Summer Work Waiting for Goodwin, Len

Barry Gossage/NBAE

If work gave you a five-month break, you probably wouldn’t hang out in the office.

Unless you’re Archie Goodwin.

“I’ll be in the gym tomorrow.”

Those were Goodwin’s words during closing interviews, which mark the end of the regular season and the beginning of summer vacation for NBA players.

Chances are he won’t be alone. Alex Len is good bet to join him.

The pair of rookies showed flashes of why the Suns drafted them less than a year ago. Both know they need to show more than that to increase their playing time and roles on the team.

The Suns’ front office and coaching staff are waiting and willing to award them, to the point where this summer’s draft plan already has Goodwin and Len in mind.

“I think it’s unlikely we bring in three rookies to the Suns next year,” said Suns General Manager Ryan McDonough. “Obviously we have Alex and Archie, who we’re high on.”

It’s not hard to see why. Goodwin excelled when given playing time this season, particularly when cutting off the ball, driving with it and pestering opponents for it on the defensive end.

He reminded onlookers of all those skills in the season finale, when he scored 29 points on 11-of-13 shooting.

Yet he and Len’s in-game experience was limited once the team focused on a playoff push. Rookie learning curves can compromise such an effort, but first-year players tend to learn most in live game action.

It’s a dilemma McDonough respects.

“With the success that we had this year, it’s a good problem to have, but it’s tough to develop rookies and also try to win a lot of games,” he said.

Unless, of course, said rookies improve to the point where it’s impossible to keep them out of the rotation. That’s what the Suns are hoping occurs by some point next season.

Consequently, this summer presents a huge opportunity for Len and Goodwin.

“I’ve always felt that the offseason between your rookie year and your second year is the biggest summer of a player’s career,” McDonough said. “The guys realize just how good the players are at this level, how big and strong, physical and fast the game moves up here. They’re ready for it as a second-year player. They’re not in shock anymore.”

Goodwin is the exclamation point in this regard. Gifted with an uncanny ability to get to the rim and draw contact, the 6-5 guard found himself unable to budge initial or help defenders early in the season. His easy paths to the paint were walled off and officials were loathe to reward his driving attempts.

Fast forward past a season’s worth of weight-lifting and NBA-quality practices to the Kings game. Suddenly he was absorbing contact instead of bouncing off it, and finishing after the fact. Of his 11 made shots, 10 occurred in the paint.

Then there was the jump shot.

Again, Goodwin defies what most of us would do. When we stink at something, we usually avoid it. When it came to that pesky jumper, however, he did the opposite.

Goodwin was the first to arrive at practice. He was the last to leave. Nearly all the extra time was filled with jumper after jumper, a calm consistency which helped drown the maddening impatience to master this hole in his game.

By the time the Kings game rolled around, the improvement as noticeable. The wrist was doing less. The overall form was controlled. He went 1-of-3 from beyond the arc in that contest, an unremarkable line until you remember he was hitting less than one trey for every eight attempts before then.

“Archie’s changing his shot up some. That’s a very difficult thing to do,” Hornacek admitted. “I told Archie, ‘when you start doing this, you’re probably going to be a worse shooter than you were before. You’re going to have that little downfall and then you’re going to go back up.’ He’s really worked on it. Even in that last game against Sacramento, when he took his jump shots they looked much better than they did earlier in the season. He’s continuing to work on that.”

The hardest part for Goodwin was the stark contrast between practice time and playing time, something teammate and newly minted NBA Most Improved Player Goran Dragic can appreciate.

Like Goodwin, Dragic was deemed an above-average slasher who lacked the jump shot needed to demand respect from opposing defenses. Like Goodwin, Dragic was forced to spend the majority of his first season on the bench and the practice court while the veterans swallowed up the bulk of playing time.

The Slovenian guard was more than willing to empathize with his rookie teammate.

“I already talked with him,” Dragic said. “‘It’s your first season, so be patient. You’re going to get your opportunity.’ I feel like I’m Steve [Nash], now, who’s talking to me.”

“[Goodwin] was such a positive guy,” Dragic added. “He was always working hard. He came to practice, even when we were down and we didn’t’ have energy, him and P.J. would lift practice up and everybody would have to follow. Archie demonstrated that he’s going to be a great player in this league.”

Fact: Alex Len underwent two ankle surgeries that forced him to miss summer league, training camp and the first half of the season.

Fact: it’s impossible to perfectly grade his rookie season without taking the previous fact into account.

“Alex had the ankle issue he was dealing with, so he really couldn’t have that same summer of workout, go through training camp and get that experience,” Hornacek said.

What little he did get was squeezed in amid the Suns’ playoff run, though Len made the most of it. Among players who logged in action in at least half the games this season, he ranked in the top 30 in the league in offensive rebounds and blocks per 36 minutes. His “opponent field goal percentage at the rim” ranked better than Tyson Chandler, Andre Drummond and Pau Gasol.

He also offers much more on the offensive end than his rookie year showed.

“He can really shoot the ball,” Dragic said earlier this season. “For his size, for a big guy, he can shoot those big-range shots.”

Then there are his other skills, which had limited chances to show themselves this season. But they did show. A high-post pass to a cutting Markieff Morris. A swishing, turnaround jumper on the baseline. A straight-up denial of a driving layup.

“He’s got great touch,” Hornacek said. “He’s got a good feel for the game. He can pass the ball. The game is fast for him right now, but at this stage, for us to be able to throw him in there in big games, he’s not afraid of anything.”

The last statement was driven home in a March road game at Boston, where Len was pressed into emergency crunch time duty after Miles Plumlee was hurt late in the contest. The 7-1 big man scored six points in the final five minutes, including the game-clinching tip-in basket.

“I thought from the time he came in after his ankle issues, he did a great job of working hard,” Hornacek said.

The glimpses, the flashes, the signs of what Goodwin and Len could become made up the bulk of their rookie seasons.

Hornacek witnessed others, too subtle or behind-the-scenes for fans to notice. There were the hundreds of extra hours of practice compared to their teammates. He’s counting on more of the same this offseason.

“They study the game,” Hornacek said. “I don’t think a player can get to that top level without really studying the game, watching tape. Both those guys are on Synergy [Sports] and watching different guys around the league. I just think that their improvement from the beginning of the year is much better. They’re going to get bigger and stronger, which will help them. They have great futures.”

Since getting drafted, Goodwin felt the same way. He has been open about the gaps in his game. He’s also refreshingly blunt when it comes to gauging his own potential, repeatedly stating his desire to “be one of the best to ever do it.”

“I just have a mindset of I know I’m going to be put in an opportunity to where I have my chance to show what I can do,” Goodwin said. “I’m going to take full advantage of it and make sure I work out this summer, get my body right, keep getting better, keep getting stronger, keep the same killer mentality I have and just bring it over to next year.”

So yes, it’s summer. Just not summer vacation.

“No question, it’s a big summer for those young guys,” McDonough said.