Annexus Practice Report: Rookies Ready for First Road Game
The present got off to a sluggish start for the Suns on Wednesday night. But the future sure looked bright.
Although Phoenix fell to the Kings in its season opener, 113-94, many of the team’s biggest contributions came from its youngest players.
Dragan Bender, Marquese Chriss and Tyler Ulis helped propel the Suns on a 20-4 second-half run in a lineup that included Alex Len and Brandon Knight. The stretch cut the Kings’ lead down to 10 points before Sacramento pulled away late in the fourth quarter.
Postgame, Head Coach Earl Watson told reporters that the rookies’ spirited performances earned them more minutes when the Suns return to the court on Friday in Oklahoma City.
“To me, they played with the most heart,” Watson said. “Heart gets rewarded… We need that energy. We need those steals, deflections and we need that purpose.”
Chriss began the game with the second unit and finished with seven points, four rebounds, two assists and a block in 22 minutes. Bender and Ulis, meanwhile, got their first looks in the third quarter and remained on the court thanks to the quality of their play.
“We have very, very high belief in their abilities,” Watson said. “But the fact that they came out and played both ends of the court, to me that was most impressive. I’m not surprised though.”
Bender and Ulis both recorded a steal on Wednesday, but it was the latter who really made his mark on the defensive end. Ulis pestered whoever he guarded with quick feet and even quicker hands. He even forced Kings guard Garrett Temple into traveling by aggressively pressuring him in the backcourt.
“I just tried to come in and change the game as much as possible,” Ulis said. “I knew they wanted us to get into guys defensively so I tried to pressure the ball, get steals and make things happen in transition.
“I’m getting a chance. I’m getting a shot. This is something I’ve always wanted to do, so when you go into the game, you have to play like it’s 0-0.”
The rookie guard ended up with two points, one rebound, one assist, one steal and one block. He was also one of two players on the Suns roster with a positive plus/minus. The other was Bender.
The Croatian forward was inconsistent with his shot in the preseason but found a rhythm as soon as the bright lights turned on. He shot 4-of-5 from the field, including 2-of-3 from beyond the arc.
With his 10 points, Bender joined Devin Booker, Dwight Howard and LeBron James as the only 18-year-olds to score in double digits in a season opener.
“Stepping on the court, I wasn’t really nervous,” Bender said. “I’m just playing with the guys on the court and doing my best to win the game.
“The young guys put energy on the floor and showed what we can do. In the end, we came up short, but we definitely saw what we need to do and what corrections we need to make.”
The rookies’ effort didn’t go unnoticed by the other team, either. Rudy Gay, who scored 22 points for the Kings, gave praise to the Suns’ young guns in the locker room.
“The Kids came out and they frustrated us,” Gay said. “They played hard and they played good defense.”
Watch all three rookies score their first NBA points below: