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At Media Day last week, new arrival Jock Landale took to the podium for the first time as a member of the Phoenix Suns.
The Australian’s message was simple: He wanted his Suns teammates to finally cave and try Vegemite, with Mikal Bridges being at the top of the list.
“I love Vegemite, it’s a great spread for toast, but I can’t seem to talk anyone in the organization into having a taste and trying it out,” Landale said with a smirk. “If there’s one guy I wanted to give it a crack, it would be Mikal, ’cause just to see that pain in Mikal’s face, you know, that would do it for me.”
A few days later during training camp, Bridges made sure to let the media — and Landale himself, standing at a close distance — know that he wasn’t interested in trying a culinary staple from Down Under.
“Keep it at home,” he grinned in Landale’s direction. “Keep it there.”
If this seems like an inauspicious way to introduce the Suns’ likely backup center — and at this point, even Landale marveled at how Vegemite continues to be a talking point — it’s only because it’s indicative of the high level of camaraderie he’s been able to achieve with his new teammates in a few months’ time.
That chemistry was in no short supply last season, back when the vibes were immaculate for a 64-win team, but after the Suns’ summer from hell, it’s not guaranteed anymore.
Fortunately, after moving to Phoenix over the summer and spending a few months playing pickup with the guys weeks before training camp started, Landale is already fitting in quite nicely.
“It’s good to have Jock here, because he’s as tough as they come,” coach Monty Williams said. “He’s got a really good sense of humor, ’cause we do a really bad job of mimicking his accent, and he puts up with it, so I know he’s got a good sense of humor. But he’s been really cool to have around. Just based on the [Australian] guys that I’ve met and coached in the past, he falls right in line, man, just tough as nails.”
Williams had briefly mentioned the Suns’ coaches being excited about Jock Landale at Media Day. At the time, it felt like it just as easily could’ve been a throwaway line while answering a general question about the team’s new faces.
As time has passed, however, it’s become glaringly obvious how much the Suns enjoy having the soon-to-be 27-year-old big on the roster. From the guys calling him “rookie” (despite Landale having played his first NBA season with the San Antonio Spurs last year) to the ongoing Vegemite debate to the way almost every Sun smirks when Landale comes up, it’s clear he’s making an impression.
“Jock’s been great, man.” Chris Paul said. “When he came to our team this summer, Joe Ingles put us on a text thread together. Joe Ingles was a good friend of mine, and Joe was like, we’d get along, and he wasn’t wrong. Jock’s been a great not only basketball player but a good guy in the short time to be around.”
For Landale’s part, the feeling appears to be mutual. Going from a non-playoff Spurs team to a Suns squad with championship aspirations obviously helps, but Landale’s immediate rapport with the team’s other big jokester in Bridges hints at how quickly he’s forming bonds in Phoenix.
Landale said getting to know his teammates has been his favorite part of the experience, crediting the work they put in during daily pickup games as being a crucial part of that process.
“I don’t know if there are too many organizations and teams that are getting together and really competing the way that we have done so in these past kind of four or five weeks,” he said. “We’ve pretty much had our full squad here, except for one or two guys.
“But that experience has been fantastic just ’cause, as I was saying a second ago, it’s given me a lot of confidence going into the season about the squad that we have. And I think that from day one, we’ve kind of taken it on ourselves to get to know one another. There aren’t too many teams I’ve played on that are hanging out off the court like these guys do. So that’s fantastic to see, and that’ll continue to kind of help us breed a competitive and winning environment.”
Of course, getting along with one’s teammates doesn’t necessarily translate to on-court success. Plenty of NBA squads tout their good vibes and locker room chemistry, but without actual talent or results, losing can quickly sour any situation.
Fortunately, the Suns haven’t just been impressed with Landale because he’s a charming and funny guy off the court; he’s been turning heads on it too.
