30teams30days 2017

30 Teams in 30 Days: Phoenix Suns opt for continuity as rebuild continues

Parsing through potential of young players a top priority for Phoenix

Since the Warriors downed the Cavs to take the 2017 NBA title back on June 12, NBA teams have undergone a number of changes over the long summer offseason.

NBA.com’s Shaun Powell will evaluate the state of each franchise — from the team with the worst regular-season record in 2016-17 to the team with the best regular-season record — as we look at 30 teams in 30 days.

Today’s team: Phoenix Suns

2016-17 record: 24-58

Who’s new: Josh Jackson (Draft).

Who’s gone: None

The lowdown: After reeling in young players the last few offseasons, the Suns were content to keep the status quo, for the most part, and continue a plan of player development over major trades and free agent signings. Aside from Devin Booker, who’s clearly one of the most talented under-21 players in the world, the Suns still aren’t sure what to make of their youthful core.

They used their lottery pick on Jackson, a springy small forward who, on the surface anyway, fills a need. Jackson is tremendously athletic without carrying the reckless trait that most athletic front-line players have — he actually knows how to play the game. Above all, he’s a relentless defender and Phoenix expects him to be a major contributor.

In Las Vegas Summer League play, Jackson showed off his skills by chasing down blocked shots, by moving gracefully with (and without) the ball and in attacking the rim. He also shot rather poorly, which could be problematic in a league that values outside shooting. Jackson has a quirky hitch in his jumper and clever NBA defenders will make it tough on him to launch that shot. Either Jackson will be forced to fine-tune his form, or he’ll be stuck getting most of his points in transition and around the rim.

Marquese Chriss and Dragan Bender also played Summer League, too. Unlike Jackson, though, they failed to stand out. The players, who were lottery picks in 2016, didn’t display much growth in their game. That’s what teams want to see from their second-year players in Summer League, given that the competition is mostly players who won’t make rosters. Both shot less than 40 percent, which was heightened in the case of Bender, who is supposed to be a stretch big man.

The Suns last season were essentially a batch of young players and none were consistently decent except Booker and, at times, former first-round pick TJ Warren. What can the Suns expect from Chriss and Bender? Granted, the 2016 Draft wasn’t exactly rich, and maybe the Suns were unlucky to have two picks in the top-nine in that Draft (as opposed to this Draft). Still, the organization will and should be patient with players who aren’t yet old enough to buy alcohol in most states.

Compounding matters is that Alex Len, at this point, isn’t the Suns’ best big man. What makes that particularly sobering considering his competition is old man Tyson Chandler, who averaged more minutes and almost grabbed twice as many rebounds as Len last season. He was drafted ahead of CJ McCollum and Giannis Antetokounmpo in 2013 and that, along with other factors, make Len appear to be a mistake.

Most of the players in that Draft class got paid already. Len, however, is still stuck on the market as a restricted free agent and hadn’t signed his qualifying offer with Phoenix. Unless someone comes in at the 11th hour and signs him to an offer sheet, which is highly unlikely, Len will be in limbo as the Suns approach training camp and the Oct. 1 deadline to sign qualifying offers. It’s just not a good look for a lottery pick whose value is slipping. And, what does it say about the Suns’ faith in him?

Also, it didn’t help Phoenix that Brandon Knight suffered a torn ACL last month that’s should keep him out all season. Knight was considered trade bait prior to the injury, but that idea is now kaput.

Phoenix was reportedly presented with a chance to make a big move this summer. Kyrie Irving’s expressed desire to leave the Cavaliers made him attractive to the Suns, one of the few teams who could offer a package of young players and assets to entice Cleveland.

Sending point guard Eric Bledsoe to Cleveland to replace Irving would be a no-brainer and wouldn’t be an issue for Phoenix, even with Knight’s injury. But the deal-breaker is Cleveland also wants Jackson and the Suns don’t appear to be budging on that.

It does raise an interesting question: Is Phoenix putting too much stock into an unproven rookie over the chance to pair Irving with Booker and form one of the league’s dynamic backcourts? Players like Jackson will come along again, and Phoenix will likely be in the lottery next year. Irving, though, is an amazing scorer and ball-handler who’s quite rare. Yes, there’s the chance he refuses to re-sign with Phoenix when his contract expires in two years, and that would set the franchise back, and that frightens Phoenix.

For now, the development continues along with, unfortunately, the pains associated with growing.

Coming Next: Los Angeles Lakers

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Veteran NBA writer Shaun Powell has worked for newspapers and other publications for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here or follow him onTwitter.

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