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Bench Trio Giving Suns New Life

Led by Tyler Ulis, a young Suns bench has given Earl Watson and his team a huge spark, writes Spencer Davies.

Spencer Davies

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In basketball, or any sport for that matter, the last word a player wants to hear is “rebuild.”

It’s a term that signifies failure; that your team’s run is over, and whatever happened up until the point it’s uttered will change. The stigma surrounding it often makes people want to throw in the towel and start anew elsewhere.

But the Phoenix Suns are refusing to let that happen.

Sitting in the basement at 18-39 going into the All-Star break, the writing was on the wall for Earl Watson and company. Though they closed out the first half of the season with a blowout win over the Lakers, the Suns had lost 10 of their last 12 games beforehand, a stretch where they allowed 116.8 points per game to opponents.

This was ultimately Phoenix’s swan song for the year, and general manager Ryan McDonough recognized he needed to be proactive at the trade deadline with one of his top assets in P.J. Tucker.

It took him to the brink of the 3 p.m. cutoff point to find a match, but he was able to send the 31-year-old veteran to Toronto in exchange for Jared Sullinger (who was waived) and, more importantly, two future second-round draft picks.

After receiving the news, Watson sent a message to his group that indicated the less-experienced players would get more playing time, and those gifted with opportunities had better take advantage.

“Our young guys have to continue to improve,” Earl Watson said of the final 25-game stretch. “This is a critical point of our season. What we put into the foundation to end this season is going to be everything moving forward. It’s not just, ‘Go through games and see what happens.’ It’s a purposeful journey. Our young guys, we have to get them quality minutes and get them some kind of confidence and momentum to actually see what we have, beyond just potential.”

Guess what, Coach? They’ve answered the call.

Since the break, the Suns have won three out their last four and are 3-4 through seven games, but it’s the way they’re playing that has been the real story. They’re third in the league in scoring, with an average of 114.7 points per game. Phoenix is second in field goal percentage (50.9), and ranks fifth in true shooting at 58.5 percent. Seven games is certainly a small sample size, but the young guns off the bench have come out firing.

Tyler Ulis is making quite the name for himself. In addition to making one of the most miraculous game-winning shots of the NBA season, he’s been an absolute gem for Phoenix.

After a 1-for-7 shooting night against the Bucks in the middle of the team’s short road trip, Watson had a talk with the rookie point guard.

“[He] had a tough game versus Milwaukee,” Watson said after Sunday’s victory over Boston. “Honest conversations, he took it to heart and he took it to the next level.”

In March, Ulis has played nearly 25 minutes per game, and he’s averaging 12.3 points and 6.3 assists on an impressive 55.6 percent from the field.

At 5-foot-10, you’d expect Ulis to be a three-point specialist, but the bulk of his success has come in the paint. Outside of the restricted area, the Kentucky product is converting on 51.1 percent of his shots for the season. He’s been even more aggressive in this in-between area in recent games, with even more success. His innate ability to find the open man makes it easier for Ulis to dish it off, because the defenders collapse on him and leave their assignments just long enough to give up a shot.

He’s been outstanding in the mid-range game. On 2.3 shots per game from 10 to 14 feet this month, Ulis is making 55.6 percent. The key to that success could have to do with a clearly-practiced hitch in his form: On the majority of his jumpers, the 21-year-old has a technique where he fades off slightly away from the defender in order to create an easier look.

It’s a skill that’s not teachable, and that natural ability to find ways to outsmart the competition is special, especially when it’s All-Star competition in the forms of Kemba Walker, Russell Westbrook, and Isaiah Thomas.

“That’s three dominant point guards in this league that he’s helped us to overcome,” Watson said of Ulis and the Suns’ winning streak. “He gives [Eric Bledsoe] a better chance to be Bled. It’s not a lot of pressure on Bled anymore when you have that guy coming off, changing the game not just defensively, but also scoring points.”

Ulis isn’t the only one in the second-unit making a case for an expanded role. Alan Williams, a second-year undrafted big out of UCSB has stepped up to the plate and knocked the ball out of the park.

So far this season, Williams has played in nine games where he’s recorded over 20 minutes of playing time. In each of those, he’s scored in double figures. In all but one of those, he’s notched a double-double.

An aggressive Williams is an extremely efficient Williams. He uses his 6-8, 260-pound frame to make his way to the basket, and if he doesn’t get there, he’s got a firm grasp on a solid jump hook. In the first game of Phoenix’s home stand, the one they call “Big Sauce” went to work on the Charlotte frontcourt with arguably his best game of the season, where he posted 16 points and 12 rebounds in just 24 minutes.

