The 2015-16 season was a difficult one for the Phoenix Suns, as on-court struggles led to the firing of two assistants in January and head coach Jeff Hornacek a month later. Earl Watson was given the job on an interim basis, despite the fact that this was his first NBA coaching job.
Watson, while inexperienced as a head coach, played more than a decade in the NBA and its that knowledge that helped him connect with the players. As a result Watson’s interim tag was removed in mid-April, entrusting him with the responsibility of leading a roster that has a few veterans and a lot of young talent.
Here’s a look at the roster:
Suns Projected Starting Lineup
G: Eric Bledsoe (20.4 ppg, 4.0 rpg, 6.1 apg) Speaking of injuries, Bledsoe played in just 31 games as a result of a torn meniscus in his left knee suffered in late December. Without Bledsoe the Suns’ hopes of having two playmakers on the court for significant stretches were dashed, and that had a lot to do with the team’s struggles. Now healthy, Bledsoe will start with Brandon Knight being used as the first perimeter player off the bench.
G: Devin Booker (13.8 ppg, 2.5 rpg, 2.6 apg) Booker, who also played at Kentucky, was one of the best rookies in the NBA last season. He shot 42.3 percent from the field, and while his three-point percentage was low (34.3 percent) Booker is more than capable of improving on that figure. What helped Booker was the tutelage of big man Tyson Chandler, who helped the young guard learn the ropes when it comes to playing in the NBA.
G: Jared Dudley (7.9 ppg, 3.5 rpg, 2.1 apg) Dudley, who played in Phoenix from 2008 to 2013, is back with the Suns after agreeing to a three-year, $30 million deal. His return is even more important with the news that Tucker will miss time due to a back injury, as Dudley can play on either wing or even the four on occasion. Dudley’s a tough player who also shoots well, as he made 42 percent of his three-pointers in Washington last season.
F: T.J. Warren (11.0 ppg, 3.1 rpg) With P.J. Tucker expected to sit out six to eight weeks after undergoing back surgery, there’s an opening in the Suns’ starting lineup. While Warren, a good scorer at the forward position who shot 50.1 percent from the field last year, could be that guy don’t be surprised if free agent signing Jared Dudley sees plenty of time as a smaller stretch forward.
C: Tyson Chandler (7.2 ppg, 8.7 rpg) Chandler is a key player for the Suns, and not just because he serves as the last line of defense. With so many young players on the roster a veteran leader is needed, and last season that guy was Chandler. That should once again be the case, with the Suns adding two talented but young front court prospects in Dragan Bender and Marquese Chriss.
Suns Projected Bench
G: Brandon Knight (19.6 ppg, 3.9 rpg, 5.1 apg) Knight started 50 of the 52 games he played in last season, shooting 41.5 percent from the field and 35.2 percent from beyond the arc. However his offensive rating of 100 was much too low for a starting guard, and Knight has to become more efficient if the Suns are to win more games. What would help Knight is staying healthy, as he missed time due to a groin strain and a sports hernia in 2015-16.
G: Leandro Barbosa (6.4 ppg, 1.7 rpg) The “Brazilian Blur” is back in Phoenix, where he played the first seven seasons of his NBA career (and 2013-14), after spending the last two years with the Warriors. Barbosa’s still plenty fast in the open court, and his ability to score will make him one of the Suns’ first options off the bench. Barbosa agreed to a two-year deal worth $8 million, with the Suns holding the option on the second year.
G: Tyler Ulis (Rookie) Ulis played two seasons at Kentucky, where he was a teammate of Booker’s when both were freshmen in 2014-15. In Ulis the Suns add a player who was one of the best leaders in college basketball last season, showing off the ability to both score and distribute the basketball while being a pitbull defensively. Phoenix thought so highly of Ulis that they’re guaranteeing the first year of his deal, which isn’t always the case for second round picks.
F: P.J. Tucker (8.0 ppg, 6.2 rpg) Tucker, who started 80 of the 82 games he played in last season, is out for anywhere from six to eight weeks after undergoing back surgery. He’s a tough, physical wing, and his presence will be missed on the defensive end by a team that struggled to get stops last season with Tucker on the floor.
F: Marquese Chriss (Rookie) Taken 8th overall by the Kings, Chriss’ draft rights were swapped with those of George Papagiannis on draft night. At 6-foot-9 the Washington product has a wiry, athletic build, but it will likely take some time for him to develop the skills needed to flourish in the NBA. Competing with an against a veteran such as Chandler should help with Chriss’ development.
F: Dragan Bender (Rookie) Bender, who will turn 19 a couple weeks into the regular season, was taken fourth overall by the Suns and is an interesting prospect. The 6-foot-11 forward has been discussed as an NBA prospect for quite some time, but he’ll still need time on the court to get used to the pro game. Bender didn’t play much for Maccabi Tel Aviv last season, and like Chriss he stands to benefit from Chandler’s presence on the roster.
C: Alex Len (9.0 ppg, 7.6 rpg) The 7-foot-1 center out of Maryland has made strides in each of his three seasons with the Suns, increasing his scoring average from 2.0 points per game as a rookie in 2013-14 to 6.3 in 2014-15, and from 6.3 to 9.0 last season. Chandler’s helped Len out in his development process, and in time Len can be an even more important player for the Suns.
Other Players in Suns Training Camp
G John Jenkins
G Archie Goodwin G Shaquille Harrison
F Derrick Jones Jr.
F Derek Cooke Jr.
F/C Alan Williams
C Gracin Bakumanya
Of these seven players two, Goodwin and Williams, have guaranteed contracts for this season. Goodwin was a first-round pick in 2013 who simply hasn’t panned out yet, and with this being the final guaranteed year of his rookie contract he’ll need to show more progress. As for Williams, the big man who was dominant for much of his college career at UCSB gets his shot at the NBA after performing well at the NBA Summer League in Las Vegas.
As for the other five players Jenkins is the one with NBA experience, as he’s played four seasons in the league and split time between Dallas and Phoenix last year. Known for his shooting ability at Vanderbilt, Jenkins hasn’t been able to establish much in the way of consistency as a pro. Harrison’s a rookie out of Tulsa who was one of the top players in the American Athletic Conference last season, and one could argue that he was a bit underrated nationally. He’s versatile, as he can play either on or off the ball, and is a solid defender as well.
Jones and Cooke are highly athletic young forwards, but they’re likely headed to Flagstaff to play for the Suns’ D-League affiliate. Lastly there’s Bakumanya, a 6-foot-11 18-year old who played in France’s LNB Pro A division last year.
Suns Coaching Staff
Head coach: Earl Watson (Second season; 9-24 career record; 9-24 2015-16 record.)
Assistant coaches: Jay Triano, Tyrone Corben, Nate Bjorkgren
UPDATE (10/10): The Suns waived guard Shaquille Harrison, forward Derek Cooke Jr. and center Gracin Bakumanya.
UPDATE (10/24): The Suns waived guard Archie Goodwin.