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Yes, 2024 started a few days ago. But since yours truly has been sick for the last week and it’s still only Jan. 3, we’re sticking with Larry David’s three-day statute of limitations on New Year’s. Besides, everybody knows we all spend the first few days of any new year recovering from the holidays before we actually get working on those resolutions.
So with that in mind, it’s time to take a look at all 18 players on the Phoenix Suns roster and figure out what kind of realistic goals each one should set for themselves. As with any New Year’s resolution, we’re going to try and keep these as attainable (i.e. within each player’s control) as possible. And like 99 percent of New Year’s resolutions, we’re going to stick with objectives that will probably only apply for the next 4-6 months.
Theo Maledon: Make your Suns debut
It’s been over two weeks since Maledon signed with the Suns as their third and final two-way contract. On a completely full roster where Devin Booker, Bradley Beal, Grayson Allen and Eric Gordon command the backcourt minutes, not to mention Josh Okogie, Jordan Goodwin and Saben Lee all vying for playing time, Maledon making his Suns debut is the only reasonable expectation for the newcomer.
Udoka Azubuike: Keep rim rolling
On the one hand, it’s great to see a two-way guy step up and earn rotation minutes the way Azubuike has. One the other hand, it’s kind of an indictment on the Suns’ center rotation beyond Jusuf Nurkic. Azubuike hasn’t blown anyone away, especially lately, putting up goose eggs in his last three games. But his immediate impact as a rim roller has illustrated just how badly the Suns need a third center of that archetype.
In that vein, Azubuike shot an absurd 94.4 percent at the rim last season. His 81.9 percent shooting overall was also the highest field goal percentage in NBA history among players who suited up in at least 35 games in a season. In limited minutes in Phoenix, he’s shot 76.5 percent from the floor. That wicked poster dunk against the Houston Rockets was a reminder of how nice that rim-rolling presence can be, especially on a team like this.
Saben Lee: Drive, drive, drive
We considered going with “pray the Suns don’t trade for another backup point guard,” but that’s out of Lee’s control. With Goodwin failing to take control of that spot, Saben Lee has gotten his chance, logging double-digit minutes against the Sacramento Kings, Rockets and Charlotte Hornets. He did relatively well too, tallying 16 points and 8 assists across those three games.
Beal’s return leaves Lee on the outside looking in, but when he does get minutes, his objective is to show coach Frank Vogel how beneficial it is to have a downhill driver in that backup 1-spot. The Suns don’t need a traditional floor general with Book, Beal and Kevin Durant, but the bench minutes are still a work in progress. Lee is one of the few guys on the roster who can attack closeouts or drive and kick. Reminding Vogel he brings that dynamic to the table is his best path to earning minutes.
Bol Bol: Show Vogel A Bol New World
Coming into Monday’s game against the Portland Trail Blazers, Bol Bol had played a grand total of 19 minutes. He topped that in his first game of 2024, finishing with 11 points and 9 rebounds in 20 minutes.
His coach and teammates were ecstatic about his performance, and all of them mentioned “discipline” or “consistency” as the key for Bol to put all that talent and length to good use.
C’mon, Bol. Show everyone A Bol New World:
Damion Lee: Get back on the court
A reminder that not only is Damion Lee a terrific locker room guy, but he’s coming off a season in which he shot a career-high 44.5 percent from 3 — the third-best mark in the NBA last year. He also shot 47 percent on catch-and-shoot 3s, 40.3 percent on above-the-break 3s and 51 percent on corner 3s. And if that’s not enough, Lee also finished second in the league in fourth-quarter 3-point efficiency (52.3 percent) among all players who took at least 40 attempts.
Even in a crowded backcourt rotation, that sounds like a guy who could help this Suns team out! Lee hasn’t played a single game due to right meniscus surgery, but hopefully he’ll be back on the court sometime in January or February.
Yuta Watanabe: Start making corner 3s again
Speaking of corner 3 snipers missing in action, Yuta Watanabe hasn’t lived up to last season’s impressive numbers. After shooting a career-best 44.4 percent from downtown, he’s dropped to 32.9 percent this year — the lowest mark of his career since his rookie season. More importantly, Watanabe went from shooting 51.4 percent on corner 3s (a top-10 mark in the NBA last year) to just 32.3 percent in Phoenix.
His minutes have disappeared lately, mostly because he struggled so mightily when got the brunt of those backup wing minutes early on. Watanabe gives effort defensively, but he’s often a step slow on rotations and he struggles with ball containment. That’s not as glaring an issue when he’s making 3s, but if he can’t do the one thing Phoenix signed him for, his path to playing time will remain blocked.
