Upgrade Your Fandom

Join the Ultimate PHNX Sports Community!

Ish Wainright has made his case for Suns' final roster spot

Gerald Bourguet Avatar
April 7, 2022

If the NBA playoffs started today, Ish Wainright wouldn’t be allowed to suit up for the Phoenix Suns. Wednesday’s blowout-turned-uplifting loss to the LA Clippers showed why that probably needs to change.

In a game where the NBA’s No. 1 team rested Devin Booker, Chris Paul, Deandre Ayton, and Chris Paul, and then trailed by as many as 39 points, Wainright turned in the performance of his professional career. Finishing with a career-high 20 points, 8 rebounds, 4 assists and 3 steals, this two-way contract looked more like a legitimate rotation player.

“Like I said before early in the season, when my name is called, be ready, stay ready,” Wainright said. “So I went out there and had fun. I think I hit the first shot, and I was, ‘Okay, let’s keep it going.’ And then you get the ball wide open and you hear coach saying, ‘Let it fly’ or hearing Jae or hearing Book saying, ‘Keep going.’ What DA said: That’s what the game do.”

What the game did for Wainright was going 8-for-15 from the floor, 4-for-8 from 3-point range and scoring all 20 of his points in a fourth quarter that saw the Suns tally a franchise-record 48 points.

“When the stuff was against us, he came in and had an effect on the game on both ends of the floor,” coach Monty Williams said. “I thought his ability to guard the ball was great. His backside defense was really good, he got a couple of steals, I think, and deflections on the backside.

“And then offensively, he just was able to knock down some shots. And it wasn’t just the shotmaking, it was the attacking the basket, playing in the paint with physicality. He had a great night tonight, and he basically was the catalyst for us having the juice to get back into the game.”

The Suns whittled that 39-point deficit all the way down to single digits in the final minutes before coming up short, but Wainright’s game-high +36 in a 4-point loss was eye-opening enough: This guy has done everything in his power to make a case for a full-on roster spot.

As it stands, players on two-way contracts like Ish Wainright and Iffe Lundberg are ineligible to suit up for the playoffs. The deadline to make a decision on those two is rapidly approaching:

Sunday is also Phoenix’s regular-season finale against the Sacramento Kings, but Payton’s expiring deal makes Thursday’s 5 p.m. deadline worth monitoring. At this point, it feels like the final spot(s) on the roster will come down to the following four players: Elfrid Payton, the rehabbing Frank Kaminsky, and Wainright and Lundberg on their two-way deals.

After Payton inexplicably supplanted Aaron Holiday as the Suns’ third point guard over the last few weeks, Wednesday night’s game provided a stark reminder of just how bizarre that development has been.

While Payton struggled backing up Cam Payne in the first half, tallying 2 points on 1-of-7 shooting and posting a -3 in his 12 minutes, Holiday and Wainright were injections of life in the second half, buoying Phoenix back into a game they frankly had no business being in.

While Wainright dropped all of his team-high 20 points in the fourth, Holiday racked up 16 points, 7 assists and 6 rebounds in 18 minutes, finishing at +30. Even as Williams praised Payton for getting into the paint despite being unable to finish, he also admitted he was “kicking himself” for not playing Holiday sooner.

“I was pleased with the guys who came in and gave us juice, because that’s what you need,” Williams said. “As I’ve said before, when you have games like this, you find out who that guy is that you may be able to throw in a big game. He may not score or make dynamic plays, but he’s not going to go in there afraid. I think you build that confidence in games like this.”

And therein lies the strongest reasoning for giving Wainright the Suns’ final roster spot for the playoffs. Aside from the fact that Holiday clearly needs to be ahead of Payton in the pecking order, and that Lundberg probably hasn’t been around long enough to show enough yet, Wainright gives Phoenix more of what they could conceivably need:

It’s not that the Suns will necessarily need rotation minutes from Wainright in the postseason. But in a pinch, where depth is tested by injury, foul trouble or other extenuating circumstances, having this 27-year-old rookie on a legitimate contract could go a long way.

