John Jenkins of the Phoenix Suns turned 25 years old in March, but you’d never know it from talking to him or his close friends. That’s because he exudes maturity and professionalism. While it’s become cliché to say, Jenkins is truly wise beyond his years and admits that he “feels like I’m in my 30s” rather than his 20s.
It’s rare for such a young player to be considered a veteran leader in the locker room, but Jenkins’ teammates – current and former – view him as an elder statesman even though he’s still just 25 and fighting for job security like many up-and-coming players.
Because Jenkins is a consummate professional, he has become a mentor for a number of former teammates despite the fact that he’s not much older than them.
Jenkins started his NBA career with the Atlanta Hawks and, in his second season, he took point guard Dennis Schroder under his wing. When the two met, Schroder was a 19-year-old rookie who was not only adjusting to the NBA, but also getting acclimated to America since he was born and raised in Germany. Even though Jenkins is only two and a half years older than Schroder and still had a lot to learn about the league himself, he did everything he could to help Schroder with his transition. Jenkins left the Hawks in 2015 to sign with the Dallas Mavericks, but the two players have stayed in contact and Schroder remains extremely grateful for everything that Jenkins did for him.
“My man John Jenkins! He was my guy from the beginning,” Schroder told Basketball Insiders. “He helped me with everything, basically. He showed me where to go out to eat in Atlanta, how you take care of your body and that you have to give 110 percent whenever you step on the court. The biggest thing [he taught me] was how to be a professional and be a good teammate. I hope he’s going to get his minutes this year because he’s going to kill it [in Phoenix]! He’s family for life.”
Upon hearing Schroder’s quote, Jenkins smiles and responds, “That’s my little brother, man.”
Schroder isn’t the only young player Jenkins has befriended and mentored. Last season, Dallas Mavericks rookie Justin Anderson, who is also 22 years old, viewed Jenkins as a big brother type. Even though they only spent half a season together because Jenkins was waived by the Mavs, they remain close. In fact, Anderson stayed at Jenkins’ house this week so that they could work out together and the mentee could continue to pick his mentor’s brain.
“Being with John as a rookie allowed me to not only see what it takes to just be in the NBA, but what it takes to stay in the NBA,” Anderson said. “Being around him daily at the start of last season showed me different elements that are key to staying in the NBA – from being professional to being patient to being a relentless worker. I tell him daily that he has a sickness, but it’s one that I’m hoping is contagious; I want to catch it because his work ethic is second to very few.”
“It’s funny to me because in college, I was always that same guy,” Jenkins said with a laugh. “I’d help recruit guys and then once they’d get here, I’d show them how to work hard, plan their days out and how to recover. I’m like a maniac when it comes to that stuff. That’s a big reason why Justin Anderson is staying at my place for this whole week. He wants to get right for Tim Grgurich’s camp in Vegas. My fiancée and his girlfriend are cool, so it’s fun. We’re working out and even though I was only with him for half of the year in Dallas, I made sure to help him because he was a rookie. I told him, ‘Look, I’m not the oldest guy on the team, but I know what it takes to keep your body fresh and how to handle an 82-game season.’ I just told him, like I tell all the young guys, ‘How bad do you want this? You’ll get 20 years, max, at this. You might as well go all out.’ That means working as hard as you can, eating right, taking care of your body and having a strong belief system. I try to pass that on to all of the guys I encounter because it’s helped me a lot so far.”
It’s easy to see why Phoenix would want Jenkins around their young, impressionable players.
The Mavs cut Jenkins on Feb. 22 of this year due to a logjam on the wing, and two days later the Suns claimed his contract off of waivers. He has two years remaining on his deal with Phoenix ($1,050,961 for the 2016-27 season, and $1,178,992 for 2017-18) although both salaries are non-guaranteed. Still, it’s hard to imagine the Suns letting him go on such a bargain deal, especially if he continues to produce and be a positive influence.
Last season, Jenkins did his best to help some of the Suns’ younger players, but making those connections wasn’t as easy since he joined the team midseason. Even still, he had a number of good conversations with Devin Booker, who was 18 years old when he made his NBA debut and finished fourth in Rookie of the Year voting.