The defensive end, however, is where Williams does his best work. In 30 games, the opposition has converted 50 percent of its 3.9 shots per game at the rim while he’s nearby, per SportVU data – a middling figure, but ever since the break, the number has decreased to 46.2 percent on a much higher 7.4 attempts. As a team, when Williams is on the floor, Phoenix’s defensive rating is 99.9 with, a net rating of 8.3. To put that in perspective, the Suns’ defensive rating this year is 109 with a net rating of -4.6.

Williams doesn’t have the best defensive rating on the team, though. That honor belongs to the second-youngest player on the roster, Derrick Jones Jr. Widely known for his athleticism and uncanny leaping ability, the 2017 Slam Dunk Contest runner-up can do more than make posters.

Before February 24, Jones hadn’t seen more than five minutes of playing time in a single game. In fact, he’d only played in seven games total to that point. From that day on, the 20-year-old wing out of UNLV has played in every game, averaging a hair over 15 minutes during the stretch.

While he has been efficient with his cuts and finishes at the basket, Jones’ potential is predicated on his defensive prowess. Since the break, Phoenix’s defensive rating is 94.1 with him on the court, and they’re a solid net minus when he sits.

“Defense is gonna get me to the NBA and help me stay there,” Jones told NBADLeague.com.

Add in veterans Leandro Barbosa and Jared Dudley, and the Suns have found a real NBA bench. This Ulis-led lineup has energized the Suns so much that they’ve had much more success than the starters during their short time together on the floor.

If this keeps up over the next several games, Watson might have to consider some experimental lineup changes in his rotation to see what they can do with a starting role. Whether or not he will remains to be seen, but regardless of the decision he makes, there’s no denying this has been a different team and it has found new life.

For the first time in months, it looks like there could be blue skies past that dark cloud hovering over the desert.

The Suns are ready to shine brightly in Phoenix.

Spencer Davies is an NBA writer based in Cleveland in his first year with Basketball Insiders. Covering the league and the Cavaliers for the past two seasons, his bylines have appeared on Bleacher Report, FOX Sports and HoopsHype.

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The G-League is a Path Back to the NBA

The G-League has become an avenue for several player types toward the NBA, writes David Yapkowitz.

David Yapkowitz

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When the NBA first instituted their development league, its main purpose was two-fold. The first was to give experience to young players who perhaps were not seeing regular playing time on their respective NBA teams. The second was to give undrafted players a chance at getting exposure and ultimately getting to the NBA.

With the growth in size and popularity of the development league, now known as the G-League, it’s begun to serve another purpose. It’s become a place for older veterans who have already tasted the NBA life to get back to the highest level of basketball that they once knew.

One player in particular who has a wealth of NBA experience is Terrence Jones. Jones is currently playing with the Santa Cruz Warriors, the G-League affiliate of the Golden State Warriors.

Jones was originally drafted by the Houston Rockets with the 18th overall pick in the 2012 draft. He was part of a vaunted class of Kentucky Wildcats that year, which included Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Marquis Teague, Doron Lamb, and Darius Miller. During his four years with the Rockets, he emerged as a dependable reserve and part-time starter. He averaged 9.5 points per game on 49.5 percent shooting and 5.3 rebounds.

“It was just a lot of excitement and a lot of joy, being part of the Houston Rockets was a lot of fun,” Jones told Basketball Insiders. “We had great memories and great seasons, a lot of up and downs, I just enjoyed the journey.”

Jones’ dealt with injuries his last two season in Houston, and when he was a free agent in the summer of 2016, the Rockets didn’t re-sign him. He was scooped by the New Orleans Pelicans, however, and he made an immediate impact for them. Prior to the trade deadline, he played in 51 games for the Pelicans, including 12 starts while putting up 11.5 points on 47.2 percent shooting, and 5.9 rebounds.

When the Pelicans acquired DeMarcus Cousins, however, they cut Jones. He didn’t stay unemployed for long, though, as he was signed by the Milwaukee Bucks to add depth for a playoff run. He was unable to crack the rotation, though, and the Bucks cut him as well before the playoff started. After a brief stint in China, he’s now back stateside and using the G-League to get back to the NBA.

“That’s the goal. Right now, I feel I’ve been playing pretty well and just trying to help my team get wins,” Jones told Basketball Insiders. “I think I can play multiple positions offensively and defensively. Whether that’s creating plays for myself or for others, I think I can help contribute on the offensive end.”

He’s been the second-leading scorer for Santa Cruz with 19.9 points per game. He’s pulling down 7.1 rebounds, and even dishing out 4.5 assists. In the G-League Challenge against the Mexican National Team at All-Star Weekend, he finished with eight points on 50.0 percent shooting, six rebounds, four assists, and two steals. He’s definitely a name to watch for as NBA teams scour the market for 10-day contract possibilities.

