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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



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

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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Mitchell Robinson May Prove Competence of Scott Perry

Scott Perry is still fairly new on the job, but it’s impossible to argue with the early returns.

Moke Hamilton



With some eye-popping performances, the neophyte simultaneously caught the attention of the New York Knicks and front offices and scouts across the league.

Sure, merely a few weeks ago, he was largely considered an unknown quantity, but after an impressive stint at the Las Vegas Summer League, we all know his name.

It’s Mitchell Robinson.

Like his fellow rookie Kevin Knox, in short order, Robinson has caused quite a bit of a stir.

He’s just the latest example of things that Scott Perry has done right.

As players like Brook Lopez and Isaiah Thomas accept contracts barely worth enough to buy LeBron James lunch on a consistent basis, the predictions of a “nuclear winter” for NBA free agents seem to have mostly come to fruition.

For the past two summers, general managers and team executives have spent their money as if it were on fire, and as a result, we’ve seen many of the league’s teams watch their flexibility go up in smoke.

Since hiring Perry, the Knicks have done the opposite. Time and time again, the message tossed around internally at Penn Plaza has mirrored what we’ve been told publicly—the Knicks believe they will have a serious shot at signing a marquee free agent in 2019 and have put their emphasis on shedding salary to the best of their abilities.

It took all of one summer league game for us to learn that the club had signed Robinson to a team-friendly four-year contract. According to the New York Post, the deal is only guaranteed for three years and $4.8 million. If Robinson comes anywhere near the productivity he showed in summer league, the value and return on investment will be remarkably high.

So if you’re keeping count, let the record fairly reflect that Perry’s major moves for the Knicks have been trading Carmelo Anthony, hiring David Fizdale, drafting Kevin Knox and Robinson, and subsequently strategically managing his salary cap situation so that he could offer Robinson a contract that was so advantageous to the Knicks that some believe Robinson fired his agent as a result.

With the Knicks, Robinson will have to earn playing time and beat out Enes Kanter and Luke Kornet for minutes, but Kanter isn’t considered to be a core member for the club’s future, so the task doesn’t appear that difficult.

What this all means in the end is that Knox and Robinson will combine to earn just $5.4 million next season.

And what it also means for the Knicks is that the performance of Knox and Robinson at the Las Vegas Summer League isn’t the only thing the club should be celebrating.

It’s fair at this point to say that Perry has both improved the team’s future prospects and made a few moves that at least appear to have been the right decision.

Of course, time will tell, but on the continuum of unknown quantity to certain conclusion, the best you can hope for is a positive sign.

Perry has given Knicks fans quite a few. And when you realize that the selection that the club used to grab Robinson was a critical piece of the trade that sent Carmelo Anthony to Oklahoma City—a trade executed by Perry—that statement becomes all the more credible.

* * * * * *

It’s been quite some time since the Knicks had two rookies who opened eyes the way Knox and Robinson have. What’s been most pleasing about the two, however, have been the ways in which they complement one another on the basketball court.

Knox has impressed mostly with what he’s done on the ball, while Robinson has for what he’s accomplished off of it. The instincts and timing that Robinson has in conjunction with his athleticism are quite reminiscent of Marcus Camby.

In hindsight, we can fairly proclaim Camby to have been ahead of his time. Camby was the prototype to which players like Tyson Chandler and DeAndre Jordan aspired.

As a big man, Camby was one of the few players in the NBA who could capably guard all five positions on the basketball court and wasn’t at the mercy of an opposing point guard when switched out on a pick-and-roll. His nimbleness and second jump ability were remarkable for a man his size, and it didn’t take long for him to find his niche playing alongside more offensively talented players such as Allan Houston, Latrell Sprewell and Larry Johnson.

We don’t know if Robinson himself will succeed in the NBA, but we do know that his archetype is the kind that does. So much of what gets young players drafted and paid in the NBA is about physics. If a guy can do one or two things better than other players his size, the job of his coaches and front office is to find ways to maximize those advantages and fit them within a team concept to exploit inferior players at his position.

That concept has been where the Golden State Warriors have run circles around the rest of the league. So no, while you can’t conclude that Robinson is going to end up being anything near the player that Marcus Camby was, what you can conclude is that he has the physical gifts to be effective. Whether he ends up being effective will ultimately boil down to what Robinson has inside of him and what David Fizdale is able to do to bring it out.

Rest assured, though, to this point, Scott Perry has certainly done his job.

That much is a fact.

* * * * * *

Of all words in the English language, “irony” and its adjective (“ironic”) are among those that are most often misused. Irony is often confused with coincidence.