Jordan Goodwin: Improve shot selection
Add Goodwin to the list of Suns role players who have seen drastic highs and lows in these first 2-3 months. Just a few weeks ago, Goodwin was a fourth-quarter hero, buoying Phoenix’s offense during the non-Booker stretches while Beal and KD were still out injured. Fast-forward to now and he’s only getting garbage-time minutes, opening the door for Saben Lee’s minutes.
Unlike Okogie, Goodwin doesn’t hesitate to shoot when he’s open. The problem is, he’s shooting 36.9 percent overall and making just 29.5 percent of his 3s. Even worse, Goodwin is launching 5.3 long-range attempts per 36 minutes. That’s more than Bradley Beal and Kevin Durant!
His shot selection has been suspect for awhile now, but at least the shots were falling before. They haven’t been lately, and between the missed open 3s and the forced looks, Goodwin has faded from the rotation:
This 25-year-old wasn’t just some throw-in in the Bradley Beal trade; he was billed as a defensive ball hound and the Suns’ answer to the backup point guard question. Only one of those things has panned out, and it’d be a shame to let Goodwin’s defensive instincts and beastly offensive rebounding go to waste. With so many weapons on the floor now, he has to tone down those ill-advised shots and focus more on setting people up.
Drew Eubanks: Re-establish credibility as a rotation player
Earlier in the season, Drew Eubanks had his moments. And the Suns could use a player who enjoys dunking on people and chasing blocks! But for whatever reason, it’s been a STRUGGLE for Eubanks over the past month. Whether it’s failing to be a threat on offense, brain-fart turnovers or defensive ineptitude, Eubanks has been so unplayable that Vogel turned to a two-way contract player to fill his minutes.
The numbers do not lie: Per NBA.com, Phoenix’s worst on-court Net Rating is Eubanks at -9.0, and their best off-court Net Rating is Eubanks as well, with the Suns posting a +6.2 whenever he rests.
It’s pretty simple: Eubanks has to be better on both ends. As surprising as Azubuike has been, it’s highly unlikely he plays well enough over the next few months to get bumped up from his two-way deal, secure a full roster spot and replace Eubanks in the rotation. Barring a trade, the Suns will need Eubanks at some point. He has to start proving to Vogel that he’s a legitimate rotation player now.
Keita Bates-Diop: Improve that 3-point efficiency
Keita Bates-Diop’s minutes have fluctuated more than anyone’s, and when he’s been on the court, he’s brought a measure of calm, as well as multi-positional versatility and length on defense. The problem is it’s really hard to play a guy who doesn’t offer much on the offensive end, particularly as a 3-point threat.
KBD shot a career-high 39.4 percent from deep last year with the San Antonio Spurs, but that number has plummeted to 26.8 percent so far in Phoenix — his lowest mark since his rookie season. His overall shooting has dropped 10 percentage points from 50.8 to 40.4 percent as well. The Suns need to continue tightening the screws on defense, but Bates-Diop can’t help much there if he’s a non-threat on offense.
Nassir Little: Find consistency
Little can’t do anything about the parade of nagging injuries he seems to always endure, and he’s acutely aware of it.
“I feel like that’s been the story of my career, just always something random happening,” Little said. “But it is what it is.”
In the last few weeks alone, Little has missed time due to a concussion, an orbital fracture, and most recently, left knee soreness that Vogel described in a less-than-reassuring way.
“It’s just when he has an off day, it starts to feel better, but the day after he plays, it’s a tendinitis type thing where it’s extreme soreness,” Vogel said. “It’s something they just want to let calm down for a few games.”
Guys can’t make New Year’s resolutions about avoiding injury, but one way or another, Little has to find a way to be more consistent on both sides of the ball. One game he’ll look great, knocking down 3s, finishing at the rim and attacking closeouts, and the next, he’ll be a complete non-factor.
With the Suns inching close to ironing out their rotations, Little has to step up. He’s scored in double figures just once over the last month, and while there’s more to basketball than scoring, it feels like Chimezie Metu is firmly ahead of him in the pecking order.
Chimezie Metu: Seize permanent rotation spot
Out of all the Suns’ veteran minimum additions this summer, Metu has been one of the most pleasant surprises. Mostly coming off the bench, he’s logged double-digit minutes in 11 of the last 12 games, and over that stretch, he’s put up 8.9 points and 5.0 rebounds per game on 50.7 percent shooting.
His 3-ball could still use some work, hovering around 33.3 percent on the season. But that’s still nearly 10 percent better than last year, so even becoming a somewhat credible threat from beyond the arc has boosted his case for minutes.
Metu brings size and can play either the 4 or the 5, depending on what the situation calls for. Vogel has seemed hesitant at times about where he best fits, but because of his ability to attack closeouts and his understated, well-rounded play, Metu has earned his keep. It’s still early, but as the rest of the reserves cycle through a Jekyll and Hyde routine, Metu may be on the verge of cementing a spot in the playoff rotation.
