Vol. 2 , Iss. 3: Ten Predictions After The Preseason

After watching the Suns go 0-4 in the preseason, I make some predictions about what the upcoming 20/21 season could bring.

And Here We Go…..

I’m eager to get straight into things this week. Just as I am eager for the first regular season game in just a few days. So I’ll keep this brief. If you aren’t yet a subscriber to this Newsletter, then what are you waiting for?

Let’s make some predictions…..

The Suns spent the preseason reminding us of what losing is like. After the 8-0 Bubble run, Phoenix decided to return back to their roots and take 4 losses in a row at the hands of the Jazz and Lakers.

Fortunately for us, the results don’t matter and I don’t expect the trend to continue.

The games were all about seeing the new look Suns on the court and to hopefully get a window into how they might play this season. Preseason wins and losses aside, I am fairly confident we are on the verge of watching a Playoff team compete in the 2020/21 NBA Season. Potentially quite a good one, at that.

The uncertainty of what this season is going to throw up, as well as the current lack of continuity creeping into the Regular Season, are the only reason I am stopping short of unwavering confidence.

But in the spirit of this Issue, I'll go out on a limb now and suggest the Suns will win somewhere in the vicinity of 43 games this season. There’s my first prediction for you and you’ve still got another 10 (actually it’s 11, so all in all it’s now actually 12) predictions to go.

Below are some observations after watching the warmup games & some predictions I am willing to put my name to.

1. Ayton’s Middy Isn’t Going Anywhere

BUT….There Has Been A Small Shift That Is Mildly Encouraging

My general thoughts on Deandre Ayton’s love affair with the ‘Middy’ are no secret. I made it fairly clear in Issue 3 of this Newsletter’s 1st Volume. However, I’ve noticed what could be an encouraging development from the recent preseason games.

It must come with the usual Small Sample Size Alert but there was a key difference between Ayton’s shots from the mid-range recently and those during last season.

By far my biggest gripe with this shot from Ayton in his young career to date, is that he settles for it far too often. Take the extremely inefficient 36.7% he shot last season, couple it with the lowly 2.3 FTAs, and you give me high blood pressure.

However, a big part of the problem was the all too familiar position we saw Ayton in from this range last season. I’m talking about him facing up after zero contact, standing flat footed in the middle of the floor, with terrible spacing around him. A defender’s dream.

We grew accustom to two results from this position. Deandre was either going to shoot it or he was going to pass it. That’s it. How was he ever going to get comfortable putting the ball on the deck and drawing contact, if he was staring at a brick wall of players in front of him? Short answer - he wasn’t. He was going to shoot over it.

Now compare that to the footage below from the Utah games. The most important difference - floor position and spacing.

Look at the amount of work that goes in before the catch. Ayton screens for Johnson, before Booker sets a cross screen for Ayton. There’s your first key difference. The second? Ayton catches with his back to the basket after creating some contact with Favors.

Ayton doesn’t rush either. He was too quick to pull the trigger last season. He sizes up Favors, before taking and making the Middy. That’s a shot I can learn to live with, if he is also creating trips to the line when placed in similar positions. The secondary play was just minutes later and Ayton took advantage of the fact Favors played him tighter, after making the first shot. It’s all about building layers.

Again, ticking all the boxes below.

Starting with contact and his back to the basket in the high post. Left side of the floor again. Perfect spacing that sows a seed of doubt into the defenders mind, of whether he might attack the space.

And again, the Gobert shot I can learn to live with. As long as he attacks when the defender is overly aggressive like Harrell, then I may even learn to love it but let’s not get too crazy just yet. That 36% chance of a make, increases to 44% as soon as Ayton touches the paint. Better yet, it rises to 69% if he bullies his way to the restricted area. And with that, will come the extra FTs.

Ayton’s Middy might be hanging around but it doesn’t mean my attitude towards it has to as well. That will depend upon whether this healthy dose of attacking and settling continues to exist in the season proper.

That and Chris Paul ensuring Ayton still takes the majority of his shots around the basket. Which reminds me - Prediction 1B: Chris Paul Will Help Deandre Ayton Shoot Over 60% This Season. His history with starting C’s is just too good.

2. If Saric Misses Any Time, The Suns Will Lose Games Because Of It

The first of our quick hitter predictions surrounds Dario Saric.

It’s fair to say that with Dario missing all 4 preseason games, the Suns missed his presence within the second unit. While all the other backup 5 options for Phoenix looked subpar, this isn’t just about finding a backup that can help the Suns tread water while the starters are out.