Another player who’s had a taste of the NBA is Xavier Silas. Silas is currently with the Northern Arizona Suns, the affiliate of the Phoenix Suns. He went undrafted in 2011 and started his professional career in France. That only last a few months before he came back the United States and latched on with the Philadelphia 76ers.

He played sparingly with the 76ers and was ultimately cut before the start of the 2012-13 season. Since then, he’s played summer league with the Bucks, and been in two different training camps with the Washington Wizards.

“It was amazing, any time you get to go and play at the highest level, and I even got to play in the playoffs and play in the second round and even score, that was big,” Silas told Basketball Insiders. “It was a great time for me and that’s what I’m working towards getting back.”

While his professional career has taken him all across the globe from Israel to Argentina to Greece to Germany and even Ice Cube’s BIG3 league, he sees the G-League as being the one place that will get him back to where he wants to be.

He’s done well this season for Northern Arizona. He’s their third-leading scorer at 19.3 points per game and he’s one of their top three-point threats at 39.9 percent. At the All-Star Weekend G-League Challenge against the Mexican National Team, Silas had a team-high 13 points for Team USA including 3-5 shooting from three-point range.

It’s isn’t just what he brings on the court that Silas believes makes him an attractive candidate for an NBA team. At age 30, he’s one of the older guys in the G-League and one with a lot of basketball experience to be passed down to younger guys.

“I think it’s a little bit of leadership, definitely some shooting. I’m a vet now so I’m able to come in and help in that aspect as well. But everybody needs someone who can hit an open shot and I think I can bring that to a team,” Silas told Basketball Insiders. “I think it’s the best place for anyone who’s trying to make that next step. We’re available and we’re right here, it’s just a call away.”

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NBA Daily: Lillard Playing For Something Bigger

Portland Trail Blazers star Damian Lillard has his eyes set on a bigger prize than just being an NBA All-Star.

Steve Kyler

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Playing For Something Bigger

The NBA All-Star Game is a spectacle.

By design, the game is meant to be a showcase, not just for the players selected to compete, but for the league and all of its partners, on and off the floor. It is easy to get caught up in how players selected actually play, but the reality is while most see the game as important for a lot of reasons, Portland Trail Blazer star Damian Lillard understands it has to be put into perspective.

“I don’t think it’s fair to expect people to go out there and treat it like they are playing for the team they’re under contract for,” Lillard explained this weekend.

“It’s the one time in an 82-game season plus playoffs, preseason and training camp that we actually get a break. It’s necessary to take a mental break, along with a physical break from what we do every day. There’s nothing wrong with that, so I don’t think it’s fair to ask guys to go out there and play like it’s for the Trail Blazers. My loyalty is to my team; I got to stay healthy for my team. I got to do what’s best for my team. Obviously, go out there [during All-Star] and not mess around too much and that’s how people get hurt and stuff like that. You got to go out there and play and have respect for the game, but I don’t think it’s necessary to go out there and go crazy like it’s a playoff game.”

Lillard notched 21 minutes in Sunday’s big game, going 9-for-14 from the field for 21 points for Team Stephen, a roster that included three Golden State Warriors players. Lillard believes that eventually, he’ll get the chance to share the weekend, his third, with teammate C. J. McCollum.

“Each year you see teams are getting two to three, Golden State got four this year,” Lillard said. “But you look at it and say ‘why is that happening’ and it has a lot to do with team success. Me and C.J. just have to take that challenge of making our team win more games. I think when we do that, we’ll be rewarded with both of us making it. If we really want to make that happen, then we’ll do whatever it takes to win more games.

“I feel like this season we’ve moved closer in that direction. In the past, we haven’t even been in the position to get one, because I did not make it the past two years. I think if we keep on improving we’ll eventually get to the point that we’re winning games and people will say ‘how are they doing this’ and then hopefully our names come up. Hopefully, one day, it’ll happen.”

Another issue that got addressed during the All-Star Weekend was the growing tensions between the NBA players and the NBA referees. Representatives from both sides met to address the gap developing on the court, something Lillard felt was necessary.

“We’re all human,” Lillard said. “As competitors, we want to win. If you feel like you got fouled, you want them to call the foul every time. I think sometimes as players, we forget how hard their job can be. At the pace we play, it’s hard to get every call, and then you got guys tricking the referees sometimes, we’re clever too. It’s a tough job for them. I think when we get caught up in our competitive nature, and we forget that they’re not just these robots with stripes, they are people too. You have got to think, as a man if someone comes screaming at you every three plays, you are going to react in your own way. Maybe you’re not going to make the next call; maybe I am going to stand my ground. It’s just something that I think will get better over time. I think both have to do a better job of understanding.”

With 24 games left to play in Lillard’s sixth NBA season, the desire to be more than a playoff team or an All-Star is coming more into focus for Lillard, something he reportedly expressed to Blazers management several weeks ago.