In its simplest term, irony is meant to describe a situation where there’s an occurrence that’s the opposite of what should have been expected.

In other words, just a few weeks after Carmelo Anthony dropped a career-high 62 points on the Charlotte Hornets at Madison Square Garden, a reporter asked him whether it was “ironic” that the Hornets also yielded 61 points to his buddy LeBron James in Miami.

That wasn’t ironic. That was just Charlotte.

On the other hand, irony was more along the lines of the Denver Nuggets seemingly becoming a better and more cohesive team after Anthony’s talents had been traded to New York.

To do you one better, a more recent example of irony can be found in the fact that Isaiah Thomas was traded by the Boston Celtics after recording the highest single-season scoring average of all time among player shorter than six-foot tall.

Irony is fans of the Los Angeles Lakers having no choice but to embrace LeBron James after spending the entirety of his existence downplaying his career accomplishments in order to properly exalt Kobe Bryant.

Most appropriately, though, for a fan of the New York Knicks, irony is knowing that, despite Kristaps Porzingis being on the shelf and the Knicks not signing or trading for any big named player, there’s probably more reason to be optimistic about the club’s future than there has been in recent memory.

Yea. That’s irony. The Knicks have always been looking for their savior—before Carmelo Anthony, it was Stephon Marbury.

In it all, who would have thought that the franchise’s savior could end up being Scott Perry?

Like Knox and Robinson, it’s still a bit early to certainly declare that Perry is who will lead the Knicks from the abyss.

But just like Knox and Robinson, to this point, it’d be quite difficult to argue with the early returns

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Looking For A Few Great Voices!

From time to time we have open chairs at Basketball Insiders for writers looking to gain experience, grow their brand and to be part of an aggressive up-tempo content team.

Basketball Insiders



Looking For A Few Great Voices!

From time to time we have open chairs at Basketball Insiders for writers looking to gain experience, grow their brand and to be part of an aggressive up-tempo content team.

We are considering adding up to four new voices in 2018, and what we are looking for is very specific.

Here are the criteria:
– A body of professional work that reflects an understanding of the NBA and basketball.
– Must live within 30 minutes of an NBA team other than in New York & LA; we are full in those markets.
– Must be willing to write two to three times per week on various topics as assigned.
– Must write in AP style and meet assigned deadlines.
– Be willing to appear in Podcasts and Video projects as needed and scheduled.
– Have a strong understanding of social media and its role in audience development.
– Be willing to work in a demanding virtual team environment.

Some things to know and consider:
– We are not hiring full-time people. If you are seeking a full-time gig, this is not that.
– This will be a low or non-compensation role initially. We need to understand your value and fit.
– We have a long track record of creating opportunities for those that excel in our program.
– This will be a lengthy interview and evaluation process. We take this very seriously, so should you.
– If you are not committed to being great, this is not the right situation for you.

If you are interested, please follow these specific instructions, Drop us an e-mail with:

Your Name:

The NBA Market You Live Near:

And Why We Should Consider You:

We do not need your resume, but a few links to work you have done under the above information would be helpful. E-mail that to


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NBA Daily: Yuta Watanabe Using Versatility, Defense To Push Forward

Undrafted forward Yuta Watanabe impressed all week at Summer League for the Brooklyn Nets — now he’s ready to do whatever it takes to get an NBA opportunity.

Ben Nadeau



Heading into Las Vegas Summer League, it finally became difficult to look past the Brooklyn Nets. After three-straight seasons merely existing in the equivalency of basketball purgatory, the Nets brought an exciting, young roster out west — one that included Caris LeVert, Jarrett Allen and their two recent first-round selections, Dzanan Musa and Rodions Kurucs. But when three of the four marquee names ended up watching from the sidelines, Brooklyn needed somebody to save the day — and as it turned out, his name was Yuta Watanabe.

Watanabe, 23, was an undrafted four-year senior out of George Washington this summer, but very quickly, the 6-foot-9 prospect has made a name for himself. Through his five games in Vegas, Watanabe averaged 9.4 points, 4.2 rebounds and 1.6 blocks per game on 41 percent from the floor, while nearly leading the banged-up Nets in minutes along the way. And although they were the only winless team in Vegas, Watanabe was a major bright spot for Brooklyn and said that he felt himself improving early in the process.

“Yeah, I’m starting to get comfortable,” Watanabe said following a recent Summer League defeat. “Our teammates didn’t know each other and we didn’t play well today — but fourth quarter, I thought we played together. I could attack the rim more, so I think I’m getting comfortable right now.”

