EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Suns make up for lack of continuity by getting right players at right time

Oct 3, 2023, 11:15 AM | Updated: 11:15 am

PHOENIX — Media day often brings overreactions to small soundbites but if there was anything that should have made your ears perk up from the Phoenix Suns’, it was this out of head coach Frank Vogel.

“There will be an element of winning the job but there will also be an element of, ‘This stretch I’d like to see this combination of play for the next five games or the next 10 games,'” he said Monday. “Or I’d like to see a smaller lineup or a bigger lineup. I want to see how these two players play with one another. I don’t want the competition to distract my purpose in exploring the roster and all the combinations that we can look at through the course of the season.”

Here’s why this is a very good thing.

The Suns built a deep roster. Referring to it as “deep” and “depth” can often get mischaracterized. It’s not to say Phoenix has a loaded bench. Rather, what the front office has done is given Vogel a few options at each position/role alongside Bradley Beal, Devin Booker, Kevin Durant and Jusuf Nurkic. Those skillsets are exactly what you’d want alongside a Big 3 of scoring talent like that, as well as the playmaking and screen-setting big Phoenix envisions Nurkic to be.

It obviously starts with defense, and when it comes to who defends agile All-Star guards, Josh Okogie took on that job last year and Jordan Goodwin might be even better at it. We’ll see what roster cuts bring, as the Suns have to get rid of two guaranteed contracts by the start of the regular season, but Keon Johnson is a freak athlete only two years into his NBA career who wants to make his mark defensively too.

Scaling up toward switchable wings, who emerges between Keita Bates-Diop and Nassir Little will be interesting to see. And sharing the same sentiment on Johnson with Ish Wainright, he has found himself yet again in a position to have to earn a roster spot but he can do the job defensively Vogel wants.

Flipping to the offensive side of the ball, spacing is imperative across any lineup combination featuring one of the Big 3. That’s where Grayson Allen, Eric Gordon, Damion Lee and Yuta Watanabe provide plus shooting.

While mostly everything schematically will run through those four top names, the likes of Allen, Goodwin, Gordon and Saben Lee all have enough experience initiating offense to plug in the gaps wherever necessary.

In the big rotation, Drew Eubanks gives any ball-handler a capable pick-and-roll partner while Metu and Udoka Azubuike provide explosive finishing if defenses are choosing to leave the dives open to contain threats elsewhere. If spacing and versatility is on the docket, Bol Bol will give it a whirl.

One of Vogel’s main objectives this regular season must be to parse through all of these options. The right 10 guys for him to trust once April rolls around should be here. But it’s challenging to switch players in and out while maintaining enough rhythm to build and improve like all contenders must over the seven months. That’s why most coaches hesitate to do so, even with rosters like this.

It doesn’t sound like Vogel will, and it’s great for Phoenix because the majority of its depth pieces are coming off key development points in their respective careers to be ready for a moment like playing time being up for grabs on an elite team.

Okogie had a breakout year in Phoenix, thriving in his role as the fifth starter in the regular season after earning playing time before some struggles in the postseason he will want to make up for.

“Finding a little sweet spot where I had some success and kind of staying with that success and being able to win games at a high level that we did last year, it was great for me and it was fun,” Okogie said Monday. “Trying to get that and carry it over to this season and pick up where I left off.”

Similar to Okogie, Allen got his first crack at starting on a great team and held his spot in Milwaukee for the last two seasons.

“Last two years, I’ve played with great players, played with multiple All-Stars, guys who are pretty dominant, guys who are good scorers with the ball,” Allen said Monday. “So I’ve been put into a position where I’ve had to be able to score off the ball, impact the game in other ways, find my spots, find how I can help out in other ways and I was able to do that the last two years really well. So I think coming over here, it will be a seamless transition.”

Bates-Diop was able to put a finger on what his niche would be in the league five years in, finding a way to be a positive contributor in San Antonio, particularly defensively.

“I’m a versatile guy, I defend, I don’t need the ball, I move a lot off the ball (and) I can make things a lot easier for the other four,” Bates-Diop said Monday.

“Being able to be a defensive stopper on a winning team is almost like a dream,” he added. “A very crucial part to winning games and obviously winning games in the playoffs is having a defensive mindset.”

The Portland Trail Blazers’ center rotation bounced between Nurkic and Eubanks closing games, allowing the latter to get valuable experience since moving there two seasons prior. Eubanks got to be on the floor with a star in Damian Lillard to see how the geometry of the floor changes with that type of threat.

“Being able to get him open, live with him shooting 3s, if he gets doubled play out of that and make the right play — I think that’s going to go great with this team because we got three Hall of Famers on this team,” Eubanks said Monday. “It did prepare me a lot and so I know now a little bit of what I need to do as a big, as a role player to make them effective.”

Also arriving from Portland is Little, who has developed his raw skillset out of college across his first four seasons into 3-and-D qualities all winning teams desire.

“Looking at it, I think I can fit into that seamlessly,” Little said Monday. “Being able to affect the game both sides, defensively and offensively, I think it just makes sense.”

Before the Brooklyn Nets blew up their star-headlined squad last year, Watanabe was having his first real NBA moments in Year 5, helping Brooklyn win games with his hustle and sharpshooting.

“I’m gonna bring energy no matter what,” Watanabe said Monday. “Shooting sometimes, no one can make every shot every night, but I can bring energy every practice, every game. You’re going to see me flying around, running around on the court every night.”

Goodwin, like Eubanks and Watanabe, had to go the undrafted route to get here. After a year in the G League and a brief NBA spell, he emerged as a player with qualities the Washington Wizards had to find minutes for last year as a pesky defender on elite guards.

“I feel like I can guard a lot of these guys in the NBA,” Goodwin said Monday. “Especially at the point guard, shooting guard and a couple 3s. I wake up every day wanting to take the challenge. Definitely going to bring my hard hat.”

We’re not used to hearing about players coming from Sacramento and bringing winning experience with them but Metu was a part of the Kings’ transformation last year.

“It was great for me just to be on a team that was doing so well and seeing what it took to get there,” Metu said Monday. “I think it’s gonna be great for me to take what I’ve learned from there and bring it here.”

All that said, a lack of continuity for the Suns is a disadvantage. They have the least amount of it compared to every other contender. But perhaps getting so many of these guys at the right points in their careers can make up for that.

“There can also be a huge spark from a new group coming together like we have, and that’s what my focus is on,”Vogel said. “That we’re going to take advantage of that first-year energy, the refresh energy that we’re going to have with our group and hopefully that overcomes any type of continuity disadvantage.”

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