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Depth charge: Suns flex a full roster of winning contributions

Suns fans who couldn’t wait for the 2022-23 season to begin already knew what many outsiders did not: The team’s depth would not be the problem many predicted.

An obvious strength during last season’s league-leading 64-28 campaign, the bench proved that confidence was not misplaced as the Suns sprinted to an 8-3 start, and, with a defining victory over Golden State on Wednesday, moved to 9-5 despite a couple of key injuries.

It has surprised no one on the team, certainly not Cameron Payne.

“We’re just trying to be more consistent,” Payne told Suns.com after a recent practice. “Pushing the pace a little bit better, trying to take care of the ball more, but I also added midrange to my game.”

Payne’s leadership sets the stage, and he provided a vital anchor to the second unit.

“We’re doing a lot of pre practice together (coming up with more plays and adjusting and creating new concepts within the offense),” he said. “Just trying to push the pace and finding more chemistry with the guys.”

After a fast start to the season, the injury bug struck.

Payne was promoted to a starting role when future Hall of Famer Chris Paul was sidelined. He proceeded to outperform expectations and replaced the question mark with an exclamation point in Wednesday’s win over Golden State.

A 29-point performance with six 3-pointers will do that for you.

HOW IT’S HAPPENING

Fellow sparkplug Landry Shamet echoed Payne’s analysis regarding the second unit’s impact.

“It’s not surprising (given) how hard we work,” Shamet said. “Coming in early, get extra reps in with that second unit working together. Pushing the pace.

“We compete. We kind of have that mentality that it doesn’t matter who’s on the floor, our job and our goal is to pick up the slack where it needs to be.”

The common theme has been familiarity with each other – and the unanimous pledge to push for a common goal of chasing a title. The extra work has improved the fusion among the dedicated second-unit contributors and has shined a bright light on personnel decisions.

“Truthfully, you can’t say it enough with this group,” Shamet said. “We have a lot of hard-working guys.

“(The chemistry) It’s from the top down, it’s by design. You have to get the right kind of guys in and once you get those guys in you have to build a culture on the floor with the coaches with the players.

“And we do a tremendous job here. From James (general manager James Jones) all the way down to the training staff. It bleeds in.”

Opponents have noticed.

Prior to Wednesday’s big win over the Warriors, Golden State center Kevon Looney pointed to intelligence as a big key.

“They have a lot of high IQ players,” he said. “ … They just have a lot of high IQ guys that know how to play the game and know where to be at.”

High-energy center Jock Landale backed up Looney’s point with a winning effort Wednesday night, collecting seven points, four rebounds and two blocked shots.

The team’s depth has passed several tests, and the second unit has earned high grades.

In a 129-117 victory in Minnesota, Payne stepped up in a big way, collecting 23 points, eight assists and five rebounds in place of Paul, and, with help from Shamet’s 16 points — in only 19 minutes — on 5-of-7 shooting (2-for-3 from long range), eased any short-term concerns.

THE QUICK START

Rather than worrying about the minutes during which stars Devin Booker, Deandre Ayton and Paul grab a breather, Suns fans have watched eagerly as the team’s impressive depth has extended inherited leads and trimmed deficits during its time on the floor.

In fact, the numbers show the Suns trending toward the top of the league in the NBA’s bench rankings.

Since then, the second-unit statistical success has been shifted by necessity. With CP3 and Cam Johnson suffering injuries, Payne and Torrey Craig have moved into the starting lineup and continue to flourish, but their numbers now fill the “starting unit” column.

In fact, Payne is averaging 20.1 points and 6.0 assists in his four starts this season after averaging 14.0 points, 9.0 assists and 4.0 rebounds in 12 starts a season ago.

But it’s not just the offensive output from Payne, Landale, Craig and others. The Suns bench ranked fifth in the NBA in opponent points per game at 36.0.

That impact is not lost on the starters, either.

“We are going to need them,” Booker said following a win over the Houston Rockets. “I think we understand the importance of having a deep roster and deep team. You know it has been successful for us in the past couple of years. We need to stick with it.

“Those guys have been working, before practice and after practice they get together as a unit. They are going at it full speed.”

There is no ego among the depth charge.

”They’ve got veteran guys who have been playing together … that continuity makes a difference,” Warriors star Draymond Green said before Wednesday’s game.

A MEASURABLE FORCE

Damion Lee and Craig have joined Payne among the leading contributors, with Lee hitting the game-winner against Dallas in his first appearance for Phoenix.

Head coach Monty Williams is clearly pleased with the early returns on the 30-year-old Lee, fresh off a title with the Warriors last season.

And his 3-for-3 effort from 3-point range Wednesday against those Warriors played no small part in keeping Phoenix comfortably in command.

“I just think guys who have been in those situations, who have been in those environments, like he was in at Golden State, like not much phases a guy like that,” Williams said following that win over Dallas.

“If it does phase him, he knows how to deal with it and he’s been around guys who have walked through those situations before. I think that rubs off on you … the willingness to take that shot, let alone make it, says a lot about who he is.

“I just feel guys who have been in those environments, who have been in those practices, who have been in those games, they handle those situations a lot better than guys who haven’t.”

Lee already has carved a nice playing-time niche for himself.

“My role out there, Coach just told me to be aggressive and do what I do,” he said after the Mavericks game. “I passed up a couple of shots early, but it started to go in towards the end.”