Now, Phoenix will enter the 2016-17 season with three teenagers on their roster (Booker, Dragan Bender and Marquese Chriss) and a total of eight players who are 23 years old or younger. The Suns have brought in a number of veteran free agents to lead – such as Tyson Chandler (last summer), Jared Dudley and Leandro Barbosa among others – but Jenkins will try to do his part to help too in his first full season with the squad.
This side of Jenkins is rarely discussed outside of NBA circles. He acknowledges that it’s likely due to the fact that he’s typically reserved. However, he opens up around teammates because he loves sharing lessons he has learned and passing on any information that he feels can help his peers. In recent months, Jenkins was thrilled to see his friends experiencing success – with Anderson playing very well for Dallas in the playoffs and Schroder emerging as Atlanta’s starting point guard.
What’s next for Jenkins could be a breakout season of his own. He has bounced around the NBA a bit since being selected 23rd overall in the 2012 NBA Draft, suiting up for his third team in five years.
The fit with the Suns seems very good, though, and he played well after the team claimed him off of waivers in February. Last season, he averaged five points in 13 minutes per game while shooting an impressive 46.7 percent from the field and 40.6 percent from three-point range. In his two starts with Phoenix, he averaged 14 points, seven rebounds and 2.5 assists, while shooting 46.2 percent from the field and 42.9 percent from three.
Over the course of his career, he has averaged 5.2 points on 44.9 percent shooting from the field and 36.3 percent from three-point range. He has appeared in 141 regular-season games, but started in just eight games. He has also been to the playoffs twice, appearing in eight postseason games during his time with the Hawks. In his second postseason run with Atlanta, he shot 66.7 percent from the field and 50 percent from three-point range.
Jenkins’ career per-100-possession stats – 20.2 points, 5.9 rebounds, 3.2 assists and one steal – show how much he can impact the game when he’s given minutes.
In the last two months of last season, when Earl Watson was at the helm for the Suns, Jenkins’ minutes increased – Watson’s interim coaching tag has now been removed.
Jenkins fits Watson’s style of play, and there’s no question that he provides value when on the court. Last year, he led Phoenix in three-point percentage (40.6 percent) and elbow shooting percentage (50 percent). This skill set is a perfect fit for today’s NBA with the way shooting and spacing are valued, especially on a team like the Suns that likes to shoot from long distance – ranking 10th in the NBA in made threes per game last season.
Jenkins is also efficient, ranking second on the Suns in True Shooting Percentage (56.4) behind only Chandler, who obviously does his damage at the basket. Jenkins’ career True Shooting Percentage is an impressive 56.2 percent. He also ranked second on the Suns in assist-to-turnover ratio (1.13) last season, which likely helped earned Coach Watson’s trust down the stretch of the campaign.
Dudley, who re-joined the Suns on a three-year deal worth $30 million, is a fan of Jenkins’ game and believes the sharpshooter could be a difference-maker for Phoenix.
“Anytime you have a player like John who has a good basketball IQ and is a knockdown shooter, all you need to have is confidence and an opportunity,” Dudley said of Jenkins. “John will get his chance and when he does, he has to make the most of it.”
Basketball Insiders recently talked with Jenkins about how he joined the Suns, expectations for next season, Phoenix’s offseason moves, embracing a leadership role on the young team and much more.
Alex Kennedy: Being claimed off of waivers is a strange thing. Most people can’t relate to that process at all. There aren’t many other jobs where you’re let go and then a day or two later, an organization on the other side of the country can claim your contract and you have to relocate there immediately. What was it like going through that process and how did you ultimately land in Phoenix?
John Jenkins: “It was tough. It was my first time being in a situation like that and I loved Dallas. Being with them was great, but I was in a logjam playing behind two great players in Chandler Parsons and Wesley Matthews along with other veterans like J.J. Barea and Devin Harris. It was kind of like in Atlanta, where I was behind a veteran group of guys. I kind of expected [to be waived] when that time came because we were so guard heavy, and my contract likely meant that I was going to be the one to get cut. I had gotten some heads up, maybe three days before, but even still I wasn’t completely ready for that to happen. After my last game with the Mavericks, Coach Rick Carlisle told me to stand up and said a bunch of great things about me in front of the team. That was really cool of him. Then, a day later, I was waiting for the waiver period to pass to see if my contract would be cleared and if I’d become a free agent. Then, I was told by my agent that Coach Carlisle called the Phoenix Suns on my behalf and spoke highly of me. He looked out for me big time and I really appreciate that. I guess Phoenix liked what they saw from me when we played them in the preseason. [Editor’s Note: Jenkins averaged 19.7 points in 28.4 minutes for Dallas in the preseason]. They saw what I could do and they gave me a chance. That’s how I got here and I’m happy to be with the Suns now.”
