The Phoenix Suns’ Wing Dilemma

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Updated: March 18, 2019
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The Phoenix Suns haven’t seen the bright lights of an NBA playoff game since the 2009-2010 season. The team has already been eliminated from postseason contention in this campaign, which makes it a nine-year playoff drought.

Another year, yet another dreadful season for the Phoenix Suns. The Arizona team is currently 15-51, with the second worst net rating in the league at -9.4. Only the Cleveland Cavaliers have been worse in that department, posting a ridiculously bad -10.2 netRTG this season.

The Suns have been horrific on both offense and defense, which, obviously, is a recipe for disaster. Although they possess a plethora of young players, some of them are still a couple of years away from being competent NBA players. The two main silver linings that still provide Phoenix fans with some sort of faith are the recently extended Devin Booker and the 2018 No. 1 overall pick DeAndre Ayton. Those two seem like they will be the foundation of the franchise going forward, as both have shown the ability and talent to develop into all-NBA players. Now, it’s all about finding the right pieces to surround those two, along with developing the rest of their young talent. The point guard position is something that immediately stands out as the main glaring weakness. Since trading Eric Bledsoe, Elfrid Payton was the best point guard the team had on their roster. Payton is definitely an NBA player, but he wasn’t someone who’s considered to be a starting point guard at this point of his career.

It’ll be fascinating to see how the Suns will resolve their issue at the point guard position, but I’m personally more interested in how the situation with their wing players shakes out.

Competent wing play is something that every team craves, no matter whether the team is young, up-and-coming or a team with championship aspirations. The versatility and potential impact on the game that this position brings is extremely valuable.

Loading up on promising swingmen isn’t that bad of an idea. It’s good to have two or, in this scenario, even three bites at the apple. Look at what Boston general manager Danny Ainge did not too long ago. The Celtics selected Jaylen Brown with the No. 3 pick in 2017. During the 2018 draft, with the same third-overall pick, yet another wing was selected in Jayson Tatum. And, to top it all off, free agent Gordon Hayward was brought in to be a Celtic. Those three players have the size and ability to fit the criteria. Hell, you can even view Marcus Smart as a wing player, that’s what cleaning the glass has been listing him as ever since he got drafted. Those players have provided plenty of versatility on both ends of the court. While Boston has been lacking the chemistry and cohesion, their talent level isn’t in question.

It seems like the Suns have decided to go with a similar approach. In 2017, the high flying and versatile Kansas freshman Josh Jackson was selected with the No. 4 pick. In 2018, Mikal Bridges was initially taken by Philadelphia with the 10th- overall pick, but Phoenix wanted him and sent the #No. 5 pick and a 2021 Miami unprotected first-rounder to get him. Bridges was touted as a player that could help a playoff team immediately, but that offer was too good to pass up for the 76ers. Before the trade deadline, the Suns and Wizards essentially swapped Trevor Ariza and Kelly Oubre.

Now, with three promising wings on the roster, there’s a dilemma – who stays and who goes?

When Mikal was at Villanova, everyone knew that he was a player that was able to contribute in the NBA from day one, whether it would be on a bad team or a winning one.

During his time in college, Bridges was one of the better defenders in the country and showed that he’s a capable shooter from deep, indicated by his 43.5 percentage on six attempts from long range. The free throw percentage is usually a better indicator of how a player’s shot will translate, and the Villanova stand out shot 84.5 percent from the charity stripe in his three-year tenure in college. He possessed all the right tools to succeed, or, more accurately, not hurt a team at the professional level, which a lot of first-year players end up doing.

So far, all of this has held true. While Bridges isn’t scoring 20 points per game or putting up major numbers in the box score, he’s helping the Suns win. That sounds ridiculous considering how poor the team has been this season, but he’s impacting the team positively in many areas, while not taking away in others. He’s already a positive defender that has a solid understanding of the game. Combine his on-court intelligence with good athleticism and impressive length, and it’s very likely that a good defender will come out of that. Here’s a simple, yet indicative, play of his great on-court awareness.

 

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Mikal navigates the Plumlee screen without getting stuck. Once he recognizes that Ayton has stepped up and essentially taken over the duty of checking Hernangomez, the rookie forward immediately sprints to Mason. Juancho sees a sliver of day light and passes the basketball to a rolling Plumlee, but from behind comes Bridges and he deflects the ball away with his seven-foot wingspan. All of this is normal, but there’s beauty in simplicity.

