Phoenix Suns preseason brings many stylistic changes to watch for

Oct 6, 2023, 9:30 AM | Updated: 9:41 am

Head coach Frank Vogel of the Phoenix Suns poses for a portrait during NBA media day on October 02,...

Head coach Frank Vogel of the Phoenix Suns poses for a portrait during NBA media day on October 02, 2023 in Phoenix, Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

(Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

PHOENIX — Phoenix Suns basketball is back!

The preseason kicks off on Sunday at noon MST in Detroit against Monty Williams’ Pistons.

While it’s not the real deal just yet, there’s still a ton to watch for across the five games in the next two weeks.

The 5th starter

All eyes will be drawn to the news trickling in on Sunday morning when it comes to the starting lineup, quickly scanning to see who the fifth name is.

I would urge you not to overreact to it.

While it is possible head coach Frank Vogel finds a standout in training camp as his guy right away, the more likely outcome is he cycles through a few different options. The roster has a handful of players on a similar level in terms of the contributions they bring each night, so it’s going to come down to what Vogel wants as the skillset to accentuate Bradley Beal, Devin Booker, Kevin Durant and Jusuf Nurkic.

“Whichever guy we have in there, we want them to play to their skillset,” Vogel said Thursday.

If it’s on-ball defense, that’s your music, Josh Okogie. If a pinch of primary initiating is required plus that irritant on star ball-handlers, Jordan Goodwin come on down. How about avoiding a smaller lineup and going with a traditional small forward? That would be Keita Bates-Diop’s 3-and-D appeal. If Nassir Little’s impact in those categories is deemed better, he’s the man. And then there are more offensive-minded approaches like Grayson Allen, Eric Gordon and Yuta Watanabe.

Vogel indicated this mix and matching has been going on through the loads of 5-on-5 work the Suns have put in over the last three days.

“We haven’t really had five set guys out there,” he said. “We’ve looked at a lot of different combinations.”

I’m guessing it’s Okogie but we’ll see.

Is the key cog of the offense… Jusuf Nurkic?

The text above is meant as no slight to Nurkic. But the Suns have been speaking highly of him all week.

“He’s a beast,” Booker said of Nurkic on Thursday. “He can playmake. His IQ for a big is off the charts. And he talks. He communicates with you. … Somebody that you know knows the game like that — knows rotations, knows how to play. I listen to him and I try to implement it.”

Nikola Jokic and Domantas Sabonis are bringing the playmaking big archetype to new heights, serving as the hubs of the offense around the top of the key (Side note: Keep an eye on Alperen Sengun in Houston). As someone who grew up watching more Arvydas Sabonis highlights than just about any other player, this pleases me greatly. Now, Jokic is the best player in the world and Sabonis is incredibly unique in his own regard. So this is not about comparisons or how this is a new trend in the NBA.

But given how prominent screening is in the motion of modern NBA offenses, either on or off the ball, it puts centers in positions to punish rotating defenses if they can make the right pass/read. There are massive opportunities up for grabs if a team has enough threats off the ball. Needless to say, the Suns sure do.

Nurkic’s best trait might be his screen-setting.

“I give the defensive player one option,” he said Wednesday. “You can go under.”

If you’re not aware of the terminology, defenders on the ball are left with two choices. They can try to swerve around the screen by going over it to deny a 3-point shot while staying attached in a trailing pursuit. Or, against lesser shooters, go under it to avoid the contact and have a better angle on denying a path to the basket.

Sometimes, defenders lose track of their surroundings and splat like a bug on a windshield into the screen, except the visual will be more of a Hodor holding the door situation ala “Game of Thrones”. Against elite shooters off the bounce or terrific drivers given a free lane, that is not good, and something Nurkic knows how to make happen.

Booker expanded on what this does for a ball-handler.

“It puts the other big in a tough situation because it allows me to go downhill at him,” he said. “If he’s back too far, coaches (are) stressing us to rise right up. Forcing bigs to have to be away from the basket and we have a lot of threats on the perimeter.”

Keep an eye on how Nurkic is approaching these screens. Is he holding all the way through for the contact? Does he slip after the bump like the clip above or a little earlier? Is he popping out to space the floor or diving to the rim? There’s a bunch of ways to go about it.

And if a trap comes for Booker, Nurkic is very capable of making the right decision in the short roll.

“He can read a play before it develops,” Booker said of Nurkic. “He can be the secondary point guard too if a team traps me and he plays in that pocket. It’s a clean exchange. He catches it (and) it’s right to the corner or he punishes the smaller defender under the hoop.”

Much of the excitement is around how Vogel deploys Beal, Booker and Durant within an offensive system. Rightfully so. But the most important tool repeatedly used to do so might end up being Nurkic.

One spot for one role?

This is less of something to monitor as far as rotations in preseason because of how small the minute totals will be but an observation on how many options Vogel has to work through over the course of the season. While each player is different in some ways, there are similarities to the skillsets. Does the rotation have enough room for more than one in each subgroup?

If Gordon is getting some run, does Allen? There’s Okogie and Goodwin for perimeter defense, Bates-Diop and Little on the wing, Watanabe and Damion Lee (when he returns from injury) as extra shooting and then Chimezie Metu and Bol Bol as the third big behind Drew Eubanks and Nurkic.

Guys like Ish Wainright in the wing department and Saben Lee in the mix of perimeter defense and point guard duties have a case to get some looks too.

Once the rotations tighten up, perhaps in one of these preseason games when Vogel wants the starters to get a regular amount of run, we will figure out how the balance of the scales tips.

Two must go in roster spot battle

The Suns have 17 players in on standard contracts and must get that down two more spots before the regular season. Trading Deandre Ayton and Toumani Camara for four players created this issue.

It appears the Suns at least want to get a look at someone like Keon Johnson, a hyper-athletic guard who was a first-round pick just two years ago and was part of the return for Ayton, instead of addressing this problem instantly.

Who else is potentially on the chopping block?

Wainright’s non-guarantees in his contract do him no favors, although he seems like exactly the type of switchable, physical defender Vogel likes. Goodwin has to be mentioned because of his favorable contract situation toward making a move like this as well but Phoenix would be foolish to let him go after the promise he showed in Washington D.C. last year. Bol is the one guy on the roster who doesn’t make much sense as a fit despite the one-of-a-kind parts of his game. Maybe this group really impresses enough to put pressure on someone like Metu. That seems unlikely, though.

Just know the stakes for that group when they get in the game (or don’t).

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