After playing for the lottery in the past two seasons, where do the Suns go from here with their young talent?
The Suns currently own the third worst record in the entire league, and are only a 1/2 game ahead of the Lakers. The Suns are not keeping their tanking plans a secret, as they have shut down Eric Bledsoe, Tyson Chandler, and Brandon Knight for the season. Their tank is in full effect, as they have lost 8 games in a row and are 1–9 in their last ten.
So it’s clear the Suns are again playing for the draft. However, there are other questions surrounding their roster that need answering. Those two main questions are 1) what are they going to do with their established players? And 2) what do they truly have in their young talent?
Now, established player is a broad term, so let’s narrow it down to Bledsoe, Knight, and Chandler, the three players that were shut down this season. Bledsoe was enjoying a career year, averaging 21.1 points, 6.3 assists, and 4.8 rebounds per game. Bledsoe also had career highs in PER (20.7), offensive box plus-minus (3.7), and box plus-minus (3.3). Perhaps most importantly, Bledsoe was also able to stay on the floor this season, which is not only a great sign for him personally, but also increases his trade value should that be the direction Phoenix goes.
Another aspect that bolsters Bledsoe’s trade value is his contract. Bledsoe is on a very good contract relative to his performance, as he is set to earn just $14.5 and $15 million the next two seasons.
On the opposite side of the spectrum, Brandon Knight played his trade value in to the ground, shooting less than 40 percent from the floor and playing only 21 minutes per game, far from his playing time in previous seasons. The Suns tried to trade Knight this season, but as a result of his poor play (Knight ranks 458th out of 460 players in real plus-minus) and his expensive contract (he’s set to make $13+ million each year until 2020), there were understandably no suitors willing to take him.
If the Suns really want to move on from Knight, they’ll have to attach a pick with some value alongside Knight, something that is seen more often in today’s NBA. Knight is only 25 years old and has shown promise in the past of being a reliable combo guard that can put up points and hit threes, but his value has plummeted this season, further putting his NBA future in jeopardy.
Is this when I remind you that Suns GM Ryan McDonough called Knight “the best player in the trade coming or going” in a trade that included both Goran Dragic and Isaiah Thomas? No? Alright then, let’s move on.
Finally, Tyson Chandler was actually enjoying somewhat of a career renaissance this season, averaging 11.5 rebounds per game while shooting 67.1 percent from the floor. Chandler also posted a very good 2.09 defensive real plus-minus, good for 17th in the league among centers.
It’s most likely that the Suns explore trading Bledsoe and Knight this offseason, especially if the Suns are able to land a top two pick, in which case they would be able to draft their point guard of the future in Lonzo Ball or Markelle Fultz. Even if they get a pick in the 3–5 range, other point guards like Dennis Smith Jr. and De’Aaron Fox loom as potential long-term options at the point, making it likely Bledsoe could be on his way out of phoenix as his trade value is at its highest.
But enough about the established veterans, let’s focus on the young talent in Phoenix because there is an interesting collection of it.
The Suns have seven players on their roster that are 23 or younger: Booker, Dragan Bender, Marquese Chriss, Derrick Jones Jr., Tyler Ulis, TJ Warren, and Len.
Booker is the best of the group and is expected to become one of, if not the key cog of the Suns’ future teams. While Booker has clearly proven himself to be an elite scorer, his lack of contributions in other aspects of the game limit his overall impact on the game.
This season Booker is averaging 21.6 points, 3.2 rebounds, and 3.2 assists per game. Pretty impressive numbers for a guy who can’t legally buy alcohol right?
Booker’s play-making has been a pleasant surprise, as he has shown the ability to read the court and make the right pass at times. Considering the fact that Booker had 42 total assists in the 38 games he played in college, seeing him play-make for others relatively well is a welcome addition to his game.
However, look beneath the surface and you’ll find concerns with Booker’s game, mainly being that Booker is a very inefficient scorer and poor defender. Booker has never shot better than 43 percent from the field, and is posting an effective field goal percentage of just 47.5 percent this season.
On the defensive side of the ball, Booker’s shortcomings are exposed. This season Booker owns a defensive box plus-minus of -2.7, which is actually worse than the -2.3 DBPM he had last season. Also, Booker ranks 90th (-2.24) among qualifying shooting guards in defensive real plus-minus. It’s clear that Booker has work to do on the defensive end to even be passable on that end of the floor.
Looking at the other young talent on the roster, it’s unclear what exactly the Suns have in each player. Chriss has received nearly 21 minutes per game and has played pretty well, putting up per-36 minute numbers of 15.4 points, 7 rebounds, 1.5 steals, and 1.4 blocks per game. Chriss is also hitting nearly a three per game, and is shooting 33.2 percent from beyond the arc, making him somewhat of a floor-spacing threat at the power forward position.
Of course Chriss has also shown the tremendous athleticism many expected from him this season, throwing down dunk after dunk:
Chriss also hasn’t been a trainwreck on the defensive side of the ball, as he is posting a neutral (0.0) defensive box plus-minus. If Chriss can improve to around 35–36 percent on threes and continue to provide jaw-dropping athleticism, he’ll certainly be a key player in the Suns’ future.
Len and Warren are the most experienced players in this group, with Len being in his fourth season and Warren in his third. Interestingly, Len is receiving the second lowest minutes per game of his career (20.2), yet he’s been fairly productive in those minutes. Per-36 minutes Len is averaging 13.7 points, 11.7 rebounds, and 2.2 blocks per game. However, the Suns don’t seem to be too ecstatic about Len’s future, and a lucrative offer in restricted free agency may very well lead to Len’s departure.
Warren on the other hand, is receiving the most minutes in his career, putting up 13.8 points and 4.7 rebounds per game in the 30.4 minutes per game he’s receiving. While Warren is a fairly efficient scorer (career 51.8 effective field goal percentage and 54 percent true shooting percentage), he is a very poor three-point shooter (career 29.7 percent), limiting the floor spacing for the Suns’ guards.
In the long run Warren may be better suited as a small ball four, where his three point shooting won’t kill the floor spacing as much and he can expose opposing power forwards trying to guard him on the perimeter. Warren is under contract for another season before hitting restricted free agency, so the Suns have some time to figure out what they truly have in him.
It remains to be seen whether or not even one of this young group of players can become consistent contributors on a good team. The Suns still don’t know what they truly have in each of those players (except Booker), but allowing them to continue to develop should be the plan in Phoenix.
After adding what is sure to be another tantalizing prospect in this year’s draft (and possibly LaVar Ball as an unofficial team cheerleader), the Suns will continue to be a team filled with raw, young players looking to develop. Whether or not this young group of players can take the Suns back to postseason contention is unknown, but they’ll surely be one of the most interesting teams to watch over the next couple of seasons.
All statistics courtesy of Basketball Reference