And Craig, in his second stint with the Suns, is not one to be surprised by the big moments. His rebounding, defense and 3-point shooting early this season have been above expectations.

Looking for a perfect example of Craig’s contribution early this season?

He scored 13 points against the New Orleans Pelicans Oct. 28, finishing a perfect 6-for-6 from the field. In the first half, he was 5-for-5 and grabbed four rebounds – the third time as a member of the Suns he’s accomplished the 10+ points perfecto for a half (100 percent shooting, minimum five field-goal attempts).

Rare? Only Alex Len shares that distinction among all Suns non-starting players since at least the 1996-97 season.

Craig has been starting in place of Johnson, who is out indefinitely, and put up 13 points and 10 rebounds against the defending champion Warriors on Wednesday.

Payne was quick to spotlight Craig when asked which players off the bench have provided the punch on defense and on the glass.

“T-Craig – he’s on the boards like crazy,” Payne said after a recent practice. “He’s been doing tremendous – getting offensive rebounds, getting us extra possessions. Especially for the second unit: He guards the prime-time guy. So he’s been doing (it all).”

Williams agrees, telling reporters after a win over Portland: “I thought he was really good tonight and he’s just been a maniac attacking the glass this year and when he’s knocking down his 3-point shot from the corner, it just adds to what he brings to the table every night.”

Entering Friday’s game at Utah, the long-range success from Craig (career-best 40.5 percent shooting on 13-33 beyond the arc) and Lee (career-best 49.0 percent, 24-49) has played an integral role in complementing the strong start from Payne.

LEADER OF THE DEPTH CHARGE

The engine driving the depth machine is Payne.

An increased dedication during the offseason has served to produce improved results. His field-goal and 3-point percentage are better than his 2021-22 season and his mindset is different, too.

As an NBA vet with “point guard” as his position, does that mean he’s always looking to dish?

“Nah, I’m looking to score first,” Payne said. “One thing Coach harps on – he’s always about ‘trust your work’ … like risk it, remove doubt. And I get my work in.

“So immediately, like me making the 3, that already gives me an opportunity to get into the paint, so I’m always looking to score first.”

The change of pace he presents when subbing in for Paul can throw off opposing defenses.

“I feel like when you look to pass first sometimes, you can take away being aggressive,” Payne said. “So I always try to be aggressive first – score first – and then I’ll try to pass it.”

Perhaps no one believes in the Suns’ depth more than Williams. He saw the new-and-improved version of Payne throughout the preseason, and on opening night against Dallas, his coaching actions said it all.

Payne finished that first game, along with Lee, as the Suns beat the Mavericks. Asked to put those actions into words, Williams was unflinching as he talked about removing Paul and then opting to keep the future Hall of Famer on the bench as the game rushed toward the finish.

“Well, that’s normally where I take him out anyway, so I usually give him a three-minute break and then I bring him in to close,” Williams said postgame. “That’s been the rotation for us, but Cam (Payne) came in, we had a good rhythm and I just felt like it was the move to stay with Cam.”

The production is something Williams believes will be a constant, and the early returns have proved his theory.

“Cam did such a good job with that group,” Williams said, “that group as a whole is pretty good on both ends and so I just rolled with it.”

THE REST OF THE FORCE

Suns cynics feared the loss of JaVale McGee, an important cog in last season’s machinery, but offseason acquisition Landale has quickly become a fan favorite, and, coupled with veteran Bismack Biyombo, provides a formidable presence when Ayton takes a break.

Landale provides quick energy, intelligence and an ability to stretch the floor during his minutes.

He’s proved to be a nice purchase, arriving from Atlanta in exchange for cash in July.

Through the season’s first 14 games, Landale:

  • Averaged 7.4 points and 4.4 rebounds in 15 minutes of action off the bench, one of only three centers in the league to that point of the season averaging 8+ points and 4+ rebounds in fewer than 20 minutes of action off the bench (joining Andre Drummond and Onyeka Okongwu).
  • Registered a pair of 15+ point games off the bench, including a season-high 17 points on 10/25 vs. Golden State in a game during which he also pulled down seven rebounds.

Landale’s immediate contributions have been recognized by teammates. Following a 16-point, seven-rebound effort against Houston on Oct. 30, Landale’s efforts were lauded by Paul.

“It’s so valuable,” CP3 said. “The energy and pace he plays with, he gives himself up so much. There are so many plays that Jock, DA (Deandre Ayton), and Biz (Biyombo) – a lot of the open 3s we get is because of their selflessness in the way that they roll and the way that they run the floor.”

Landale’s Per 36 Minutes averages include 17.6 points and over 10 rebounds. “Jock’s 3 hasn’t been falling,” Payne said, “but that just shows how good of a player he is that he still makes an impact without even making his 3s.”

The expectation is that Landale’s 3-point stroke will soon pay off – and pay additional dividends.

Biyombo, too, has served to provide vital minutes. He knocked away nine shots over a two-game period while starting in place of Ayton.

Entering Friday’s game at Utah, Biyombo, the seventh overall pick in the 2011 draft, has a Per 36 Minutes average of 10 rebounds and a ridiculous 5.3 blocks.

A pleasant surprise – Duane Washington Jr. – helped push the Suns to a near victory over 2022 Eastern Conference finalist Miami on Monday. Washington’s 21 points on 8-of-14 shooting in the 113-112 defeat showed Williams the team’s depth can go 10 or 11 deep.

It’s a nice point of comfort.

When called upon, the Suns’ depth continues to deliver.