“Jock’s my guy, he’s been great for us,” Cam Johnson said. “He was great late summer on since he got here, picking up everything really quick. Just knows how to play the game. Any time you get a big that knows how to play the game and has talent like Jock, he’ll fit it pretty nice here. So he’s been playing well, he’s been on the boards. He knows where to be, he knows screening angles, he knows the game well. He’s a good dude off the court too, so definitely a guy that we love having around.”
Even Devin Booker, when asked about who’s stood out during the first few days of training camp, circled back to Phoenix’s new pick-and-pop big. After thinking about it, and making sure not to offend any of his teammates because he knows their game well already, Booker said, unprompted:
“I’ve enjoyed playing with Jock. He’s making the right plays out there, he’s one of the few players on our team that I haven’t seen the most of, and it’s been very impressive.”
The results were hit-or-miss in the Suns’ surprising preseason loss to the Adelaide 36ers on Sunday. Landale finished with 12 points and 6 rebounds in 22 minutes, shooting 4-for-9 from the floor and hitting all four of his free throws, but he also went 0-for-4 from 3-point range and was a -18 as part of an abhorrent performance from Phoenix’s second unit.
Still, there were enough flashes and relentless activity on the boards to warrant attention, especially since Landale was the first center to come in off the bench. Meanwhile, it was somewhat telling that Bismack Biyombo logged only 3 minutes and Dario Saric didn’t play at all.
Williams explained Saric’s absence after the game, saying it’s hard to play that many bigs and that it’s a lot for the Homie to come back after sitting out for over a year. With Saric’s minutes possibly coming at the 4 this year, Williams may have confirmed something that’s become increasingly clear over the last week: Jock Landale seems poised to secure the Suns’ backup center job behind Deandre Ayton.
“I just wanted to see Jock with that second group, ’cause it’s looked good in camp,” Williams said. “I think that’s a group that we can grow. And this is probably the most Jock has played in a long time, but we feel like he can give us an added punch, ’cause he’s athletic, he can rebound, and he can knock down shots. He didn’t knock down shots [tonight] like he has been in practice, but we feel like he can.”
For his part, Landale understands he’s playing catch-up with a roster that’s largely the same as last year and has already built up its familiarity and continuity. Playing pickup together for weeks helps, but he admitted there’s still a feeling-out process.
If Landale can learn to make the right reads off plays where the defenders are zoned in on stopping elite playmakers like Paul and Booker, he’ll be able to capitalize on all the empty real estate he finds.
“That’s what I’ve kind of been seeing in practice and in those scrimmages was everyone was throwing their focus at Book and CP and DA, and I was just kind of able to work around that and find my little niche and find the gaps in all of the defensive coverages,” Landale said. “So it’s been unbelievable, because I don’t think I’ve ever had so many open shots, to be honest with you, which has been a lot of fun. So just continuing to kind of work off that will be the key.”
Landale knows learning his teammates’ tendencies, where they like the ball and where he can find his niche will take time. He noted that learning process is even more significant with a guy like Chris Paul, who’s “three steps ahead” at all times.
But the Aussie big feels he’s already learned a ton from simply trying to stop CP3 in pick-and-rolls with Ayton, and he’s enjoyed the physicality of practicing against DA and Biyombo on a daily basis.
Things can change in an instant, with trades, injuries or simple lineup tweaks always looming in the background. But thanks to a summer of putting in the work, bonding with teammates and now getting the opportunity to rise to the occasion in Phoenix, Jock Landale is already building his case for the backup center gig.
“Man, it’s turned out even better than I ever thought it would, to be honest with you,” he said of his Suns experience so far. “It’s a hell of an organization. The people in here are high-character people. And as far as just finding enjoyment, I mean, I always go home and talk about it with my fiancee and my parents and mates and all of that stuff. Just the level of passion and commitment and enjoyment that I’m getting out of the game right now is beyond anything I’ve experienced before.
“I think that knowing that there’s a real chance for us to go to the end and win a championship and all of that and having those expectations on us has given me a real sense of motivation to kind of perform at that level. And I think that’s helping me on a day-to-day basis, just stay real consistent with how much effort I’m putting into everything.”