EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Grayson Allen, Nassir Little bolster depth, unearth Suns’ trade flexibility

Sep 28, 2023, 1:11 PM | Updated: 3:24 pm

Grayson Allen #12 of the Milwaukee Bucks shoots against the Washington Wizards at Capital One Arena...

Grayson Allen #12 of the Milwaukee Bucks shoots against the Washington Wizards at Capital One Arena on March 5, 2023 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

(Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

Whether your perspective on what the Phoenix Suns could get in return for Deandre Ayton was jaded or not, a tolerable result in the end was going to be two-to-three rotation players. Again, tolerable. This was never ending in a trade that was a home run for Phoenix, let alone an RBI double. It’s a groundout to the right side to advance the runner on second to third.

While the Damian Lillard link reported by our own John Gambadoro the week prior inspired many to conjure up quality players coming to the Suns like Miami Heat wing Caleb Martin, Toronto Raptors forward O.G. Anunoby or Portland Trail Blazers guard Shaedon Sharpe, Ayton’s trade value was in too problematic of a position for that type of outcome.

Instead, Phoenix gets Jusuf Nurkic, Grayson Allen, Nassir Little and Keon Johnson. At first glance, the rotation player quota has been met. Nurkic and Allen certainly are two. Little has a lot of supporters leaguewide who believe he is one as well. But one of the many keys to this return is if that holds up through April and beyond. Nurkic must stay healthy while at least one of Allen and Little holds a playoff rotation role.

Allen is the best bet, who could start on a handful of teams and just did for a 58-win Bucks team.

The one-sentence scouting report: Allen is an elite shooter, serviceable defender and heady player in other areas that provides a much-needed boost of moxie, toughness, annoyance, pest work, whatever you want to call it.

Since Allen grasped consistent playing time four seasons ago, looking at the players to attempt at least 500 3-pointers since then, his 40.1% mark ranks 22nd out of the 231-player sample size, per Stathead.

Allen is one of those trained shooters, where the scientific craft of 3-point shooting adds to some extra deep balls going down that most players wouldn’t have the fundamentals in place to get a good look off. It was a pleasure to watch Cam Johnson as this type of guy. Allen is the same type of student.

With that education comes moving off the ball. Milwaukee ran some fun stuff for Allen when it wanted to achieve this.

And other sets that were a bit more basic but did the job just fine.

Elsewhere, the margins offensively are less about some sneaky on-ball equity Allen has and more about how he’s a smart player who makes the simple pass work. The Bucks were using him as a playmaker slightly more last year and the results were there.

Allen’s assist percentage for Milwaukee jumped from 7.4% to 10.7%, a notable bump Cleaning the Glass’ percentiles can characterize from bad to slightly above average as a “wing” traditionally off the ball and a return to his numbers in Memphis for the two years when he was on the ball more.

On the other end, based on what Milwaukee asked him to do defensively, there’s a pathway to talking yourself into the fifth starter.

The Athletic’s Eric Nehm prior to last season’s trade deadline highlighted how Allen was taking on more important matchups compared to the year prior, and in some situations, did quite well. That was particularly in switching situations, when Allen was scaling up to stronger wings, something he struggled with in the 2021-22 season.

Here’s Jrue Holiday, a guy who knows a thing or two about defense, after a great Allen effort against the Toronto Raptors.

“Grayson’s locking up, bro,” Holiday said. “He takes on the challenge. I know people think that he is aggressive and overly aggressive, but the way I see it, that’s better. And switching again tonight, certain possessions going against Fred (VanVleet) not letting him get into the paint, he tried to get to his stepback and all his moves, and Grayson is just sitting there and really just reading him really, really well. It’s not just that one possession. Grayson has been great defensively, to me, this whole year.”

With that said, we are getting too ahead of ourselves, something I can admit I myself did in the first 24-hour news cycle of the trade based on past remembrance of how Allen defended in some of these spots. He can handle that job in spurts. But taking on “The Job,” like Holiday traditionally did for the Bucks, is a whole different beast. That’s by far the leading responsibility for the fifth starter.

