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.
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