Offensively, the rookie wing is taking the right shots on offense (86.4pct. of his shot attempts have come from the restricted area or from beyond the arc). Bridges is the only player on the Phoenix Suns that has a positive PIPM (0.2). Luka Doncic, Mitchell Robinson and Mikal Bridges are the only rookies this season that have a positive PIPM. That’s a pretty darn good place to be in. It’s honestly spectacular that Bridges is still considered a positive, especially considering how abysmal the Suns have been this season.

In addition, Bridges is exactly the type of player that benefits from playing with superior talent. He’s a dependent talent, meaning he’s not someone that can comfortably catch the ball in any situation and immediately go to work. He won’t become the player that an offense could be built around, but he will surely be a player that will be a good complementary piece to any offense. As Phoenix’s talent level scales up, so should Bridges’ productivity.

Although Josh Jackson possesses the most talent out of this group, he’s one of the biggest wild cards in the league. Catch him on the right night, and you’ll see a unique mixture of length, strength, passing ability and athleticism, along with an ability to make jump shots and sink floaters, all while being a great defender. All of that would fool you into thinking that he’s a sure-fire star in the making.

Catch him on an off-night and, well, you’d question how was this dude even a No. 4 pick at some point. He’ll look out of place and out of control with the ball in his hands, attempting low-percentage shots (which he can’t make at a good enough rate) and not being engaged on the defensive end. Sadly for Jackson, he has had many more of those bad nights than good ones, but when you’re ready to give up on him, he goes “nuh-huh” and plays out of his mind for a couple of games before returning to his usual state of inefficiency and questionable decision making. The lack of consistency frustrates fans, but those great performances remind everyone of the player that he can turn himself into.

 

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Jackson receives the ball on the perimeter, attacks Ingles and gets around him. Once Jackson recognizes that Rudy Gobert has come to help on his drive, the sophomore wing delivers a gorgeous pass to DeAndre Ayton. Jackson got that ball in the right spot where Gobert’s freakish 7’9” wingspan couldn’t deflect it. That takes skill and great timing, something that Jackson has shown that he has in his arsenal.

 

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Jackson sneaks up from behind Gobert, deflects the pass and regains possession of the ball. On the fast break, he pushes the pace and connects with Richuan Holmes on an alley-oop slam.

These are exactly the type of plays that still provide fuel for the Josh Jackson hype train. A versatile wing that can handle the ball, push the pace, pass and possesses solid defensive instincts is an intriguing mixture of skills. If they’re polished, those can turn into a valuable weapon for any team.

Currently, the 6’8” sophomore is averaging the same amount of assists as turnovers with 2.3 per game, as well as a putrid 48.3 true shooting percentage. Jackson has been one of the most inconsistent players on the team. That was the case last season, and that hasn’t changed in 2018-19. Despite that, there’s a voice that encourages you not to give up on JJ. He is still only 22 years old, so he has plenty of time to correct his flaws and become a good or potentially great NBA player.

Kelly Oubre Jr. is the last wing player of this trio.. Ever since arriving in the desert of Arizona, Oubre has provided something that the Suns have lacked this season: energy and emotion. When you catch a Suns game, it’s very likely that you’ll either see or hear Kelly scream his lungs out after he or his teammates make a great play. Bringing a mental edge to the game is important, and the 24-year-old certainly does that.

In a sense, he’s very similar to the previously examined Josh Jackson. Oubre possesses great talent, but he doesn’t always put it to good use. He’s a solid defender but could easily be better with his blend of terrific athleticism and great length. He’s a solid offensive player, but could achieve more by cleaning up his shot profile and improving at moving without the ball.

Most importantly for the offensive game, is the 3 pointer, and Oubre’s stroke from there comes and goes. If that continues to be the case, his value will be reduced significantly. With so much focus on the three pointer and the spacing of the floor, every player on the court(even centers) should be threats from there. The bottom line is that your opinion of Oubre might vary depending on which night you see him play.

With his restricted free agency looming, Phoenix will have to make a decision on Oubre quicker than the other two wings we examined. The offers from other teams that are interested in Oubre might dictate whether the Suns keep him or not. The potential offer sheets might deter them from the idea of bringing him back.

The Suns are still a young team and have time to put these things in perspective and figure each of them out. Although it may seem that way, Phoenix’s front office should start to seriously think which of these players will they select to be the starting small forwards of the franchise going forward. As of now, Bridges is clearly the top guy. However, the raw talent and potential of Oubre and Jackson may swing the odds into one of their favors. How things shake out will be fascinating to track.

 

1175180cookie-checkThe Phoenix Suns’ Wing Dilemma
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