Kennedy: That’s really interesting. Coach Carlisle is extremely respected around the NBA and is known for being one of the best coaches in the league. What did it mean to you to have that kind of backing from him, to have him looking out for you?
Jenkins: “It definitely wasn’t expected. I didn’t think he’d do what he did and go to those lengths to help me. I mean, it was in the middle of the season so he was worried about his guys, game-planning and what he had to do to get wins. For him to take time out of his busy schedule during the season to call another team about a player of his who was there for half the year, that meant the world to me. It gave me another chance to play in the NBA and keep my dream alive.”
Kennedy: You joined Phoenix in February, so you’ve been in the franchise for some time now. They have a very good reputation when it comes to their training staff and development program. What’s been your early impression of the organization?
Jenkins: “It’s been great. I love the direction that we’re heading in. We’re a very young team. I’m actually considered old compared to the guys on our team, even though I’m only 25. I thought that was pretty young, but I guess not (laughs). I’m pretty old compared to most of the guys in this group. The direction is great and I think they have the right people in place, from Coach [Earl] Watson all the way up to the front office to the owner Mr. [Robert] Sarver. I like the system that Coach Watson is putting in – it’s going to be great. I just like Coach Watson and what he’s about too. While I was in Las Vegas supporting the Summer League team, I was working out with a lot of the guys and it was great to get to know them even more. I just can’t say enough good things about the organization. The weight coach is incredible. The training staff always makes sure your body is feeling good at all times. Before every game, you’re on the table for at least 30 minutes so they can work on you and they can make sure your body is good. There are just a lot of things here that I wasn’t used to. I’ve been a part of two organizations that were big time in Atlanta and Dallas, but Phoenix is just one step [ahead] in terms of training and how they take care of their guys and all of that. They’re known for that and well respected when it comes to training and skill development and all of that.”
Kennedy: How much have you grown as a player and as a person from your first day in the NBA to right now?
Jenkins: “As a player, I’ve improved so much. It’s crazy. I’d say I’ve done a complete 180-degree turnaround, but it sucks because I haven’t really been able to play the minutes to show everybody just how much I have improved. I’ve gotten so much better and I’m a totally different player. When I first got into the league, I think I was known just as a shooter. While I still have the shooting ability, now I can take it off the dribble, finish at the rim, create for others – since I played some point guard in Dallas and a tiny, tiny bit in Phoenix – thrive in pick-and-rolls and things like that. There are just so many little things that I’ve added to my game. I’m looking forward to showing those thing off more. As a person, I’ve grown a lot too. As I mentioned, I’m getting married. My life has just been great. I’ve learned a lot of life lessons from basketball, like always staying patient, never getting down on yourself, how to handle money and how to deal with everything life throws at you. I feel like I’m 30 years old, not 25. I’ve been through a lot. I’ve had to change locations three times. Things like that force you to mature faster, because you have to. You don’t have a choice. My parents didn’t come out and live with me, I was alone and grew up. And now, having a wife, that’s definitely life-changing. Then, you’re making this money and you have to know how to manage it and be smart with it, so automatically you’re forced to act three or four years older than you really are. I’d definitely say I’m more like a 30-year-old than a 25-year-old.”
Kennedy: You had the chance to play for Earl Watson last season as he was adjusting to his first coaching job and learning the ropes. What did you think of the job he did?
