Suns Notebook: Smith Steps Up, Young Guys Show Signs
Before the season, there wasn’t much noise about the backup point guard spot. Head Coach Jeff Hornacek had expected to keep one member of his dual playmaking threat of Eric Bledsoe and Goran Dragic on the floor at all times, making that position less vital than it would normally be.
Still, Hornacek warned, whoever played behind the starting duo would be needed on occasion.
“Those guys have to always be ready,” he said. “You never know when a guy’s going to get into foul trouble early, gets hurt or if someone’s having a rough night.”
Early-season wrinkles have made Hornacek’s scenarios more real than he’d prefer. Against Utah, Bledsoe got into early foul trouble. A third-quarter collision with teammate P.J. Tucker that same night forced Dragic to miss the rest of the game. One contest later, he suffered a sprained ankle that kept him out of back-to-back road games at New Orleans and San Antonio.
As a result, Hornacek was forced to call upon Ish Smith to man the point guard spot in significant stretches.
The fourth-year guard responded admirably. Against the Pelicans, he turned in eight assists and just one turnover in 16 minutes. He held his own against the Spurs, finishing with six points, two rebounds, one assist and no turnovers in 18 minutes. Those stats aren’t as indicative of his impact as this one: his individual plus-minus (indicating the number of points better/worse the team was with him on the floor) was a team-high +12 at San Antonio.
Smith’s success stems from a combination of speed and on-court awareness. Hornacek labeled the former Wake Forest standout as one of the best in training camp at pushing the tempo. He has proven adept in that regard both in fast break and halfcourt settings, often putting defenders on their heels after turning the corner around a teammate’s screen.
In short, he’s fulfilling his job description.
“Our backup point guard’s going to be a guy hopefully that gives us a spark when we need it,” Hornacek said before the season started.
His dependability has been especially important with Dragic out of commission. Hornacek wants Bledsoe to have at least two significant rests per game, usually spanning the first/second and third/fourth quarter breaks.
“Coach wants us to go out there and pressure the ball, push the ball, make shots and create plays for others,” Smith said. “We’re going to try to do that when need be and when called [upon].”
“He tells everybody to be ready,” he added. “You never know when you’re name and number’s going to be called.”
Young Guys Getting Opportunities
Rookies Archie Goodwin and Alex Len are making the adjustment from college stars to NBA role players, but Hornacek is making a point of making sure their roles actually produce minutes on the court.
Goodwin played key minutes against in the team’s back-to-back set at New Orleans and San Antonio. He had his moments, including a behind-the-back pass for a Markieff Morris dunk and a steal and breakaway dunk of his own. Len logged important time against Utah’s big frontline and came away with four points and two blocks, though he's been held out due to foot soreness in the last three games.
The rookies’ opportunities are very much on Hornacek’s minds, but he wants to make sure they are quality ones.
“We want to get them minutes, but we don’t want to just throw them out there against someone they may be undermatched against,” he said. “We want to challenge them and we’ll put them in those situations, but if we see that it’s going to be a bad matchup, we’ll try to get them minutes somewhere else. That will just be part of it this year, trying to get those guys good, quality minutes against guys they can get going against. Once they improve that, up against the main guys.”
NBA Analyst Gives Suns Thumbs Up
Jon Barry’s NBA playing career overlapped with much of Hornacek’s, so the former guard knows what he’s talking about when he gives his thoughts on the Suns’ new head coach.
On the Doug and Wolf show on Thursday, the ESPN analyst gave his thoughts on Hornacek's imprint on the team and the Suns’ 3-2 start to the season.
"It's a long season," he said. "There's a lot of good teams out there, and I wouldn't put a win total on them, that really doesn't matter. It's about creating a culture and Jeff (Hornacek) seems to be doing that.
"Guys are enjoying themselves again and Phoenix again is a fun team to watch, like so many years with Steve Nash and the gang."