Josh Okogie: Find other ways to contribute on offense
For the majority of the season, nobody has been more open on 3-pointers this year than Josh Okogie. Literally.
As of Dec. 27, that No. 1 spot remains the same, and it’ll probably stay that way all year if Okogie continues shooting a career-low 25 percent from 3. The scouting report is out: Leave Josh Okogie open from the 3-point line, and that’s a good defensive possession against a team sporting the likes of Booker, KD, Beal, Grayson Allen, Eric Gordon and Jusuf Nurkic.
It’s the league’s awkwardest, worst-kept secret, and it’s gotten to the point where Okogie now hesitates on wide-open looks because the confidence is wavering. Vogel has publicly boosted him up at every opportunity, and he should: Okogie remains the Suns’ best perimeter defender, and they’ll need him at some point in the postseason. His defensive playmaking, along with his offensive rebounding and screening, can still help this team.
But there are games when those contributions really shine, and there are others where this Achilles heel renders him unplayable. He’s struggled finishing around the rim, and unless he’s generating turnovers that directly fuel offense, he’s been unable to impact the offensive end. As he works off the rust from hip and ankle injuries, Okogie has to find ways to be passable enough on offense and allow his defense to shine.
Eric Gordon: Sustain momentum in bench role
EG was right about the Suns’ offense being stuck in the mud, and fortunately, it’s gotten a lot better since his comments. Beal’s return has obviously helped, but getting Gordon more involved has too.
“[Vogel] knows I play the right way, and with me, I don’t really feel like I take bad shots,” Gordon said. “I like to play within the feel of the game, and I know if I’m knocking down shots, that’s just gonna open up the door for other people.”
Since getting only two shot attempts in a blowout loss to the Kings, Gordon is averaging 14.8 points on 10.4 shot attempts per game, shooting 51.9 percent overall and a scorching 47.4 percent from deep. The Suns are 4-1 over the stretch, which saw Gordon drain 14 3-pointers against Houston and Charlotte — the most in Suns franchise history over any two-game span.
Beal and Allen getting healthy has pushed Gordon back to a bench role after he’s already started in 19 games this season, but Vogel emphasized his desire for “Splash Gordon” to stay in attack mode.
“It’s not easy to do, and I actually talked to Eric about that,” Vogel explained. “I said, ‘You’re coming off the bench now, you’ve been in the starting lineup. Don’t change your mindset at all.’”
However, there are still some kinks that need ironing out. After setting that franchise record, Gordon only managed three shot attempts against the Orlando Magic. Some of that was a byproduct of how the NBA’s third-best defense guarded him, but the offensive flow and shot distribution remains a work in progress.
“Eric made 14 3s in the last two games, they left him a lot less,” Vogel said. “They stayed connected with him. But the starters carried a good load. I think we just gotta sustain the pace and the ball movement.”
Grayson Allen: Prove offense is greater than defense as fifth starter
Vogel confirmed before Monday’s game that — for the time being — Grayson Allen has a firm grip on the Suns’ fifth starting job. We’ll dive deeper into this later in the week, but questions about the viability of that starting lineup come down offensive firepower vs. size, defense and rebounding.
“We’re small, you know what I mean?” Vogel said. “Especially with Grayson becoming one of our better players. He’s been phenomenal for us, but he is the same size, sort of the same position as Brad and Devin.”
Starting Allen alongside Booker and Beal leaves the Suns undersized, even with two 7-footers like Durant and Nurkic lurking behind them. Allen has taken on opponents’ best perimeter matchups as well, and while he can manage against teams like Charlotte, Houston and Orlando, the Suns will be hard-pressed to get away with that against teams like the Golden State Warriors (Stephen Curry) or Memphis Grizzlies (Ja Morant).
However, that lineup does look formidable enough for the defense to matter less than it should. In 35 minutes together so far, the Booker-Beal-Allen-Durant-Nurkic lineup is a +17 overall, shooting a blistering 59.4 percent from the field and 40 percent from 3. They’ve assisted on 28 of their 41 made baskets, and their 115.3 defensive rating matters less when they’re boasting a gargantuan 138.9 offensive rating.
The shooting, ball-handling and secondary playmaking Allen brings to the table is paying dividends, as is his scrappiness on defense and his ability to attack closeouts. Vogel has acknowledged this is an offensive-minded roster first and foremost, and he still feels good about the new starting lineup’s chances of competing on defense. As Phoenix’s schedule heats up, it’s on Allen to continue showing how offensive firepower can overshadow those defensive drawbacks.
Jusuf Nurkic: Cut down on the 3s
Jusuf Nurkic has been better than most people expected. His finishing around the rim has improved with the Big 3 getting healthier, he’s been a nightly double-double, his passing and screen-setting have opened up the offense, his physicality enables him to get to the free-throw line, and despite his defensive shortcomings, he’s been even better than expected there too.
