Suns Dedicated to Using G-League to Grow and Develop Young Players

Jalen Lecque
by Cody Cunningham

The Northern Arizona Suns tipped-off their season last week as the Phoenix Suns G-League affiliate opened the year with back-to-back games at home in Prescott Valley. For General Manager James Jones, Northern Arizona is more than just a secondary team, but instead is a key part of the Suns future and an opportunity to grow and develop young players as they prepare for the NBA.

“It's vital for our program,” Jones said. “If you look at the opportunity for our players, our coaches and our staff to develop, it's critical. We have one of the youngest teams in the NBA and that's not just players. It's also staff. It affords us an opportunity to grow and develop and that's important when you're trying to do what we're doing.” 

In order for the system to run smoothly, both coaching staffs must be in sync and that starts at the top with Phoenix’s Head Coach Monty Williams and Northern Arizona’s Head Coach Bret Burchard.

This is now Burchard’s fourth season with Northern Arizona, but he has been a part of the Suns organization since 2010. Throughout his four years in the G-League, Burchard has seen the league embrace a higher sense of development and connection to their NBA affiliate.

“The league has grown so much,” Burchard said. “Especially in how NBA teams are using it. The two-way contracts have made a big difference with the talent pool in the G-League and also the guys going back and forth between the NBA and the G-League. Those guys need to be ready to play NBA minutes.” 

With this being Williams first season in the Valley, it was important for he and Burchard to work together this summer to build out a program early on that would allow for shared concepts and schemes in both Phoenix and Prescott.

“He spent so much time with us,” Williams said. “I think the positive was it was just Bret, myself and Ricardo in the gym all summer, before we even hired a staff. We talked a lot. He listened to me about the things I wanted to do or we wanted to do. Now, he’s implementing them there. I also want to learn from him.”

The unity between the coaches was key for James Jones as he embraced the idea of developing through one cohesive organization rather than two separate entities. 

“They're an extension of us,” Jones said. “Bret's been here in the summer understanding how we play, our concepts, our schemes and instituting it over there in Prescott. Our coaches, our players, our staff, it's important that they get exposed to the things that we do here.”

Jones feels this is an ideal situation for players such as Jared Harper on a two-way contract and Jalen Lecque who is just 19-years-old and coming off a fifth-year of high school basketball. While there may not currently be minutes for those two at the NBA level, they are still able to get the professional basketball experience while staying prepared.

“If we assign guys like Jalen and Jared, those guys are down there learning, growing up and it helps when they are up here with us so that they can be on the same page,” Jones said. “More importantly, it affords our coaches the chance to expand their skillset, expand their understanding of our concepts and increases discussion. That league is really vital to developing the communications between coaches and players at this stage in their careers. Every player knows how to play. They just don't know how to play the way we want them to.”

Due to their contract situations, both Harper and Lecque with have the opportunity to travel, practice and play for both organizations throughout the season. An hour and a half drive is all that separates the two teams as players, coaches and staff have a quick ride to meet with, learn from and support each other.

“That's the amazing part of the dynamic with our G-League team is the physical proximity,” Jones said. “I mean on the flip side, our guys are up there practicing. They get a chance to drive down and come watch our practices or come to the games and watch our guys play. Or vice versa, our guys are able to take a 90-minute trip up to Prescott and support our teammates. They're our G-League affiliate, but they're Suns players as well. This is really cool to have that proximity because you can get so much done.”

Both Harper (30.5 points per game) and Lecque (14 points per game) have shined in their first two appearances in Northern Arizona to begin the season. And while their numbers have been impressive and growth in their game is important, Jones’ biggest focus is on their professional development.

“We don't need them to go out there and dominate the G-League,” Jones said. “We expect them to play well, but we're looking for consistency. Their approach to the daily routine of a basketball player. If they can stay consistent in their effort, their gameplay, sharing the ball, moving the ball, making good basketball plays that contribute to winning, if they can do that, that'd be exciting and beneficial for all of us.”

The Northern Arizona Suns will tip-off their third game of the season in Prescott Valley on Sunday as they go head-to-head against the Rio Grande Valley Vipers. The game will be broadcasted on NBAGLeague.com or you can purchase your tickets HERE.

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