Suns’ second unit is embracing its role and forming a team-first identity
Monty Williams acknowledges he does not know what it’s like to be an All-Star or have a State Farm commercial, a nod to Suns standouts Devin Booker and Chris Paul.
Williams does know what it’s like to toggle between starting and coming off the bench. The Suns’ coach previously carved out a nine-year NBA playing career due to his versatility, and his willingness to buy into systems and embrace the roles that he was assigned. He often was not sure what would be in store for each game, recently recalling the time he learned just before tip-off that he would start and guard Michael Jordan.
Fast forward a couple of decades, and Williams is now able to share these experiences and connect with a Suns second unit that has become a bright spot throughout the first month of the season.
“I try to talk to the guys about things I've dealt with, that they may be going through,” Williams said. “I think sometimes, when you let people know that you understand where they are, I think it releases pressure. My role as a coach is to try to put the guys in the best position I can. So, sometimes when you can empathize with them on their situation, I think it helps them progress a bit.”
Phoenix’s second unit is not only listening, but putting Williams’ words into action.
Cameron Payne, Jevon Carter, Langston Galloway, Cam Johnson and Dario Šarić have all put their egos aside and formed an energy-filled second unit that is willing to out-hustle their opponents. That mentality is immediately present for each game when, as the starters take the court for the opening tip, the remaining Suns continue the hype by exchanging high-fives and chanting, “Bench mob, bench mob, bench mob.”
“That's what the second unit kind of prides itself on,” Johnson said.
Of the Suns’ four-man lineups to log at least 28 minutes together on the court this season, the combination of Payne, Carter, Johnson and Šarić ranks second on the team with a 36.8 net rating and ranks first with a 73.9 true shooting percentage. That is also both the highest net rating and true shooting percentage in the league from a lineup built exclusively with reserved players.
The abbreviated offseason has forced NBA teams to quickly integrate new players. However, most of the Suns’ second unit is constructed with returning players who are able to continue the chemistry built in the Orlando Bubble. That allows them to play with more comfort, knowing where each other will be and trusting that their teammates have their back.
“It carried over into this year where guys come in, just with a little bit of tenacity, and the style of play kind of switches up while really going at them,” Johnson said.
The diverse skillset that general manager James Jones created within the depth of this team has formed a unit that has ability to move the ball, stay aggressive on defense and, most importantly, play as one cohesive group.
“A lot of the games that we’ve won, we’ve been carried by our bench,” Booker said.
As the point guard, Payne leads the second unit, building great relationships within it and learning his teammates’ spots on offense. His playmaking was on display in the Suns eight-point win against the Toronto Raptors on Jan. 6, when he notched a career-high-tying 10 assists in just 16 minutes. Payne currently ranks third on the team, behind All-Stars Paul and Booker, with 4.3 assists per game while lighting it up from beyond the arc with a 45.5 3-point percentage.
“I've got great relationships with all of them and I know what they're good at,” Payne said following the win against Toronto. “Credit to all of those guys making shots, knocking them down. But I was just trying to get into the paint and kick out and find my shooters.”
Carter joins Payne to form a relentless, defensive backcourt that is wreaking havoc the full 94 feet. Carter’s “bulldog mentality” and continuous motor provide the Suns with a defensive stopper, willing to counter any and all competition.
Johnson made significant strides during the hiatus between the last season’s pause and restart in the Bubble. That same growth has continued into this season, as he’s using his length and size to improve defensively and while making plays off the dribble, while still making it rain from deep. Johnson is one of six players on the Suns averaging double-digit points with 12.2 points per game. His biggest scoring outburst was in the Suns’ 16-point victory over the Sacramento Kings on Dec. 27, when he tied a career high with 21 points on 7-of-9 shooting, including 3-of-4 from 3-point range.
“It’s just a matter of taking what [the defense] gives,” Johnson said. “… Just learning how to pick and choose spots, and where to take advantage of them is something I’ve been doing along with working on executing drives and pull-ups. I feel a lot more comfortable.”
The depth and flexibility of the roster offers Williams the opportunity to test different lineups and make changes according to the matchup. For Monday night’s game at Memphis, Johnson moved into the starting lineup, while veteran Jae Crowder initially brought his rugged, defensive mentality to the second unit then remained part of the closing lineup.
Šarić averages 10.6 points per game, but his biggest skill is his versatility. Williams constantly highlights the importance of Šarić’s “connector” role that allows the offense to flow through him as big man. He’s able to use his large frame to battle inside as well as his smooth stroke to cash in from deep, making him a matchup a nightmare to either pick-and-pop or pick-and-roll.
Though Galloway is averaging less than ten minutes per game, he is clearly using his time on the court efficiently. With one of the quickest releases in the league, Galloway leads the Suns shooting 50 percent from beyond the arc and has continuously shown his momentum-shifting ability to draw four-point plays.
“Just trying to stay ready,” Galloway said when asked about putting up extra shots postgame. “With everybody really playing well right now, just trying to get into the rotation. I think my biggest thing is just take it day by day, continue to do my work, be prepared for whenever my number is called.”
Add in veteran E’Twaun Moore, NBA champion Damian Jones, the always-convivial Frank Kaminsky and promising rookie Jalen Smith, and the Suns are set with one of the deepest rosters the Valley has witnessed in years.
“We play a lot of team basketball and that's the biggest notch for us,” Payne said. “I know if someone cuts me off, my man can make a play. We just try to keep that up and try to play fast and just try to get stops.”
Williams’ team is following his framework as a player, accepting what it takes to win and keeping the focus on maintaining a strong work ethic, embracing roles and playing with relentless effort night-in and night-out.
That method has resulted in the Suns beginning the season 7-5, with that second unit staying ready and stepping up to the challenge whenever their number is called.
“I love playing with that group,” Johnson said.