Allen’s arrival creates an interesting logjam at guard off the bench, if the Suns do wind up going with a more traditional wing to open games. Eric Gordon certainly is going to be the first name called, and probably should be. But Allen’s offensive impact, especially considering how Gordon won’t be able to get on the ball as much as you’d ideally like to maximize him, won’t be that far off. And he’s the better defender. Damion Lee is right alongside Allen as a terrific, heady shooter while struggling a bit more defensively.

But the best defender of all them (and on the team) very well could be Jordan Goodwin. Josh Okogie was really good in the regular season for Phoenix as well. Only two of those guys max are going to get a role.

The role could still go to Little, although he should be categorized as more of a small-ball 4 in the physical mold of P.J. Tucker.

Across his first three seasons, Little showed enough to earn a four-year, $28 million extension that begins this year, a team-friendly deal with enough of a long-term commitment to show faith in how he would develop into a positive contributor on a good team.

Little has shown enough flashes of that to warrant the money and the main issue for him, like Nurkic, has been health.

Little’s season high for games played is 54 from last year. He missed the last 45 two seasons ago due to a torn labrum in his left shoulder that required surgery. He also had a core muscle surgery in May 2022 and went on last season to sit out a chunk of 21 games after playing the first 21, noting he still hadn’t been feeling 100% since that particular surgery until his return. Little again had a similar procedure done for a core muscle injury, this time for the right side of his body after it was the left.

Given the extension the Suns are now on the books for, they surely performed their due diligence to ensure there are not enough concerns to be worried about a reoccurring problem.

Little plays hard, doing the most he can with a strong 6-foot-5 frame and wingspan that stretches to 7-foot-2. Across the Portland tenure, Little figured out how to have this benefit his team by creating enough of a consistent impact. That is a solid indicator he would work out on a contender.

Defensively, that’s where we’ll learn together how versatile Little can be. He’s certainly switchable, and depending on how much head coach Frank Vogel wants his defense to do that, it’s where Little’s value could really emerge. But is Little shifty enough to handle guards? Point guards? If he is, here’s your fifth starter.

In the long line of athletic, long defenders, Little’s 3-point shot is the swing. His catch-and-shoot looks on 127 attempts two seasons ago yielded a 33.1% knockdown rate, while last year’s 35.8% mark on 120 tries was a slight improvement. As a prospect we actually covered on the site five years ago in a season-long look at the 2019 NBA Draft, one Little slid all the way to 25th in after going into his freshman season at North Carolina as a projected top-five pick, I can be his champion in regards to the mechanical growth (as well as how much his awareness has gotten better too).

Another tidbit is a minor development from the perspective of Phoenix but Little started scoring more frequently off the dribble using pull-up jumpers last season. He shot a combined 54 in his first three seasons before going 22-fot-51 (43.1%) on ’em last year. Something like that at least suggests he’s becoming more confident as a player, perhaps the biggest part of the equation for these types of role players remaining consistent as shooters.

The wing portion of the depth chart Little now slides into is maybe the biggest position battle on the team post-trade. Keita Bates-Diop has been the popular leading candidate to start but Little does bring similar allure positionally. All the spacing can’t just come from the guards, which is where Yuta Watanabe enters the fold as a shooter with size.

And both the fight for minutes at guard and on the wing is why it’s vital for us to not wrap up the day’s proceedings without highlighting the contracts Phoenix now has.

Nurkic’s three years remaining at an annual average value of around $18 million a year doesn’t seem all that desirable but it is more movable than Ayton’s max contract. The maneuverability comes from Allen, on an expiring $8.9 million deal, and the Little contract we mentioned that escalates by the year with a salary this season at $6.2 million.

We had to get pretty funky with trade exceptions and such to prophesize something the Suns could get done in the middle of the season if upgrades are necessary and available. Now, however, Allen and Little are two guys who will draw plenty of interest if Phoenix wants to explore something else.

The best-case scenario, of course, is both are key parts of the rotation and too valuable to move. But there are other potential outcomes where some of the veteran’s minimums guys prove more trustworthy, or Phoenix has enough depth to afford moving some combination of these guys. And remember, this is the last season the Suns are allowed to do that before the second apron tax penalties really kick in. The difficult part is the nearly non-existent pool of draft capital when it comes to attachable assets but there are a few second-round picks still left.

It’s always good to at least give yourself the flexibility. And the Suns have unearthed that with this deal.

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