Saric is a legitimate key piece for this team. They paid him as such. While he might not shoot the 57% he did in the Bubble, the Suns are going to need his 14-15 points a night. Especially on nights where the big guns just don’t have it. It might literally be the difference between winning and losing.

3. Bridges Will Lead The League In Points Off Cuts

BUT….He May Also Be Ready To Take A Much Bigger Leap

Last season Mikal Bridges was in the 88th percentile when it came to points per possession off cuts. This season he may actually take the 1.51 PPP even further and lead the entire NBA.

The addition of Paul gives Mikal an even more dangerous PG to work off. With several other threats sharing the floor too, Bridges might just find ALL the creases.

Watch below as he sets up to screen for Booker off-ball, but makes sure to keep his eyes on the action. As he notices CP3 driving, his first instinct is to backtrack to space the floor. However, it’s what he does next that separates him from a large portion of his peers. He has an innate ability to time his cut. The moment his defender turns their head, he’s off. And it almost always matches up perfectly with the driver.

While I’m backing Mikal in to take the title in PPP off cuts (AKA The Efficiency King), I can’t guarantee the most points in the NBA from that play-type. But I promise it’s for a good reason.

Year 3 might be the year where Bridges takes a legitimate leap in the rest of his offensive game. The conditions are shaping up just right.

The loss of Kelly Oubre means there is going to be more shots to go around. That was the case in the Bubble, where we saw Mikal take his overall FGA’s from 8.3 Per 36 Mins to 10.3. But remember how Bubble Scrimmage Games Bridges was a thing too? He took 15.2 FGA's in those games before reverting to his normal self again.

I don’t know what it is this time, but something feels different. Mikal was back up to 14.6 FGAs Per 36 in these preseason games and while he only shot 44% - it was the process for me, over the results. When can you remember Mikal shaking a guy like LeBron with a jab step into a 3? AND THEN he turned that memory just a few minutes later into a beautiful driving reverse layup.

Ummmm, where was the foul?

Then there’s the nifty Pick & Roll play, Bridges has flashed in the last 4 games.

Remember the 44FG% from earlier? Well that’s actually largely due to the fact Mikal took 5.8 3PAs per game in the preseason games and only shot 30% on them. Again, process over results. It’s nice to see Bridges ramp his deep shots up by 3 extra attempts per game compared to last season. I hope that’s here to stay.

What it also means though, is he was crazy efficient from inside the arc over the 4 games. Our second Small Sample Size Alert for this Issue, but Mikal went 12/20 on 2-pointers or 60%. He showed a real ability to put his defender ‘in jail’ off the screen and he’s learning how his crazy length can not only help him shoot over the top but also get him to the rim.

Remember kids - Bridges are a good idea when you can’t quite take the leap on your own. Too far? A bridge too far you say? Okay okay, I’ll stop.

4. Johnson Will Flourish In A Bench Role

Last Issue I made the case for Jae Crowder starting.

Unfortunately that means Cam Johnson returns to the bench. But it doesn’t need to be a net negative or even a step back for Cam. A step back you say, David? Interesting choice of words.

Cam is the better shooter. He’s also the more versatile shooter. And in the four practice games, we may have seen more of Johnson’s overall shooting arsenal than we did all last season. While he will no doubt still get his reps with the starters, this larger bench role could be great for Cam’s overall development. It could also be exactly what the Suns need in that second unit.

Much in the same way the simple role for Crowder works for the team and individual, the extended bench role could also benefit Johnson and the Suns.

5. Point Book Will Be The Best Backup Option

BUT….Monty Will Remain Reluctant To Deploy It In Full

The way James Jones has constructed this roster, essentially any lineup containing Devin Booker without either Chris Paul or Cam Payne - is Point Book. And it’s so good that it needs it’s own siren on Suns Twitter. Any suggestions?

It’s by far the best option the Suns currently have, for whenever Paul is resting. Yes, this comes from a place of not having a huge amount of faith in Payne to be a consistent backup PG. However, it also comes from another place too. One where I just happen to think Booker is really damn good with the ball in his hands and the wider world is about to find out.

Book averaged a tick over 13 potential assists last year and led the league in pass to assist percentage. Translation - he has become a genuine passing threat that needed two things; better teammates and more opportunities.

Just watch how this Pick & Roll automatically turns into a double team. That forces the corner defender to rotate and tag Motley in the paint. Book then darts his eyes at Galloway to get the one weak-side defender to jump one passing lane and open up the other. Jevon Carter, corner pocket.

