee already brought a steady hand and championship experience to the Suns last year, at some points even shifting momentum with his well-timed deep balls and hustle. Now he will have the opportunity to be WIDE OPEN and wreak havoc with effort while playing alongside three potential All-NBA selections. It’s not hard to imagine a long career in the NBA for Lee — shooting will never go out of style and the way he carries himself seems to rub off on his teammates.
You could make a very sound argument that Josh Okogie had one of the best highlight reels out of anyone on the Suns last season. Personally, I remember screaming at my TV in disgust at something Okogie did to an unaware guard on defense or in awe of a poster he delivered on the other end. Does he have his flaws? Absolutely. Can he still be a great asset for Frank Vogel in more ways than one? Absolutely. On top of all of this, Okogie’s POA defense is arguably the best on the team and his hustle is also a game-changer.
Wainright helps in the “vibes” department as much as he does the “muscle.” I would imagine he could be one of Frank Vogel’s most versatile defenders in short stints and showed enough improvement on his jumper for me to want to see him chuck up a few per game. There is not much mystery to Wainright, but that is part of the beauty of what he brings as a player. Grit, hustle, muscle and a little bit of edge to a team who will most likely need an enforcer more than once over the next few months.
As for Saben Lee, the two-way guard and local product will most likely see minimum time on the court if all goes well for Pheonix. However, he brings a special energy and bounce to the guard position that I am not sure anyone else does on the roster. On a team full of stars with injury histories, Lee’s name might get called upon more than we expect.
Kellan Olson: Well, this is a rather short list, isn’t it? I’ll use up all of my time on Damion Lee.
Here’s a fun fact I’ve mentioned in this space before: Lee was sixth (!) in minutes played on the team last season. That is wild to take in considering how inconsistent and sporadic his role was. If not for the existence of Eric Gordon, I would have snuck a bold prediction in here and forecasted Lee as a part of the playoff rotation this coming year. He is a heady sharpshooter and there are few better types of players to put around stars than that. Gordon’s offensive chops and Jordan Goodwin’s defensive chops will keep playing time sparse once again for Lee but expect him to still have a few moments this season.
Lee puts in a ton of work to stay ready both mentally and physically in this type of spot on the depth chart. He was quietly good when Monty Williams turned to him last postseason (and strangely did not continue to), fighting hard defensively to not be a liability so his smart shooting could stay on the floor. He’s one of those players where if you focus solely on him for a few minutes, his contributions will stand out more.
I really did believe he achieved enough to earn more than the minimum this season, so the Suns were fortunate to secure someone like that on the back-third of the bench.
Kevin Zimmerman: Since Kellan focused his time on Lee, let me dive more into Okogie. He put together a half-season of belief that his jumper still can improve to be effective enough, and even without that, you’d think the roster construction with more floor spacing around Okogie can help him stay on the floor. He’ll be around shooters whether he’s starting alongside Booker, Durant and Bradley Beal or coming off the bench alongside corner specialists in Yuta Watanabe and Lee, plus vertical spacer Eric Gordon.
We saw Okogie take over as the key point-of-attack defender last season once the Durant deal meant Mikal Bridges departed. He can move horizontally and use his long, tree-trunk limbs to bully guys off their spots. But opening up our brains with a new coaching staff, here’s a pitch for you: Okogie with the starting group especially wouldn’t only be a point-of-attack defender but arguably right with Durant — and behind Deandre Ayton — as one of the best rebounders for a team that by total rebound percentage lost Nos. 2-7 of its best from last year’s team.
Bol Bol and Keita Bates-Diop, if they play significant minutes, will be part of that conversation. But Okogie is a known commodity on the offensive glass especially.
And another free idea in terms of the offensive side of the ball: How about we look at some Brooklyn Nets tape of Bruce Brown to make Okogie an undersized screener and rim-roller? That would take away the hoping-he-hits-a-corner-three part of the offense. His ball skills, athleticism and free-throw figures are there, and he has shown flashes of making the extra pass out of trouble in those situations. Turn the offensive liability into a threat and let him continue his unique defensive role from a year ago.