Of course, Watanabe’s eye-opening stretch is not an indictment on every other franchise for not taking a late flier on the Japanese-born shooter either. With front offices looking to lengthen and shape the careers of their draftees at every turn, seniors are often passed up in favor of younger potential. In 2018 alone, only 11 seniors were selected at all — Grayson Allen and Chandler Hutchison were the lone first-rounders — a number down two from the year prior.

In spite of his pre-draft workouts and favorable numbers at George Washington (16.3 points, 6.1 rebounds, 1.6 blocks per game), Watanabe was always a long-shot to get drafted. But given the inroads to the NBA via the G-League or a two-way contract, Watanabe is far from finished in chasing his professional dreams.

“I was so excited — right after the draft, my agent called me and he told me: ‘You’re playing with the Nets.’” Watanabe told Basketball Insiders. “I was so excited, also he told me that there was going to be a lot of international players. As an international player, I was like so hyped.”

And it’s true, the Nets — led by general manager Sean Marks, a native New Zealander — have made a concerted effort to search out and acquire talent however possible. Watanabe was joined on the roster by the aforementioned Musa and Kurucs, of Bosnia and Latvia, respectively, Shawn Dawson of Israel, Ding Yanyuhang of China and Juan Pablo Vaulet, an Argentinian stash that’s one of the final holdovers from the last front office regime.

But while Watanabe may not hold a guaranteed contract, his noteworthy run with the Nets in Vegas could put him in pole position to earn one of those elusive two-way deals. Last season, the Nets ended the year with James Webb III and Milton Doyle, the latter of which the franchise tendered a qualifying offer to late last month, as their two-way assets. Still, things can change awfully fast in the NBA and Watanabe definitively fills two needs that Brooklyn has long sought-after since Marks took over in February of 2016: Multi-positional defense and reliable three-point shooting.

During his final season at George Washington, Watanabe hit on 36.4 percent of his long-range attempts and averaged 1.6 blocks per game as well — fully transforming into the flexible prospect he is today. In fact, the Nets have struggled to find consistent three-point shooting in the frontcourt since Brook Lopez was traded to the Los Angeles Lakers last summer, so Watanabe could be useful at that tricky stretch four position.

Although it’d be a new adventure for the defensive-minded grinder, Watanabe is up for it all the same.

“I mean, that’s one of my strengths, versatility is one of my strengths. If they want me to play four, I’m fine with that,” Watanabe said. “If I can hit shots — I’m 6-foot-9, long, athletic, so I have no problem playing the four.”

Of the nine Nets players to make one or more three-pointers per game last season, just two of them — Quincy Acy and Dante Cunningham — regularly slotted in at power forward. And beyond that, only Joe Harris, Nik Stauskas, Allen Crabbe, DeMarre Carroll and Cunningham finished their 2017-18 campaigns with a higher three-point percentage than Watanabe. As a team, the Nets tossed up 35.7 three-pointers per game — second-most in the NBA — and converted on just 35.6 percent of them, a rate that left them in the league basement.

Meanwhile, out in the Atlantic 10 conference, George Washington made just 5.5 shots from downtown per game, with Watanabe accounting for 1.7 of them on his own. Certainly, nobody expects Watanabe to immediately continue that success at the NBA level — but there’s a precedence and fit here within a franchise that’s been laser-focused on player development as of late.

On top of all that, Watanabe is the reigning winner of the A-10 Defensive Player of the Year Award and he proved it out in Vegas. Following his final game against the Indiana Pacers on Friday, the former Colonial finished with a total of blocked eight shots and defended both guards and forwards throughout the tournament — a facet of his game that Watanabe takes pride in.

“Defense is also [one of] my strengths in college too,” Watanabe said. “I can’t remember how many blocks I got today, but I was able to show that I can play defense — even at the four.”

The recent acquisitions of Kenneth Faried and Darrell Arthur will make Watanabe’s path to a big-league opportunity that much harder — but the Nets have also benefitted from a strong G-League affiliate in recent seasons as well. So even if Watanabe doesn’t receive a two-way contract, he may have landed with a franchise well-suited to bring the very best out of him.

Should Watanabe ever reach the NBA, he’d be just the second-ever from Japan to do so — following in the footsteps of Yuta Tabuse, a 5-foot-9 point guard that played in four games for the Phoenix Suns back in 2004-05. But for now, Watanabe is all about helping out his new franchise in whatever way he can — whether that’s from behind the arc or below the rim.

“Make some open shots, play defense and just play as hard as possible — so I think that’s my job right now.”

Nobody knows what the future holds for Watanabe quite yet — but as of now, he’s doing exactly that.

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