As we discussed in Issue 1, the Suns now have a serious dual threat at the head of the snake. Staggering Booker and Paul to fill out the full 48 minutes, might be the best way to ensure we aren’t all pulling our hair out at times this season.

But here’s the thing, I think Monty Williams will be reluctant. Why? Well because if the Suns can survive those backup minutes without Book or CP3, then it leaves more time for them to be dangerous together. And that creates less of a burden on the Suns budding franchise cornerstone. Coaches jobs are hard - so many decisions!

Still, it would be a mistake.

Jones has built this roster for Point Book to flourish and I really hope I am wrong on the second half of this prediction. Imagine how much easier life can be for the second unit, with the attention Booker generates. Another Pick & Roll here but this time Booker throws the look-away lob and tells Jones to go fetch it. Watch as that one tiny motion removes Kuzma as the tag man towards Carter.

What’s another way to deploy Point Book but ease the burden a little? Throw him out there with a couple of other starters like Ayton and Bridges, plus shooters.

Booker in transition will always attract multiple defenders. If his teammates properly space to the corners like below, it gives him so much room to operate in and frankly he doesn’t need much. A shift to the lane here before crossing back to his left, parts the Lakers defense like the Red Sea.

I guess that makes Ayton, Moses…..Malone?

6. Carter Will Top The Team In % From Three

Jevon Carter will once again shoot over 40% from deep and this time he might do it on an even larger volume.

After shooting 42.5% last season on 2.5 attempts, Carter only shot 33.3% in the preseason but on a whopping 5.3 attempts a game. This is where I would argue why watching the games will always trump sifting through stats. In addition to the preseason rust caveat that a lot of what we’ve already discussed also deserves, it was obvious to me that Carter was taking some shots he won’t be asked to replicate when the real stuff begins.

If Jevon gets a healthy dose of minutes in his ideal off-ball role and stays within himself, then I’ll always be under the assumption his shots are going in.

7. We Will See Lots Of Three Guard Lineups

BUT….Look for Galloway To Play A Lot With The Starters

The other way to look at James Jones’ roster construction, is that if more Point Book isn’t the plan then it HAS to be more 3 guard lineups. There are just too many rotation level guards on the roster for it to not be one or the other, at this point.

This is where Langston Galloway checks in. Literally.

Why Galloway over the others? Well he showed in the preseason that he’s just a different level of shooter, going 12 of 23 from deep. I also like that his 6’8 wingspan allows some flexibility on how to match-up on the other end.

The luxury of Langston camping out on the wing in the set below, makes me chuckle. Basically any designed play involving the Booker/Ayton/Paul trio is going to create open looks, they are simply too dangerous. But this one is real nice. Let’s break it down quickly.

CP3 and Ayton PnR to Ayton dump off. No advantage created. Book then flies off a Paul screen into an Ayton handoff, which forces Ayton’s man to help because the primary defender is trailing well behind. Meanwhile CP3 has set a back pick in the paint, a dead giveaway for an Ayton lob so the corner defender must help. This is the point where Booker should have hit Galloway outright but he’s SO WIDE OPEN that the ball still finds it’s way to him for 3.

While I’m sure Galloway will find plenty of minutes for himself with the reserves, I can’t help but salivate over him also playing a lot with the starting unit. There are going to be nights this year where Crowder simply doesn’t have it or the Suns just want to go a bit smaller.

Here are back to back Ayton buckets off Paul assists. What does that have to do with Galloway, I hear you ask? Watch closely. First in the right corner with Clarkson and next in the left corner with Bogdanovic.

The Paul/Ayton two man game is going to be very hard to defend this season without help. Paul creates gravity with his shot, Ayton with his roll. Their immediate defenders are hoping others rotate, but it’s a really tough choice when a 40% shooter like Galloway is sitting in the corner.

Not only is that a luxury but you can also the throw in the ability to have a guy shoot off screens, when most of the attention is already on others.

If the Suns throw Galloway out there with the starters, he will often be viewed as the fourth or fifth offensive threat on the floor.

Take the below for example. Galloway gets two screens and a clean look off the curl to knock down the shot.

Now replace Jones with Ayton and Carter with Paul. I struggle to believe that shot is getting any more difficult for Galloway. If it is, then the ball is likely pinging to an open Ayton on the roll or Paul sitting in the corner. Good luck!

8. Moore Will Be The Unsung Hero Or The Scapegoat

Blink and you will have missed E’Twaun Moore during the preseason.