We’ve already written about the flashes he showed as a small-ball 5 before Torrey Craig returned to Phoenix, but even a look at the basic numbers shows he has more to offer. To be fair, Wainright’s season averages hardly leap off the page compared to Payton, even after a career night:

  • Ish Wainright (44 GP): 7.4 MPG, 2.1 PPG, 1.2 RPG, 38.9 FG%, 31.4 3P%, 58.3 FT%
  • Elfrid Payton (49 GP): 11.0 MPG, 3.0 PPG, 2.0 APG, 38.2 FG%, 22.2 3P%, 37.5 FT%

Those numbers are cringe-worthy either way, but on Wednesday night, Wainright made as many 3-pointers (four) as Payton has all season. He’s also a +42 in his 327 minutes with the Suns, while Payton is a team-worst -35 in 537 minutes of action. That makes him the only current player on Phoenix’s roster with a negative plus/minus.

And while Wainright’s overall 3-point percentage isn’t pretty, his work from the corner — particularly the right corner — suggests he can contribute if need be. He’s shot 8-for-13 from the right corner (61.5%) and 10-for-22 from the corners overall (45.5%).

Those are limited sample sizes, but Wednesday’s game was a prime example of the work Wainright has put in on his 3-point shot. After practices, he can often be seen competing in shooting contests with certified snipers like Cam Johnson and Landry Shamet. He’s a lighthearted guy who will make jokes at his own expense about not standing a chance against them, but the commitment to bettering himself as a corner marksman and a shooter off movement is paying dividends.

“He puts the work in,” Williams said. “He’s in the gym every morning. He walks into the gym, he screams, and then he goes to his court and he gets to work with coach [Steve] Scalzi. He and Landry are over there every morning.”

Late in the game on Wednesday, Williams actually drew up a play designed to get Wainright a catch-and-shoot 3 on the move, and he knocked it down.

“I’m a believer, man, I believe that my work is gonna pay off,” Wainright said. ‘I’m busting my butt, and it’s paying off. For him to draw up a play like that for a two-way player? It’s crazy. But he believes in me, and hey, my name was called and I do what I had to do. Trust my work, trust my instincts, trust everything.”

Couple that shooting advantage over Payton with Wainright’s slightly above-average finishing around the basket (59.4%) and you’ve got a player who can at least manage on both ends in very limited playoff minutes should his number be called.

“Those two for sure have been working probably the hardest,” Holiday said of the Suns’ two-way guys, Wainright and Lundberg. “They’re always in the gym, they’re always getting their shots up, and we’re always planning ones and 3-on-3 and everything. So I just credit them for staying ready. It’s not easy to do in this league, never knowing when you’re gonna play, and they were ready tonight.”

And yet, as easy as it’d be to get caught up in his own success on the best night of his career, Wainright said he was more focused on trying to pull off the greatest comeback in Suns history. When asked about competing with Lundberg for a potential roster spot, he deferred again, talking about how the Suns are a brotherhood and congratulating his new Danish teammate on his first NBA basket.

“Anything is possible,” Wainright said. “In my eyes, we’re all competing — not just roster spots, we’re competing for everything. But if something happened, he’s still my brother. I don’t really think about that, but I’m here to help him, he’s here to help me. I’m getting him better, he’s getting me better. If he does ever get to play, I’m going to be there to help however way possible. So right now, it’s just, he’s my team, my brother. I don’t care about all that.”

The Suns should care though, and with Holiday’s play making Payton expendable as the third quarter, having the extra length, strength, positional versatility, corner 3-point shooting and mindset that Ish Wainright brings to the table should make him the favorite to emerge with Phoenix’s final roster spot.

Whether general manager James Jones actually converts his contract and chooses him over Payton remains to be seen, but Wainright picked one heck of a night to have the game of his life. And as expected, he’s enjoying the ride no matter how it turns out.

“Words can’t even describe that,” he said of his NBA journey. “I’m one of the only ones in my family that has been able to do this. It’s taken me a long time. I’m 27, I’m a rookie. I didn’t come straight out of college, so being able to come here three years, four years out of college and playing in the NBA, playing on the best team in the world — not one of, on the best team in the world — having an amazing coach, coach Mont, having vets that believe in me, I’m not taking anything for granted. And you never know, anything can happen.”

Scroll to next article