Jenkins: “I thought he did a great job, man. When I got there, we were in a tough situation. We were losing a ton of games. Soon after I got there, we were able to pick it up a little bit, going on a couple two- and three-game win streaks. We were staying competitive against teams that were supposed to kill us, playing them really tough. Our confidence just kept rising and rising like, ‘Yo, we could be really good if we just keep trusting the process.’ That’s one thing that Coach Watson really preaches – trusting the process. I love everything that he’s about and he knows what he’s doing. He’s brought the same principles he learned from San Antonio and the other teams he’s been around and instilled them here. He’s a young coach [at 37 years old], but he’s wise beyond his years. He went to UCLA and as a teenager became close with John Wooden, who’s one of the best coaches ever. The things he says to us make you just think, ‘Wow, he’s ready for this job.’ I think he’s going to do a great job and he earned that job. They didn’t just give it to him. He earned it. When there were 20 games left in the season, he had us wanting to play every game and battle for him. Guys weren’t thinking about their vacations or anything like that, they were wanting to play hard for him. For him to be able to do that as a young coach, on a team that wasn’t going to the playoffs, in a frustrating season due to injuries and things like that, he kept us playing the whole year. That’s huge.”
Kennedy: The Suns added a number of players this summer, including veterans Jared Dudley and Leandro Barbosa and rookies Dragan Bender and Marquese Chriss. What do you think of those moves and how much better can this team be after making those additions?
Jenkins: “I thought Ryan [McDonough] and the front office did a fantastic job in everything they did. I watched the draft picks in Summer League and they looked great. They’re so young, man! Bender is 18 and Chriss is 19, yet they’re already doing things on the court where you’re like, ‘Okay, they have a chance to be special.’ I think they’ll play a lot. As far as the veteran presences, they brought in two guys who are like legends in Phoenix in Jared Dudley and Leandro Barbosa. They’ve been on the great teams that Phoenix has had, back when they played with Steve Nash and those guys. They know what it takes to win. Barbosa even has a championship ring now after playing for the Warriors. I think he’ll be able to take what he learned from Golden State and from his 13 years in the NBA and pass it on to us. We’re a young team, so we’re all ears. We’re a very hungry team. That’s one thing I’ve noticed about this group. We all want to get better and we strive for that every day.”
Kennedy: What are your expectations for next year? The playoffs have been discussed in Phoenix for the last few years. Is that a goal that’s being discussed?
Jenkins: “Yeah, that’s the goal and nobody should count us out as long as we stay healthy. Like I said, we’re so hungry. And we have a coach who is really hungry too. The organization as a whole just really wants to get back to that level again. We’re going to do the best we can. I had no idea what to expect when Coach Watson became the coach, but I’ve just been so impressed by him. What he’s already started to do has been great and I think everybody is just going to latch on and give it all that we’ve got. Health was a big issue last year. But we want to make sure that you have to respect Phoenix every time you play us. For anyone who thinks, ‘Oh, it’s going to be an easy win,’ it’s not going to be like that all. We have a good mix of veteran and young pieces, and we can be scary.”
For more exclusive interviews from Alex Kennedy (with players such as Indiana’s Jeff Teague, New York’s Courtney Lee, Oklahoma City’s Victor Oladipo, Philadelphia’s Jahlil Okafor, Atlanta’s Kent Bazemore, Los Angeles’ Jamal Crawford, Sacramento’ Garrett Temple, Portland’s Moe Harkless), click here.
PODCAST: Breaking Down The Western Conference Playoff Race
Basketball Insiders Deputy Editor Jesse Blancarte and Writer James Blancarte break down the Western Conference playoff race and check in on the Los Angeles Clippers and Los Angeles Lakers.
NBA Daily: The Cleveland Cavaliers Need Tyronn Lue
The Cleveland Cavaliers have faced injury adversity and a roster shakeup, and now face uncertainty regarding coach Tyronn Lue’s health.
The most enduring image of Cleveland Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue came moments after his team sealed the 2016 NBA Finals with a third consecutive win after trailing the Golden State Warriors 3-1. As the team celebrated its historic comeback and readied to hoist the Larry O’Brien Trophy, one camera focused on Lue, who sat on the bench with his face buried in his hands.
— Buddy Grizzard (@BuddyGrizzard) June 20, 2016
The image tells a thousand words about the pressure Lue was under as Cleveland teetered on the brink of elimination for three games. Rather than sharing the euphoria of his players, it seemed that Lue’s emotions centered around the massive weight that had been lifted from his shoulders. Almost two years later, it appears that burden has caught back up with Lue, whose leave of absence for health reasons complicates things for Cleveland with the playoffs just around the corner.
“It’s like losing one of your best players,” said Cavaliers forward LeBron James after Cleveland’s 124-117 win at home over the Milwaukee Bucks on Monday.