The biggest nit we’re picking with Nurk? He needs to cut down on some of those 3-point attempts in 2024.
Last year, Nurkic shot a respectable 36.1 percent from 3 on a career-high 2.3 attempts per game. That newfound skill hasn’t translated to this season, where he’s made just 26.8 percent of his 3s on an identical number of attempts.
Notice, though, we said cut down on “some” of his 3s. Taking an open one late in the shot clock, or maybe one in the pick-and-pop when it’s wiiiide open and the defense is daring him to take it? Those don’t hurt every now and then.
But some of these 3s that Nurk is walking into early in the shot clock? Consider us skeptical that Vogel is thrilled about some of them:
The return on investment is pretty low, aside from the obvious of making sure Nurkic is still getting looks of some kind. But even removing one or two of these from his diet on a weekly basis would help Phoenix hit the next level offensively.
Bradley Beal: Just stay healthy
Okay, we’re cheating. We promised to keep these resolutions within the player’s control…but after watching the joy that Beal’s return brought, and how much better the Suns have looked since getting the wind back in their sails, how could Beal’s resolution be anything other than just staying available?
Cheating or not, this group needs to build reps together, and it’s something Vogel alluded to before Monday’s game.
“Having Brad back is beyond welcome, but there is an integration piece of guys still learning each other and knowing when to pick spots to be aggressive, to facilitate, all those types of things,” Vogel said. “We’re still a little too unsettled with our role players and who’s earning those minutes. So I’d like to get that settled as quickly as possible, but with guys being in and out, we haven’t been able to do that.”
Landing on someone’s foot just minutes into his second game with the Big 3 certainly wasn’t in Beal’s plans, but the Suns don’t have a ton of time to build cohesion before April. The process is off to a good start, and all the things Beal provides — additional ball-handling, playmaking, 3-point shooting, gravity, three-level scoring, defensive effort and especially rim pressure as a driver and cutter — need to persist.
“I’m still getting my legs under me, getting my feet under me, getting my wind too, Beal said. “But it’s good to be able to have a good feel and general feel of how we play, how we’re gonna play and how guys’ strengths and weaknesses too.”
Kevin Durant: Take care of the ball
Over the Suns’ last three losses, Durant had tallied 14 assists and 18 turnovers. His body language was bad, but his ball security was even worse.
In his three games since then, he’s put up a whopping 32 assists to just 4 turnovers. Durant made it a point of emphasis to take better care of the ball, and the results are especially impressive when one considers how much more offense he’s initiated over that stretch. Shouldering more responsibility, in order to get Booker off the ball more, has helped the offense work its way out of a rut and get Phoenix back in the win column.
Durant said it starts with him being aggressive to score, but his ability to read double-teams, pass out of them and keep the offense churning without coughing it up will be imperative come playoff time. And he’s well aware of that.
“That’s just what I’m supposed to do: read the game, understand how the game is being played and make decisions,” Durant said. “I’ve been in the league for too long for me to get surprised at games like that.”
Devin Booker: Lose the headband, find your mojo again
The headband thing is mostly a joke, but after striking a perfect balance as a scorer and lead point guard early in the season, Booker has struggled to navigate those dual roles lately. Phoenix’s offensive downslide wasn’t only because of “Point Book,” but the blend between Booker the scorer and Booker the playmaker had been more strained in recent weeks.
The result has been a “slump” by Book’s standards over the last month or so:
- First 11 games: 27.9 PPG, 8.4 APG, 47.2 FG%, 39.7 3P%, +8.4, 9-2 record
- Last 13 games: 25.1 PPG, 7.5 APG, 46.2 FG%, 35.3 3P%, +0.7, 6-7 record
The statistical drop-off hasn’t been as drastic as Suns Twitter would claim, but he really hasn’t looked like the potential MVP he was to start the season.
The team’s December struggles played a part in that, but Booker has only had one 30-point game in his last nine contests after racking up seven 30-point outings in his first 15 games. He’s getting to the free-throw line less, and he’s shooting about 10 percent worse there compared to his first 11 games. And in eight of his last nine games, he’s failed to shoot 50 percent, which includes a 4-for-16 stinker against the lowly Blazers last game.
Nobody on the Suns is worried, though. Nor should they be.
“Even Book having a bad night that people say, but I want him to take all these shots,” Nurkic said. “These are wide open shots. I don’t care if he misses 20 in a row; the 21st is going to Devin Booker. So simple as that. If we want to win the championship, that 21st one is big for us.”
Booker will have to be better than he’s been lately for Phoenix to contend for a championship. But given his track record, and the possibility of this Big 3 finally being healthy for more than a couple of games at a time, this temporary rut will be in the rearview mirror sooner than later.
Maybe Book just needs to lose the headband first.
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