‘Like a jungle in there’: Suns’ length will be defensive strength

Oct 5, 2023, 8:33 AM

Bruce Brown #11 of the Denver Nuggets lays up a shot past Kevin Durant #35 of the Phoenix Suns duri...

Bruce Brown #11 of the Denver Nuggets lays up a shot past Kevin Durant #35 of the Phoenix Suns during the first half of Game Three of the NBA Western Conference Semifinals at Footprint Center on May 05, 2023 in Phoenix, Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

(Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

PHOENIX — The tone has been set. Message sent. Philosophy established.

The Phoenix Suns want to be a defense-first team.

OK, OK. I know. They are going to be a better offensive team. Starting Bradley Beal, Devin Booker and Kevin Durant together should yield at least a top-five offense and that’s being rather conservative.

But everyone understands how important defense is going to be for Phoenix to win a championship. If it is a bottom-third group in the defensive rating rankings when April rolls around, it will be difficult to win at any point in the postseason. If it is a middle-third group, it’s enough of a base for the offense to carry the Suns. And if it is a top-third group, they are the best team in the league by a sizable margin.

Much of the conversation surrounding the Suns, especially since trading Deandre Ayton, has been on the potential defensive shortcomings with the current roster. But a huge boost to the squad outside of being commanded by head coach Frank Vogel is its length.

The roster was clearly designed with this in mind.

Going off the listed height for players and available wingspans, the Suns have 10 players with at least a plus-six wingspan, meaning 6-foot-2 guard Saben Lee in his 6-foot-9 wingspan is a plus seven. There are some other extreme guys like 6-foot-8 Keita Bates-Diop (+7), 6-foot-4 Josh Okogie (+8), 6-foot-5 Nassir Little (+9) and 6-foot-10 Udoka Azubuike (+9).

Vogel was kind enough to get simple on an A-B-C level for what additional length does for a team defense.

“Obviously, at the basket with dissuading shots and grabbing boards. But also the length on the perimeter,” he said Wednesday. “We want everybody down in their stance, in their gaps and shrinking the floor.

“If there are less driving lanes on the floor because we got longer dudes out there, it’s just tougher for opposing offensive players to think they can get to the basket. And then obviously contesting shots on the perimeter. When you’ve got the length that we have flying at shooters to contest, that makes things more difficult as well.”

It’s a few days into camp and players are already noticing.

“When I drive, it’s like a jungle in there,” Okogie said Wednesday. “So I can only imagine what other teams are going to be seeing when we’re playing.”

To go back to where we started and how the identity of the team will be formed, Vogel had meetings with players on Tuesday morning at the start of camp. The players left it knowing what the coach wants from them.

“Tone was set from the jump. … He wants us to comepte and be physical and that be our identity. … Physicality is gonna be at the top of the list every single game, every single day,” Bradley Beal said Tuesday.

Vogel clarified having all the length won’t change how he coaches the team necessarily but he sees the big-time benefits.

“Well, you still do it all the same, you still coach it all the same. But the length just makes it better, especially on the defensive side of the ball. … Speed and length is going to be a strength of ours,” he said. “That’s how we’re built. My [prerequisite] of physicality will be there but we know we’re not going to be the biggest, strongest team out there. But you can still be the most physical team, even though you’re not the biggest and the strongest. And that’s going to be our approach.”

So at the beginning of the season, what are the most important principles to get down in order to succeed defensively from the jump? The coach and players offered different perspectives.

“Obviously, it starts with transition defense and finishing possessions,” Vogel said Tuesday. “Get your defense back and get it set. But also a really heavy emphasis on the boards. The physicality of boxing out, the 2-on-2 coverages that try to keep us out of rotations is a big point of emphasis. And that we’re going to have a multi-layered defensive attack. We’re gonna have a lot of things in our bag to throw at opponents throughout the course of an 82-game season that will help to prepare us for the playoffs.”

“The biggest thing is communication,” Beal said. “Everybody being on the same page, understanding what the scheme is, concept is. Bigs are more or less like quarterbacks, so as long as they’re loud talking to us guards. … We have to get into the ball and get the rest of the defense set, knowing if we’re up (and) we’re active, the rest of the guys have no choice but to be up in their stance and up and ready to go as well. It’s a collective effort.”

Okogie went up that alley as well.

“Just getting the rules and everybody getting on the same page,” he said. “The hardest thing is everybody on this team didn’t play under Frank Vogel last year so here, just learning what he likes and learning his scheme and just keep drilling it so everybody is on the same page. So whatever we see on the court, everybody is speaking the same language.”

Veteran Eric Gordon wants the guards to get active off the jump, like Beal said.

“It all depends on the type of team (you have),” Gordon said Tuesday. “We have a lot of length and we have a lot of guards, so it’s us guards who have to stay in front of our man and we got the length to contest at the rim. So we just gotta cover for each other and we just gotta be a little bit more pesky on defense.”

Starting center Jusuf Nurkic spoke on what Beal did in regards to being a quarterback before complimenting what he’s seen so far when it comes to the buy-in levels.

“I feel like it starts with me,” he said Wednesday. “But everybody else, they have to understand like Beal said, we’re also going to challenge everybody. … Personally, I don’t see (an) issue. They (are) accepting the challenge.Today in practice, Devin Booker was really guarding people in his stance and challenging. I think for us, and personally for those three guys, they know what it takes. Especially at this point of their career, they’re really ready.”

Beal is maybe the guy you’d pencil in with the most to prove. As a No. 1 option the last couple of years that has only made the playoffs once since 2019, lazy narratives begin percolating on the type of defender he is. Now that Beal is on a contender again, especially one in which he shares offensive responsibilities with two other stars, many eyeballs on Oct. 24 during the season opener will be how he holds up defensively.

He’s aware.

“I think that’s one thing that we hold to ourselves as well, a big expectation we have on ourselves is to defend,” Beal said. “We know that we can score but we want to be an elite defensive team and showcase that we can do that.”

Okogie has seen it already.

“I’m starting to see everybody trying to take it personal and everybody is kinda keying in on defense which is great for us as a team,” he said.

And if Vogel indeed gets this buy-in, it will allow him to multiply the layers within his defense sooner, which is ultimately what will make this specific team the most dangerous defensively.

“We add as we go,” Vogel said Tuesday. “But what I really like is we’re not gonna go into each game just doing things one way. We’ll treat different players different ways throughout every one of the 82 games of the regular season so we’re not having to try something new come playoff time that we’ve done this all year. We sharpen all our tools come playoff time.”

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