His 6 point average in 16 minutes over 3 games, didn’t exactly light the world on fire. However, I did think there were a lot of small underrated things he contributed that may continue to go unnoticed. Whether that was a defensive deflection that led to a Suns bucket or a little runner to break an offensive drought.

Something tells me that Moore might be a polarizing figure across the fanbase this coming season. A lot of it may come down to role, to be honest. If he can just pinch hit as a Wing, then I think he could be an underrated figure who helps win a few games over the course of the season. But I can also see him thrown in to fix the Suns backup initiator woes and being blamed for the results.

For all of our sake, let’s hope it’s the former because I really like E’Twaun.

9. Smith Will Look Mostly Bad In His Minutes

BUT….I Think There’s Hope Next To Saric Or As A Backup 5

I loved the confidence Jalen Smith flashed during his first minutes in the NBA.

If you look at his stats of 4.8 points per game on 28/14/50 shooting splits, then you’d be forgiven for thinking there wasn’t much to be positive about for the rookie. Again I don’t want to beat a dead horse, but WATCH THE GAMES people.

Given all the Rookies were starved of Summer League this year, basically any good signs against legit NBA talent should be viewed positively. Alternatively, any struggles should also be viewed with that context. Especially if that context also includes the team not giving him every opportunity to succeed.

I know you are likely already sick of me saying this but while I’m beating dead horses, let me repeat it again - JALEN SMITH IS A CENTER.

Look at the below tough finish over Favors and offensive foul against Harrell. Smith has some intriguing skills. Now imagine if Smith was able to take an even slower opponent off the dribble and instead of having another big clogging the lane, the Suns were running a 5-Out offense.

In the College minutes I’ve watched and the little we have now seen at NBA level, it’s fairly obvious to me that Smith is also not at all comfortable away from the lane on defense.

The issue with playing as a Power Forward in the NBA, is the majority of the time you are going to be guarding bigger Wing types over the more traditional Bigs you see in College. That is going to place Smith in a lot more uncomfortable situations that he is frankly not used to. And against guys who will have the edge on him athletically a lot of the time too. I just question if that’s the best thing for Jalen’s development.

We see here that his natural inclination is to sag into the paint and help protect the rim when he can. Problem being, guys like Bogdanovic are always going to be spacing to the corners.

I understand that the Suns likely don’t want to throw Smith in the deep end too soon. He actually looked a lot smaller out there against pros and Phoenix were careful to always make sure he was sharing the floor with one of Ayton, Jones or Motley.

However, compare the above to a rare situation late against the Lakers where Smith found himself as the defensive anchor in the paint for the Suns. He steps out to tag his man, before retreating into the paint while tracking the drive. Showing good mobility and verticality to secure the block.

None of this is to say that Smith can’t improve or flat out prove me wrong in the future. In fact, I’d bet the Suns drafted him believing full well they can develop him in these areas. I’m just very skeptical at this stage and feel we are in for some rough minutes short term, if they persevere with Jalen at the 4.

As I’ve suggested already, he needs to at least be a Faux-4 with Saric. Where he can patrol the paint on defense and be part of a 5-Out offense.

10. Jones Won’t Be In The Regular Rotation

To put it bluntly, if Damian Jones is featuring heavily for this Suns team then something has gone horribly wrong.

I didn’t see anything in the lead up games to suggest Jones could be anything but a third string Center. And that’s okay because I am fairly certain that’s all he was signed to be. He can set decent screens and finish the odd lob but outside of that, I have zero confidence he can help this team win games. He may have been signed to fill in as Diet Deandre when the Suns are in a pickle. But if there’s any longer term issue with Ayton or Saric, I’d be looking to sign someone else with the Suns open roster spot rather than rolling with Jones.


Overtime!

As you may know, this section is generally left for sharing great Suns content created by others. If you see something you love during the season, feel free to DM on Twitter and I’ll include it in the next Issue.

But this week, I wanted to reserve OT for a selfish reason.

If you’ve got this far, then you are exactly who I want to talk to. Last season I managed to get a few of my Twitter video threads included in content by much bigger publications than mine. This season my goal is to have one of my favorite NBA writers/creators read my work. I just wanted to get that down and see if we can make it happen.

You can help by giving things a share throughout the season, if you think it’s worth it. Twitter, Reddit, Facebook, even Suns Forums etc. You’d be surprised how much that helps get eyes on what I write. If I can grow my audience beyond mostly Twitter and also hit the goal above, it will be a GREAT season.

Go Suns!

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