‘It’s Been A Good Summer’: Phoenix Suns Regroup As Season Approaches

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The Phoenix Suns are excited about what Kelly Oubre Jr. will bring to the team in the 2019-20 season. (Photo by Matt Anjudo/Cronkite News)

By Jacob Rosenfarb

PHOENIX – Despite orchestrating an offseason that has garnered widespread criticism, the Phoenix Suns continue to exude confidence when describing their long-term trajectory. As the franchise looks to secure its first winning record in six seasons, Phoenix’s front office assured onlookers that the moves they’ve made this summer will provide both immediate and long-term success.

“It’s been a good summer for us,” said Suns general manager James Jones during a press conference held Tuesday to address their decisions in both free agency and the draft, as well as formally finalize the contract of forward Kelly Oubre Jr.

“We added the positions of need for us, point guard and power forward,” Jones said. “We added positional depth, and we kept our core guys intact. I think we’ve executed our plan as far as making this a competitive environment. From one through fifteen we’ll be strong, and we’ll come out every day competing the right way so that we can continue this journey upward and forward.”

Point guard has remained a frustrating and complex enigma in recent seasons for the Suns, as the franchise has failed to find a long-term solution at what many consider the league’s deepest position. In his first offseason as a full-fledged GM, Jones placed a clear emphasis on finding an answer to what is debatably the team’s biggest question mark.

One of Jones’ first moves was handing out Phoenix’s most lucrative contract of the offseason to Ricky Rubio, who inked a projected three-year, $51 million deal to become the Suns’ starting point guard. Rubio’s flashy passes and gritty style have made him one of the league’s more popular personalities over his eight seasons in the NBA, and his stellar play last season alongside budding superstar Donovan Mitchell in Utah lays the blueprint for Rubio to succeed alongside Suns star Devin Booker. His team-first mentality has also made him one of the league’s more popular players among league personnel, as new Suns coach Monty Williams already considers himself a big fan of the Spaniard’s game.

Phoenix Suns general manager James Jones (left) and coach Monty Williams (right) believe the new-look Suns will benefit from the leadership of Kelly Oubre Jr. (center), Ricky Rubio and others. (Photo by Matt Andujo/Cronkite News)

“We have a guy in Ricky that’s going to make everybody more efficient,” Williams said. “As a coach, you want to have someone on the floor that can manage a game from the point guard position, and Ricky certainly does that for us. I think he’s going to make me a better coach. When you have a point guard like Ricky … who can get out and run and make plays, that’s something that’s going to allow me more freedom to sit back and let the guys develop our culture offensively.”

While the signing of the 28-year-old Rubio should go a long ways in stabilizing the Suns at point guard, Jones still felt the need to address the position multiple times during the NBA draft. Late in the first round, Phoenix selected point guard Ty Jerome from the University of Virginia with the 24th overall pick after a trade with the Boston Celtics. A key contributor for the national champion Cavaliers, Jerome’s status as one of the country’s best shooters was solidified after connecting on nearly 40% of his 3-point shots last season.

“In our eyes, he was the best playmaker and lead ball handler in the draft,” Jones said recently at the NBA Summer League in Las Vegas. “He’s a winner, he’s directed multiple really good players on the floor, and he comes from a really good culture and program. When you put all those factors together, and you think about what he can do in our environment, it was exciting.”

Jones’ moves did not step there, as the team was active on the undrafted free-agent market. Phoenix was one of the first teams to make a move following the completion of the draft, signing point guard Jalen Lecque to a four-year contract. Coming straight out of Brewster Academy, a boarding school in New Hampshire, Lecque was one of the draft’s most mysterious prospects, combining tantalizing athleticism with a lack of experience against NBA-caliber talent.

“We really like what he has to offer,” Jones said. “He’s young, he’s a project in some regards, a young guy that will have to continue to grow, but he was phenomenal with us in a short time. He picked things up so quickly. It was refreshing to see that. At 19, rarely can guys pick up the terminology, but he was right there at the top of our workouts. So when we had an opportunity to get him, thinking about how he can develop with us and with the (Northern Arizona Suns), we thought it was too good of an opportunity to pass up.”

Jones adopted a similar strategy to that of his plan at point guard when attempting to fill the Suns’ hole at power forward, bringing in both established veterans and high-profile rookies to compete for minutes.

Former lottery pick Dario Saric was acquired as part of a draft-day trade with the Minnesota Timberwolves, and projects to be part of the starting front court alongside DeAndre Ayton, last year’s No. 1 overall pick. With his trade to Phoenix, Saric joins his third team in as many seasons as he looks to improve off of his 11-point, 6-rebound campaign last season.

“(Saric) is a young guy who has been a starter in a very competitive environment and has thrived,” Jones said at Summer League. “We think he can be a mature veteran at the tender age of 26.”

Along with Saric, Phoenix will rely heavily on first-round pick Cameron Johnson to play valuable minutes at the power forward position. Measuring in at almost 6-foot-9 and 210 pounds, Johnson combines prototypical forward size with an outstanding outside shot. The ACC’s leader in shooting percentage from three (46.5%), Jones is optimistic that Johnson’s proficiency from beyond the arc will translate in the NBA.

“Every shot he shoots looks the same regardless of if he’s on balance or off balance, if he’s coming off a screen or if he’s running in transition,” Jones said. “I see his length, his ability to shoot it easily and effortlessly at 6-8 1/2 makes it tough for defenders to really challenge him. Adding that dynamic to our team will stretch defenses and give DeAndre and Devin a lot more room and space to operate.”

As Phoenix regroups and retools heading into the 2019-2020 season, one of the team’s less publicized moves may end up being their most important. While the re-signing of Oubre Jr. was expected, his presence will not be any less significant as the Suns look to build around their ever-changing nucleus. Never lacking in confidence or charisma, Oubre Jr. has made it clear that a new era of Suns basketball is underway.

“We have a foundation now to where we’re really starting from the ground up,” Oubre said. “Now we can really get to work because we can start from day one working on good habits and buying in to what coach is saying. We’re all talented individually, but collectively together, we can be something special.”