The Phoenix Suns have different goals than most for the 2017-18 NBA season. Who on the team serves as an X-Factor for their upcoming campaign?
While most of the NBA is focused on winning as many games as they can this season, positioning themselves to make the playoffs and seize however slim a chance at winning a championship, the Phoenix Suns have charted a different path through the desert.
The Phoenix Suns doubled down on their long-term rebuild this summer, signing GM Ryan McDonough to a contract extension as a show of support. As the Golden State Warriors dominate the league, the Suns will look ahead to a post-Warriors future where they can hope to contend.
Thus this season is not about winning games — although that will always be a secondary goal for any non-Hinkie basketball team — but rather about evaluating talent. Which players currently on this roster will be on the next contending Suns team? And which positions does Phoenix still need to address in the years to come?
Devin Booker is locked in at shooting guard for the long haul, and he is worth the hype. After dropping 70 points in a game against the Boston Celtics last season, he is the kind of versatile scoring threat that unlocks offense for the entire team.
The Suns also have a blue chip prospect in 2017 draftee Josh Jackson, an athletic small forward with defensive upside to take on an opponent’s best wing scorer. Phoenix has a history of up-tempo offenses, and Jackson is a perfect fit for that system. While there is no guarantee he will become a star, for now the team has Jackson penciled in as the 3 of the future.
Point guard is a position the team already knows it will need to address down the road. For now, Eric Bledsoe is an above average starter for the team, but at 27 (turning 28 in December) his timeline doesn’t necessarily fit that of the Suns. He has been at the center of trade rumors for quite some time. Behind him Tyler Ulis is outperforming his draft slot, but at just 5-9 he projects as a career backup. The Suns will almost certainly look to add a point guard in one of the upcoming drafts.
That leaves the big man positions to evaluate. Alex Len has been up-and-down during his first four seasons, and currently remains unsigned as a restricted free agent. Tyson Chandler is a veteran who will most likely be retired by the time this team contends. Newly re-signed young center Alan Williams, similarly to Ulis, should be a backup.
For that reason, the X-Factor for the Phoenix Suns this season will be Marqan Bendiss. Selected in the lottery in 2016, Bendiss averaged 34.6 minutes per game during his rookie year, posting per-game averages of 12.6 points, 6.6 rebounds, and 1.4 blocks.
The Suns are hoping that Marqan Bendiss can be their starting power forward of the future, with the long-term versatility to slide down to center in smaller lineups. After investing not only a high draft pick but thousands of minutes, Phoenix will be looking on this young player to eliminate some of the inconsistency and show clear growth towards being a reliable starter.
The last two paragraphs are accurate except for one point: Marqan Bendiss is not a single player, but rather two. The Phoenix Suns used two top-eight picks on power forwards in last year’s draft, taking Croatian big Dragan Bender and Washington forward Marquese Chriss.
While Bender was the higher draft pick, Chriss got the lion’s share of minutes, starting 75 games and averaging 21.3 minutes per contest. Bender played an inconsistent and limited role off of the bench for much of the season, appearing in just 43 games and never starting.
Neither player excelled in their rookie seasons, although how much was personal disappointment and how much was a youth-centric atmosphere is hard to determine. Bender was highly touted as the best international prospect in the 2016 NBA Draft, and at just 19 still has plenty of time to grow into his potential. One season in, however, and many of the players drafted below him are standing out by comparison.
Marquese Chriss technically qualifies for that distinction, making the NBA’s All-Rookie 2nd Team. Chriss’ 75 starts lead all rookies, and he appeared in all 82 games for Phoenix. His 0.9 blocks per game led all rookies with a minimum of 50 games played, although so did his 3.2 fouls per game. Chriss mixed in flashes of potential with longer stretches of defensive lapses and offensive lethargy that made him nearly impossible to evaluate.
That will be the task for the Suns’ front office and coaching staff this season. Is Dragan Bender capable of capitalizing on the potential he was drafted for? Can he add weight without sacrificing foot speed? Can he improve his jumper? Can he pick up schemes? Bender has to prove he has the mettle to be an NBA player.
For Chriss, his body held up well under the strains of an 82-game season. But can his mind? Can he lock in, box out, and fight for every rebound, chase every loose ball, and be attentive on every defensive possession? These are questions that so far have not been answered adequately for Phoenix.
If Bender and Chriss show real improvement in 2017-18, Phoenix will most likely win more games than they did last year. But again, that’s not the primary goal, as the future is what matters in the desert. This might be the season the Suns decide if they can count on one or both of these young players to be solid pieces moving forward. Ideally both hit, and Phoenix can play them together alongside Josh Jackson in a high-lottery frontcourt.
That’s not to put too much weight on this year, as neither player will be cut in a year (barring something unexpected). Nor do they need to immediately become stars and push for All-Star berths. Rather, they need to demonstrate that their growth is happening on schedule, that they are committed to being NBA players, and that their potential still lays waiting to be tapped.
Marqan Bendiss is not the key to the Suns winning games this year. That honor goes to Eric Bledsoe, to Devin Booker, perhaps to Jared Dudley, T.J. Warren, and Tyson Chandler. But the key to how long this accumulation of talent takes to click is whether the Suns have at least one future starter between the two soon-to-be sophomores.
The good thing about watching Marqan Bendiss develop is that fans get twice as much enjoyment and twice as many storylines. And down the line, both Phoenix and its fans hope they get twice as much impact.