“There are guys that have this record and guys that have done these things, and I want to at least get myself the chance to compete for a championship,” Lillard said. “If I get there and we don’t win it, it happens. A lot of people had to go see about Michael Jordan, a lot of people had to go see about Shaq and Kobe. You know, those great teams, but I have a strong desire to at least give myself a chance to be there. Take a shot at it.”

With All-Star out of the way, the focus in the NBA will switch to the race to the playoffs. As things stand today Lillard and his Blazers hold the seventh seed in the West and are tied with Denver, and just a half of a game back from the five seed Oklahoma City Thunder.

If the Blazers are going to make noise this post season its going to be on the shoulder of Lillard, and based on what he said, it seems he’s up to the challenge.

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NBA Daily: James Harden on the new All-Star Format and Chris Paul Being Snubbed

James Harden shared his thoughts on the new All-Star game format and teammate Chris Paul not being selected as an All-Star

James Blancarte

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NBA Commissioner Adam Silver made a bold decision to alter the All-Star game format. By allowing the two highest voted players in each conference to be team captains, Silver did away with tradition and the usual West versus East format. While there were a few complaints about the switch, fans were seemingly more vocal about the decision to not televise the selection of players by the team captains.

Well, the results are in and praise for new format has been nearly universal. With players more invested in the new format, and perhaps the $100k per player bonus for the winners, the effort level was up, plays were being drawn up and executed and defense made a surprise appearance in an exciting game that came down to the final possession.

2018 NBA All-Star and Houston Rockets guard James Harden spoke about the All-Star game and the new format.

“I think it is exciting. You get an opportunity, you know, for a mixture of guys to play on the same team together. We’re trying to win though, it’s competitive,” Harden stated. “Obviously, the All-Star game has a lot of highlights but we’re trying to win, we’re going to go out there and prove we’re trying to win.”

Harden, who played for Team Stephen, did not get the win. However, Harden also made it clear that playing in the this year’s All-Star game meant even more having grown up in Los Angeles.

“To be able to play in the big boy game means a lot. I grew up, especially being from LA, you grew up watching Kobe, watching Shaq every single year. You see how fun, you see how exciting it was,” Harden said. “Now to be here, to be in the city is more special.”

While Harden made it a point to talk about what it means to play in Los Angeles, another factor he seemed excited and appreciative about was being the first player picked for Team Stephen.

“Man, that’s a great feeling. Just because in middle school I was the last pick. So, to be the number one pick in the All-Star game, that’s what the swag champ is for,” Harden said.

Harden wasn’t universally positive about All-Star Weekend. Specifically, he was not happy about being the only Rockets All-Star – especially considering Houston’s standing in the Western Conference playoff race.

“I have a lot to say about that. What are we talking about? Everyone knows Chris Paul is with the Rockets and the Rockets have the number one [record]. How does that not happen?” Harden asked rhetorically. “It’s frustrating. I know he’s frustrated. He never brings it up. That’s why I did say what I said. He’s never going to bring it up. But, I’ll defend for him. He should be here with me in LA as an All-Star.”

Harden had some success as he led his team in minutes and logged 12 points, eight assists and five rebounds. He spoke after the game and confirmed the reconfiguration of the All-Star game produced a competitive game and a fun product for the fans.

“Felt great. I hope all the fans enjoyed [the All-Star game] as well. It was very competitive. Guys got after it from the beginning of the game. Usually All-Star [games] there are a lot of dunks, a lot of freedom. Tonight was intense,” Harden said.

Harden was not wrong with his conclusion that there was less freedom. With less freedom and better defense played, Harden went 5-19 from the field and 2-13 from three-point range while finishing the game without a single free throw attempted. The lack of free throws may have irked Harden, who is renowned for his ability to get to the line (9.9 free throw attempts per game this season). Adding to that frustration, Harden had the opportunity to put his team ahead with a three-pointer late in the game but failed to connect on the shot. Unsurprisingly, Harden expressed his disappointment with the result.

“I was pissed we lost. I’m still mad,” Harden stated.

On the final play of the game, while ignoring Harden, Curry kept the ball with the chance to tie the game. Curry dribbled into a LeBron James/Kevin Durant double team. Curry wasn’t able to get a shot off and Harden was left with his hands up waiting for a pass and a chance to win the game that never came.

Looking toward next year, Harden was asked if as a possible captain he would prefer to have the player selection two weeks before or right before the game. He thought about it and then smiled.

“Probably right before the game,” Harden answered.

Commissioner Silver has spoken on the subject and is sending strong signals that next year’s selection will be televised. That will potentially add another layer of excitement to the new All-Star game format, which is already paying off for the NBA.

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