Kevin Love returned from a six-week injury absence to post 18 points, seven rebounds and four assists against the Bucks. James likened Lue’s absence to the burden of trying to replace Love’s output while he was unavailable.
“We’ve got to have guys step up, just like guys trying to step up in Kev’s absence,” said James. “We have to do the same as a collective group as long as Ty needs to get himself back healthy.”
There’s optimism that Lue could return before the playoffs, but there’s a great deal of uncertainty given the seriousness of his symptoms, which reportedly included coughing up blood. Lead assistant Larry Drew, a former head coach with the Bucks and Hawks, will handle head coaching responsibilities until Lue is ready to return.
Kyle Korver played under Drew in Atlanta and said he’s confident in his ability to fill in.
“We’d love to have Ty here and healthy,” said Korver after the Bucks win. “Coach Drew has done this for a long time as well. He coached me for a full year in Atlanta. We know he’s fully capable.”
Korver also doubted Drew would introduce any major stylistic changes.
“I think LD’s been Ty’s top assistant for a reason,” said Korver. “They really think a lot alike. They coach very similarly. We miss Ty, but I think the style of what we do is going to be very similar.”
While style and approach should remain unchanged, what could an extended absence for Lue mean for the Cavaliers? Lue cemented his legacy as a leader by keeping the Cavaliers together as they fought back from a 3-1 deficit to the Warriors, but Drew hasn’t had that kind of success as a head coach.
In 2012, the Hawks had a real opportunity to reach the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time in Atlanta history. The Hawks faced an aging Boston Celtics squad in the first round. The eighth-seed Philadelphia 76ers awaited in the second round after defeating the top-seeded Chicago Bulls.
After splitting the first two games in Atlanta, the Hawks faced a pivotal Game 3 in Boston with the opportunity to retake home court advantage. Atlanta Journal-Constitution beat writer Michael Cunningham used Synergy Sports to break down every offensive possession for Celtics point guard Rajon Rondo. His conclusion? For three quarters, Rondo did not score a single basket while guarded by Hawks combo guard Kirk Hinrich.
The Hawks traded a package that included a former and a future first-round pick to obtain Hinrich from the Wizards in 2011. But in Game 3, Hinrich failed to score a point despite his effective defense. Apparently feeling the need for an offensive spark, Drew left Hinrich on the bench in the fourth quarter and turned to career journeyman Jannero Pargo.
With Hinrich out of the game, Rondo’s offense came to life as he slashed to the basket at will. Boston opened the fourth with a 13-7 run before Pargo went to the bench and Atlanta closed on a 15-7 run to force overtime. The NBA did not publish net rating data at the time, but we can now see via historical data that the Hawks were outscored by nearly 52 points per 100 possessions in Pargo’s minutes in Game 3. Rather than entrust Atlanta’s season and his own legacy to a player the Hawks traded two first-round picks to obtain, Drew went with Pargo, a career end-of-bench player.
What does this mean for the Cavaliers? It means the team needs to get Lue back. Drew and Lue are both former NBA players who have received mixed reviews as head coaches. But when his legacy was on the line, Lue pushed the right buttons.
For Drew’s part, in his first postgame press conference since Lue’s absence was announced, he remained publicly deferential.
“Coach Lue is the one who makes that decision,” said Drew when asked about lineup combinations. “That’s not my call. We look at a lot of different combinations — whether guys are starting or whether they are coming off the bench — and we assess everything.”
On the critical question of how lineups will be fine-tuned as the Cavaliers prepare for the playoffs, Drew once again emphasized Lue’s active role even as he steps away from the bench.
“I’ll talk to Ty,” said Drew. “He’s got the final say-so. Whatever he wants, then that’s what we’re going to go with. But if he tells me to make a decision, then I’ll have to make the decision.”
With Lue suffering acute symptoms, there’s no way of knowing when he will be ready to step back into the pressure cooker of a leading role for a team with championship aspirations. But the Cavaliers need him and need his steadying influence and instincts. Cleveland is a team that has battled through injuries and a major roster overhaul at the trade deadline. It also faces the pressure of James’ impending free agency decision this summer.
Now, with the playoffs just around the corner, the Cavaliers must endure uncertainty about Lue’s ability to return and lead the team. James has emphasized that Lue’s health overshadows any basketball concerns, but gave his most terse remark when asked about learning that Lue would step away on the same day Cleveland finally got Love back.
