Five Suns questions the Las Vegas Summer League can answer
The Summer Suns streak into Sin City with a roster full of intrigue.
This isn’t a throwaway week of scouting for the sake the Northern Arizona Suns. Phoenix’s Summer League roster is loaded with two top-10 picks from the 2016 NBA Draft and a second-year shooting guard being marketed as the future of the Phoenix franchise. The results could even lead to the Suns filling holes in the training camp roster if they refuse to spend more in free agency.
In other words, Las Vegas matters.
What are the biggest questions that the Summer League can help the Suns answer?
How ready and at which positions do Dragan Bender and Marquese Chriss play?
With second-year pro Alan Williams and 2014 second-round pick Alec Brown giving Phoenix each of a bruising rebounder and a stretch center, it appears top-10 draft picks Dragan Bender and Marquese Chriss will spend most of their time at the forward spots.
Out of Summer League training camp, it sounds like Bender will see more time at small forward. The 7-footer is more ready than Chriss to defend smaller players and perhaps initiate the offense. Chriss could play pick-and-roll or pick-and-pop with Bender acting as ball-handler, or work out of the high-post with the spacing his teammates should give him.
More generally, how Bender and Chriss can stretch the floor playing together — even without the ball — will be the thing to watch. Either can draw the defense to get their teammates open at three-point range, or their gravity will allow the guards space to drive the ball.
Just imagine a lineup of Tyler Ulis, Devin Booker, Alec Brown, plus Bender and Chriss. That’s five above-average three-point shooters. Arguably, Ulis is the worst shooter of the bunch and he still hit a respectable 34 percent for Kentucky last year. His freshman campaign, he hit 42 percent.
So yeah, the Summer Suns can space it.
Can Chriss stay out of foul trouble?
It’s assumed Chriss’ foul-prone nature is a reason to keep him from sliding to small forward. He is expected to play both power forward and center while in Las Vegas.
After leading the NCAA in fouls while at Washington, and after admitting he has much room to grow in terms of defensive awareness, Chriss won’t be put in bad positions defensively.
More of the challenging burden will go to the more experienced Bender, but it will still be key for Chriss to prove he can stay in front of players in the summer league enough to stay on the floor — and better yet, win some one-on-one battles.
The foul issue wasn’t limited to reaching. Chriss also fouled by over-aggressive rebounding from poor positions following a failed box-out. Other personals came out of frustration. High foul counts — which don’t earn a player the hook in Summer League — will tell of emotional stability, focus and technique. Or a lack of those things.
Does Tyler Ulis nab the backup point guard spot?
As of the Leandro Barbosa signing, Phoenix’s backcourt depth chart hadn’t been completely resolved.
Barbosa projects more as a combo guard these days, and with Ronnie Price still on the free agent market, Ulis, the 5-foot-9, 150-pound Kentucky product, can use the Summer League to lock down the job behind Eric Bledsoe and Brandon Knight.
There are no concerns over his point-guarding. He’s ready. But is he physically ready to disrupt NBA backup guards? He can keep them from turning the corner, but it’s hard to say he can make stops when bigger players have their hips and inertia already heading toward the rim.
Will Alan Williams add another tool?
Williams isn’t an athletic gem, but he knows how to use his body. He’s proven the ability to board at high volumes against Summer League type of competition, but he still has a way to go to cement himself as an NBA player. Adding something to his game can make him more valuable.
Can he defend more athletic centers and power forwards? Will he be able to hit a mid-range jumper (he’s likely never going to be a pick-and-roll threat)? Can offensive rebounding become an avenue to Williams becoming a scoring threat?
Which darkhorse surprises?
Alec Brown, who the Suns picked in the second round two years ago, is a shot-blocker and shooter whose career has been hit by shoulder and ankle injuries. He’s also failed in past visits to Sin City to prove his shot is all it’s hyped up to be.
Another potential standout is Troy Williams, a rookie forward out of Indiana who has athleticism and a diverse game. But he lacks outright dominance in any one skill.
Richard Solomon is a rangy, athletic forward who averaged a double-double in his senior year at California, and Colorado product Askia Booker and former Ohio State standout Shannon Scott are an offense-defense point guard combination.
Shooting guards Michael Bryson (UC Santa Barbara), Kyle Kuric (Louisville) and forward Derek Cooke (Wyoming) round out the roster but don’t exactly have one NBA-ready skill to hang their hats upon.
Suns summer league schedule**
Saturday, July 9
1 p.m. – Phoenix vs. Portland
Matchup to watch: Tyler Ulis against everyone. The Blazers have three NBA-caliber backup point guards in waterbug Pierre Jackson, speedster Russ Smith and 6-foot-3 scoring point Erick Green, all of whom have NBA experience. After that, the roster is long with no player shorter than 6-foot-5 athlete Pat Connaughton. Will the 150-pound Ulis handle all that well?
Result: Phoenix won 86-73 behind Devin Booker’s 28 points. Ulis finished with 11 points, seven assists to one turnover, and three steals.
Sunday, July 10
7:30 p.m. – Phoenix vs. Boston
Matchup to watch: Bender against Jaylen Brown. Brown has been attacking the rim with abandon so far this summer and will be a test-study for how well Bender can move laterally against athletic wings.
Tuesday, July 12
3:30 p.m. – Miami vs. Phoenix
Matchup to watch: Chriss against Justice Winslow. Winslow has been playing as an undersized power forward this summer like he did during his rookie season. How Chriss handles him on the boards and defending him on the perimeter will be a thing to watch.
**This includes scheduled games before tournament format begins.