Sonny Weems exemplifies what Suns wish of their bench unit
PHOENIX — Defense and ball movement appear to be emphases for the Phoenix Suns this preseason, and in that it will be assumed that the players who commit to those two things will become part of the rotation.
“If we want to be a winning team, the guys as coaches you want to put out there, we’re not just looking (at) can you score,” Suns coach Jeff Hornacek said after practice Monday. “Most likely, you’re going to be the guy that puts defense out there.”
That creates appeal for the 29-year-old Sonny Weems to earn a significant role, likely at shooting guard. Weems believes he’ll earn it by “playing defense and knocking down open shots,” and his experience might set him ahead of 21-year-old Archie Goodwin and 18-year-old Devin Booker, the challengers for minutes.
Before signing a two-year deal with the Suns this offseason, Weems sharpened his game in Lithuania and then Russian powerhouse CSKA Moscow over the last four seasons.
“It’s just perfect timing for me,” Weems said. “A lot of things are changing, especially in the NBA. And I just wanted to come home. I have a two-year-old daughter (in Toronto) who’s growing up. I really wanted to come home and be a part of her life, and you know, not miss the small moments of her growing up.”
The fit in Phoenix for Weems begins with his athleticism and shooting ability that allows him to get shots over defenders, not too unlike Gerald Green, the shooting guard who in the last two seasons gave the Suns a boost off the bench. But Weems’ post-lockout experience in Europe makes him custom fit for what Phoenix wants to improve upon compared to last year’s team.
For two seasons with CSKA Moscow, now-San Antonio Spurs assistant Ettore Messina coached Weems into a 2014 All-Euroleague First Team player, where the former Arkansas Razorback shed the label as a high-flying dunk artist.
“Messina, he does that slow-paced, that halfcourt game, not really a transition kind of coach,” Weems said. “He just taught me to be patient. And defense — the Spurs have won a lot of games over a lot of years playing team defense. Messina was a big part of it, but it was also me growing up and me learning the game of basketball.
“My halfcourt game has improved so much, maybe 70, 80 percent (since leaving the NBA in 2011),” Weems added. “I know how to use the pick-and-roll, I know how to read defenses.”
Those two things shined in the team’s scrimmage Saturday at the Madhouse on McDowell. Weems showed the ability to spot up in the corner on the break and take defenders off the dribble, but he also didn’t force shots, passing out of situations and racking up four assists with 14 points. On defense, he was focused and talkative.
Weems fits this training camp theme for the Suns bench.
Last summer, Hornacek challenged free agent signees Anthony Tolliver and Isaiah Thomas to impress on the defensive end — at their introductory press conference, no less. Both players, who made their money as offensive weapons, were traded midseason.
Green, the high flyer and microwave of a scorer, saw his minutes wane from the previous season, even at times after the trade deadline gutted the bench unit of guards. Despite his improved focus on defense last season, Green was still too often the source of defensive breakdowns. He signed with Miami for the one-year, league-minimum deal this summer.
This year, Len moves behind Chandler in the starting lineup at center, one of P.J. Tucker and T.J. Warren will likely be at small forward at all times, and usually one of the starting guards will run point for the second string. As far as the bench is concerned, power forward — a competition between Mirza Teletovic and Jon Leuer — and shooting guard appear to be the two biggest camp battles.
But in general, Phoenix believes its bench options this year compared to last will be more defense-oriented.
“Again, if you have one poor guy defensively, it breaks it down,” Hornacek said when he was asked how much defense will play in deciding upon rotation spots. “You got Alex Len now who’s a pretty good defender. That’s great to have not only from your first team but your second team.”
– Markieff Morris sat on the sidelines of practice with a hip injury lingering. He also sat out the scrimmage this weekend.
– ASU head coach Bobby Hurley watched the practice at the Annexus Practice Court with Suns owner and Arizona graduate Robert Sarver.
– The Suns watched 45 minutes of film from Saturday’s scrimmage on Monday, and Hornacek likes that his team participated in breaking down the film. Communication has been an emphasis. Hornacek said that, after Sunday off, he liked the focus at the beginning of practice. “Like I told the guys after practice, last year when we had a day off, the first half of practice was pretty bad last year,” Hornacek said. “We got loose, went right into it and they’re busting their tails just like they have all training camp.”
– Phoenix’s ability to pressure more on the perimeter with Chandler helping behind also comes with a negative. It can lead to more fouls. This early in camp, Hornacek isn’t worried about it too much as the Suns push a more aggressive approach. “The biggest thing in practice, you let it get away a little bit. They get away with fouls,” he said. “That’s something that you can scale back a little bit but right now that’s what we’re emphasizing.”