“If it’s not one thing, it’s another,” said James. “That was my reaction.”
A Breakout Season for Joe Harris
Brooklyn Nets swingman Joe Harris talks to Basketball Insiders about his second chance with the Nets.
The NBA is all about second chances. Sometimes players need a change of scenery, or a coach who believes in them, or just something different to reach their full potential. They may be cast aside by several teams, but eventually, they often find that right situation that allows them to flourish.
Such was the case for Joe Harris. Originally drafted by the Cleveland Cavaliers with the 33rd overall pick in the 2014 draft, Harris rarely saw the court during his time in Cleveland. He averaged about 6.4 minutes per game over the course of about one and a half seasons with the Cavaliers.
During the 2015-16 season, his second in Cleveland, he underwent season-ending foot surgery. Almost immediately after, the Cavaliers traded him to the Orlando Magic in an attempt to cut payroll due to luxury tax penalties. He would never suit up for the Magic as they cut him as soon as they traded for him.
After using the rest of that season to recover from surgery, he would sign with the Brooklyn Nets in the summer of 2016. He had a very strong first season in Brooklyn, but this season he’s truly broken out.
“I think a lot of it has to do with just the right situation in terms of circumstances. It’s a young team where you don’t really have anybody on the team that’s going out and getting 20 a night,” Harris told Basketball Insiders. “It’s a collective effort most nights and it can be any given person depending on the situation. It’s one of those things where we’re real unselfish with the ball. A lot of guys get a lot of good looks, so your production is bound to go up just because of the system now that we’re playing.”
Known primarily as a sharpshooter in college at the University of Virginia as well as his first stop in Cleveland, Harris has started developing more of an all-around game. He’s improved his ability to put the ball on the floor and make plays as well as crashing the glass and playing strong defense.
In a relatively forgettable season record-wise for the Nets, Harris has been one of their bright spots. He’s putting up 10.1 points per game on 47.3 percent shooting from the field while playing 25.4 minutes per game. He’s up to 40.3 percent from the three-point line and he’s pulling down 3.3 rebounds. All of those numbers are career-highs.
“My role, I think, is very similar to the way I would be anywhere that I was playing. I’m a shooter, I help space the floor for guys to facilitate,” Harris told Basketball Insiders. “I’m opportunistic offensively with drives and such. I’m out there to try and space the floor, knock down shots, and then play tough defensively and make sure I’m doing my part in getting defensive rebounds and that sort of stuff.”
Although Harris didn’t play much in Cleveland, he did show glimpses and flashes of the player he has blossomed into in Brooklyn. He saw action in 51 games his rookie year while knocking down 36.9 percent of his three-point attempts.
He also saw action in six playoff games during the Cavaliers’ run to the 2015 Finals. But more importantly, it was the off the court things that Harris kept with him after leaving Cleveland. The valuable guidance passed down to him from the Cavaliers veteran guys. It’s all helped mold him into the indispensable contributor he’s become for the Nets.
“Even though I wasn’t necessarily playing as much, the experience was invaluable just in terms of learning how to be a professional,” Harris told Basketball Insiders. “The approach, the preparation, that sort of stuff. That’s why I learned a lot while I was there. All those good players that have had great, great, and long careers and just being able to kind of individually pick their brains and learn from them.”
When Harris came to Brooklyn two years ago, he initially signed a two-year deal with a team option after the first year. When he turned in a promising 2016-17 season, it was a no-brainer for the Nets to pick up his option. Set to make about $1.5 million this season, Harris’ contract is a steal.
However, he’s headed for unrestricted free agency this upcoming summer. Although he dealt with being a free agent before when he first signed with the Nets, it’s a different situation now. He’s likely going to be one of the most coveted wings on the market. While there’s still a bit more of the regular season left, and free agency still several months away, it’s something Harris has already thought about. If all goes well, Brooklyn is a place he can see himself staying long-term.
“Yeah, it’s one of those things that I’ll worry about that sort of decision when the time comes. But I have really enjoyed my time in Brooklyn,” Harris told Basketball Insiders. “It’s a great organization with a lot of good people, and they try and do stuff the right way. I enjoy being a part of that and trying to kind of rebuild and set a good foundation for where the future of the Brooklyn Nets is.”