With high expectations entering the 2020-21 season, the Suns are meshing their promising core with prominent offseason additions.
Jae Crowder always makes a point to absorb the vibe of his working environment. And the first time the veteran forward walked into the Suns’ new Verizon 5G Performance Center, Crowder loved what he felt.
“It’s full of life,” said Crowder, whom the Suns signed as a free agent less than a month ago. “It’s full of guys wanting to be better. It’s full of a coaching staff wanting to push you to be better. It’s full of just good energy.
“I’m an energy type of guy, so maybe I’m trippin’ or maybe I’m weird. But I felt it, and I feel it every day.”
All-Star Devin Booker concurs, describing the atmosphere as loving and caring, yet competitive and diligent. Third-year big man Deandre Ayton, who is known for his gregarious demeanor, recently marveled at how loud the facility has been, saying, “You hear dudes yelling. You hear new characters, new personalities."
During coach Monty Williams’ first season, the 2019-20 Suns laid a foundation rooted in simple principles: show up on time, defend, compete, share the ball and gratitude. After a thrilling 8-0 run in the Orlando Bubble, Phoenix’s next task is meshing a promising young core with prominent additions headlined by future Hall of Famer Chris Paul, who have elevated internal and external expectations.
Though Williams is often credited with instilling the Suns’ values and approach, the coach knows it’s up to the players to continue driving that culture into a 2020-21 season that begins with Wednesday’s Fry’s Food Stores Tip-Off against the Dallas Mavericks at 8:30 p.m. on FOX Sports Arizona and ESPN.
“We all try to teach good stuff, but the players are the ones who implement it every day,” Williams said. “That’s something I don’t take for granted.”
Continuing to build Williams’ “championship habits” started with the returning players, who vowed to harness the momentum generated in Orlando.
Ayton, Mikal Bridges, Cam Johnson, Jevon Carter and Cameron Payne were among those who primarily stayed in Phoenix throughout the offseason, taking advantage of voluntary open-gym time with the Suns’ coaches and strength and conditioning staff at Veterans Memorial Coliseum and the 5G “Lab.” Player development coach Riccardo Fois, who is lauded for his relentless-yet-approachable style, spearheaded the individual on-court drills. Though league-mandated COVID-19 protocols prevented players from working out together, Ayton could feel the buy-in while crossing paths with teammates throughout the facility.
“The thing that was different from the time I’ve been here,” Ayton said, “there’s dudes that want to be here.”
General manager James Jones then added players whose skills, personalities, experiences and work ethics would fit with the returning roster.
Jones took the big swing in trading for Paul, then drafted disciplined big man Jalen Smith. During free agency, the Suns re-signed Carter and Dario Saric, two players Williams called “culture-drivers,” and signed the hard-nosed Crowder, sharpshooter Langston Galloway, versatile guard E’Twaun Moore and athletic big man Damian Jones. Moore said the Suns’ Bubble performance illustrated a team makeup he “definitely wanted to be a part of,” while Crowder said a conversation with Booker and Paul sold him on joining the Suns.
Still, Carter was among the returning Suns who immediately set high expectations while welcoming his new teammates.
“We just preached to them, saying, ‘You can win a lot of games in this league by just by playing hard. If you don’t want to play hard, then you’re not gonna play here at all. So match everybody’s energy,’” Carter said.
Carter is pleased to report that, since the first day of training camp, players have been “going at each other’s heads all day.” That intensity is apparent even as on-court chemistry remains a work-in-progress.
A later and more abbreviated offseason, plus COVID-19 precautions, meant players could not partake in the customary voluntary pick-up games before training camp began. Crowder told Williams during the preseason that the Suns did not yet fully trust each other on defense, the end of the floor where communication and instincts are critical while rotating and helping teammates. New players are learning the “0.5” offensive style, which thrives on natural feel, ball and body movement and quick decision-making.
Yet Ayton said all players understand their role on this team, so “there’s no tension in the air.” Booker, whose basketball mind is mature beyond his years, often takes the lead on helping coaches explain concepts, actions and principles during practice. Williams appreciates that he can lean on those returning players to share day-to-day goals, from crisp time management to film-session approach to why video screens with mantras such as “reps remove doubt” are cued up all over the practice facility.
“Those guys actually know what’s coming,” Williams said, “so they can talk to the new guys and tell them, ‘Yeah, that’s what we do.’”
Added Carter: “I feel like we got a lot of guys that care. We don’t have guys that come in being like, ‘Oh, we’re doing this again today’ and, ‘Oh, we’re doing too much.’ We don’t have those guys. We have guys that come in and want to work and want to get better and want to get after each other, and that’s what makes practice fun.”
Paul has been pleasantly surprised by how quickly off-the-court camaraderie has formed through a group text, team dinners and locker-room banter, saying “it seems like we’ve been together for a while.”
Perhaps undrafted rookie Ty-Shon Alexander best represents how that chemistry has been fostered up and down the roster.
Alexander spent Thanksgiving with Bridges, bonding over playing college ball in the Big East conference. He and Ayton immediately developed a “real cool” friendship, as evidenced by some playful bench interactions during Friday’s preseason finale against the Lakers. And Alexander has played some post-practice 1-on-1 against Booker, the player whose highlights he has watched on loop for years.
“It starts with everybody, man,” Booker said. “We have a really good group, 1 through 15, all locked in. You feel that when you’re out on the court. …
“You’re (working) every day, but at the same time, you’re enjoying it and having fun, knowing that your teammate — or your brother alongside of you — is coming with the same simple approach (and) has the same, similar goals that you want the team to get to.”
Though the Suns went winless during the preseason — two games at elevation in Utah and another two against the defending-champion Lakers — Williams saw practice work translate to games more and more each day. That was most apparent at the start of both matchups against the Lakers, when the starting group and first wave of reserves built a big lead despite missing Paul, Saric, Johnson and Payne for at least one full game apiece.
The day after the first Lakers game, Williams emerged from a staff meeting and stumbled upon a scene he believes captures how culture is fostered through everyday routines, accountability and teamwork. An hour before practice, Paul and Ayton had settled into an empty board room in the Performance Center, breaking down film together.
It was a prime example of a returning Suns player and a new one, meshing to build on the foundation created last season.
“You can’t pay for that,” Williams said. “ … That’s the culture-driving stuff that we talk about.”
Note: The Suns will begin the 2020-21 season without fans in attendance at home games at Phoenix Suns Arena. For more information, click here.