Young Suns Figuring Out the Learning Curve

Rookie point guard focused on leading the team as this past season came to a close.
(NBAE/Getty Images)
Lindsey Hunter wanted to make one thing clear to his players when he took over as the interim head coach of the Suns: Everybody had an equal opportunity.

He stressed treating everyone the same, so that each person in the locker room would feel free to compete and earn a spot regardless of varying factors such as seniority, reputation and previous experience with the team.

As a result, the team went a little younger, and players like Wesley Johnson, Kendall Marshall and Markieff Morris either established themselves in Hunter’s rotation or, in Morris’ case, further cemented an already-established role.

The head coach has said that Johnson took most advantage of the opportunity in front of him, but here is how the progress of two other younger players unfolded this season:

KENDALL MARSHALL: CHESSMASTER

The rookie point guard out of North Carolina plays the game differently than many of his peers who have produced a current golden age for the position.

Marshall doesn’t look to score first. Instead, he is looking to get others involved.

That is why he continues to track his own development more in terms of his control of the offense and his own teammates rather than things like shooting percentage, scoring averages or assist-to-turnover ratio.

He wants to see the game like a great chess player, and his teammates would be the pieces he can orchestrate to produce a win.

“It’s getting better, and I’m beginning to feel like I can have complete control of the game,” Marshall said. “As a point guard, you want to feel like you have complete control of everything that is going on while you’re out there. That is one of the main things I’ve been focusing on getting continually better at.

“I’m trying to make sure that I’m getting what I want out of our team every time up and down the court. Then defensively, I’m working to make sure that my presence is felt.”

When his opportunity came, Marshall was ready. During the two games at the end of March when Phoenix rested starter Goran Dragic, Marshall racked up 23 assists and only seven turnovers. His jump shot wasn’t there, but he was still effectively controlling the game the way he wanted to.

It has been widely noted that others have pinpointed Marshall’s weaknesses as his jump shot and his ability to defend the latest crop of ultra-athletic point guards in the NBA. One person who the North Carolina product said has been vocal about his weaknesses, while pushing him to get better, is Hunter.

To make sure Marshall reaches his potential, Hunter – earlier in the season serving the team in player development – accompanied the rookie to Bakersfield during his stint with the team’s D-League affiliate. At that point in time, the Suns were not finding minutes for Marshall, so they wanted to see what he could do with extended playing time.

It afforded Marshall the opportunity to show signs of an improved jumper and offensive aggressiveness, but it also allowed his future coach a chance to watch last season’s No. 13 overall draft pick up close to see what path should be taken for his future.

“I think he realizes the things he has to keep working on, and it’s the same things we’ve been talking about: consistency and straying from your comfort zone,” Hunter said. “As a rookie, I know that’s what he doesn’t want to do. You have the mindset, ‘I’m comfortable and this works for me.’ Well, no. You have a long way to go.

“I try to make sure he doesn’t get comfortable, so that he never accepts the idea that ‘I’m good enough.’ No, you have to keep going.”

Hunter’s position change and increased responsibility have forced him away from focusing so intensely on Marshall, but the duo have a way of still connecting.

The guard said that Chris Darnell in player development and assistant coach Noel Gillespie have been the ones to work with him closest now that Hunter is the head coach.

“(Hunter’s) having to coordinate things for 14 guys, so he isn’t keying in on me like he used to,” Marshall said. “But he’s still been hard on me, pushing me to get better. He still tells player development what he wants us to be focusing on.”

Besides the coaching staff, Marshall has pointed to fellow teammates as critical people in his development. The cohesiveness and bond forming in Phoenix is something that the point guard feels strongly, and that starts with twin brothers Markieff and Marcus Morris.

“I think it’s cool, because we have a few younger guys who are getting a chance to see how we fit into the puzzle and to find out how we can contribute to the team now and in the future,” Marshall said. “But I really tip my hat to those veteran guys – like J.D., Goran, Scola, Shannon and Jermaine – for how they have put up with us.”

MARKIEFF MORRIS: EXPECTING MORE

In his second season with the Suns, after being drafted 13th in the 2011 NBA Draft, Markieff Morris has already has learned who will consistently be pushing him to get better.

The first person – whose mere presence in Phoenix came as an uplifting surprise to the power forward – is his twin brother, Marcus. The second is Hunter.

The acquisition of Marcus from Houston via trade was, by design, an effort to pair the twins together in hopes that their familiarity with each other will benefit the team on the court. The goal was also to have the brothers motivate each other to improve away from the court, while their natural chemistry could be shown during games.

“I basically now have that guy who will always tell me what’s going on, because he’s not afraid to say something to you,” Markieff said of Marcus. “He has my back, and I’m the same for him.

“If there’s ever a time where I’m not doing what I’m supposed to and reaching the level I should, he’s going to be the first person to tell me something – along with Lindsey.”

While Markieff has obviously enjoyed having his brother by his side in Phoenix, the goals he had set for himself were well-entrenched by the time Marcus arrived. The person he has leaned on from within the organization throughout his second season is Hunter, even as the transition from player development to head coach took place.

“Of course he’s had to change,” Markieff said. “When you go from player development to head coach that’s a giant step, but he was so well respected when he came here that a lot of guys have felt comfortable with him from the beginning.

“He got stricter, which is what you’re supposed to do. The first role of a head coach is to lead.”

The lesson he’s taken to heart the most from Hunter may seem like a simple one, but it may just be the key to provoking more performance like the power forward produced toward the end of the season - the back-to-back 20 point games, one in which he also added six blocks and five steals, and the 17-rebound game in late March.

“I have to find a way to dig down deep and find a way to push through each day, each game to become better,” Markieff said.

As for how he and Marcus are acclimating themselves to being together in Phoenix, it has been apparent just what kind of influence they have on each other. Consistently the two brothers are among the final few Suns working out after practice getting more shots up.

“He’s a hard-working guy,” Markieff said of Marcus. “He pushes me to work at a different level, and I appreciate him for that.

“No matter what, he’s going to be working hard. If he’s not making shots, he’s going to be in the gym shooting.”