© 2024 ALLCITY Network Inc.
All rights reserved.
The Phoenix Suns are in a unique position: They’re quite possibly the only NBA title contender that doesn’t have its starting five set in stone yet. Everyone knows that as soon as he’s healthy, Kevin Durant will assume his rightful place in the Suns’ starting lineup alongside Chris Paul, Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton.
But who will claim that fifth starting spot now that Mikal Bridges and Cam Johnson are officially out the door? Following a roller coaster trade deadline and buyout market, the Suns have several options to fill that last remaining slot.
Torrey Craig has filled in for an injured Johnson and an absent Jae Crowder for most of the season. Josh Okogie has come on strong recently, and coach Monty Williams seems more likely to favor an incumbent option. T.J. Warren arrived in the KD blockbuster, and Terrence Ross joined the party after his buyout with the Orlando Magic. Less conventional candidates like Damion Lee, Ish Wainright or even the new arrival Darius Bazley have been suggested.
However, given that Warren has played a grand total of 15 minutes in his first two games back in Phoenix, he’ll likely fill a sixth man role, if he can prove himself defensively. Bazley hasn’t seen the court at all, so it’s safe to say it won’t be him. Lee probably doesn’t have the size or skill-set to fill the Suns’ needs as the fifth starter. Wainright has been one of the first subs off the bench in recent games, but he’s run out of availability on his two-way contract. He needs to be converted to the team’s 15th roster spot before he can even play again, and even then it’d be a long shot.
That leaves us with three realistic candidates in Craig, Okogie and Ross. Let’s examine the case for each one.
The case for Terrence Ross
Ross has spent most of his career as a sixth man, but given what he and Williams have said about his last-minute swerve away from the Dallas Mavericks, it appears the Suns promised him a significant role.
“At the last second, really, I was just talking a lot to James [Jones] and talking to Monty and just kinda understanding what my role would be, and I just felt like this is a better fit, better situation for me,” Ross said. “I could help out and we could use what I do, and I felt like I would have a great opportunity to just come here and play to make an impact and also help the team win.”
“Obviously, we try to shoot guys straight about what their role could look like, and I explained to him exactly what that would be and the possibilities and the constraints,” Williams added. “But just told him, like James did, and like our owner did, that we wanted him here, and we felt like he could be an important person in this organization.”
Ross’ playing time in his first game with the Suns reflected how their coach, general manager and owner all recruited him. The 32-year-old vet logged 25 minutes, putting up 16 points, 4 assists and 4 rebounds. He certainly wasn’t shy, hoisting 17 shots off the bench.
“That’s what he does: He shoots it,” Damion Lee said. “Human Torch, gets ’em up. He’s been one of those guys throughout his career, so it’s good to have someone like him on the team.”
Ross only made seven of his 17 shots and went a dismal 1-for-8 from 3, but as we covered in our Terrence Ross expectations article, it may take some time for him to get used to actually having open looks.
“I never been on the court on the same team with a guy who — with two guys — that demand that amount of attention,” Ross explained. “‘Cause usually I feel like when I’m in the game, guys are usually trying to double-team and get the ball out of my hands. So to be out there and have that space and see how that is, it’s gonna be brand new to me.”
Fortunately, Ross is usually pretty good about capitalizing on rare open looks when he gets them. Before his Suns debut, Ross had made 38.1 percent of his “wide open” 3s, with the nearest defender more than six feet away. It’s easy to picture how a guy like that could make defenses pay just by sitting in the corner and waiting for the open looks that an offense with CP3, Booker, KD and DA generates.
“Your team has more dimensions on that side of the floor when guys are able to create shots or finish shots, and Terrence is a guy that can do both,” Williams said. “He’s been a finisher — in ATOs, finishing at the rim, shooting 3s, using his athleticism. It’s obviously gonna be a process, but we feel like he’ll fit into the way we play well. We just gotta put him in positions to help him succeed.”
However, at this point in time, the Suns probably envision that position as more of a sixth man, since he doesn’t fill the Mikal Bridges defensive void. Durant is having one of his best defensive seasons yet, and Booker has been underrated on that end for years now, but asking either one to take on difficult point-of-attack assignments feels like a stretch. Ross won’t be that guy either, even though Williams believes he doesn’t get enough credit on that end of the floor.
“Once he understands what we’re doing on defense, he’s gonna be a lot better there,” Williams said. “Offensively, we feel like he’s gonna be a guy that can come off the bench and give us timely scores, take the pressure off of the guys who mainly score for us.”
Did you catch that? A guy that can come off the bench.
Maybe Williams was only talking about that particular game, but Ross said something similar before his debut when asked about what he can provide.
“3-point shooting, scoring ability, energy off the bench,” he said. “Just kind of what my role’s been the last few years.”
Ross will earn a significant role after picking the Suns, but most likely, it’ll be as their sixth man. Moving on!
The case for Torrey Craig
Torrey Craig feels like the easiest default. He could start at the 3 if Durant prefers playing the 4, or against more physical matchups, he could slide down to that small-ball 4 spot he’s occupied most of the season. That interchangeability on the wing makes Craig an attractive option for any lineup, and it should be noted how well he’s filled in as a starter for most of the year.
“My whole career, all I’ve been preaching for myself is find a way to impact the game,” Craig said of his approach. “If you’re not scoring, if you’re not making shots one night there’s a million other things you can do.”
Craig has started in 47 of his 57 appearances for the Suns this season. He’s averaging 7.8 points and 5.7 rebounds in 25.9 minutes per game, all of which are career highs. He’s also shot a career-high 40.3 percent from 3-point range. Defenses will undoubtedly play off Craig if he’s sharing the court with the Suns’ Big 4, but the numbers indicate he can make them pay.
Even when the shots aren’t falling, Craig is still able to impact the game.
“We wouldn’t be in this position if we didn’t have Torrey,” Williams said a few weeks ago. “That’s a fact. He doesn’t let shot-making or missing affect his energy. He’s the same guy every day. He and Mikal guard the toughest guys. He finds a way to impact the game, and that’s a sign of a heady basketball player. And he takes it personally when he doesn’t play well. He doesn’t necessarily feel like he’s letting himself down, he feels like he’s letting the team down.”
Those are all qualities you’d want in a fifth starter who will be surrounded by four loaded offensive weapons. His offensive rebounding is another asset, as Craig ranks in the 92nd percentile in offensive boards per game.
“The way Torrey be on the glass is crazy,” Chris Paul said. “Coming into the season, our coaches put a conscious effort on us going to the offensive glass, and I think it unleashed a whole ‘nother part of Torrey’s game, keeping plays alive for us.”
Defense is another one of Craig’s calling cards. Against opposing teams whose best players are wings, Craig can take pressure off Booker and Durant to lead the charge on offense and contend with star wings on the other end.
According to The BBall Index, Craig ranks in the 88th percentile in on-ball perimeter defense, as well as the 80th percentile in off-ball chaser defense and the 90th percentile in defensive miles per 75 possessions.
He’s even spent some time hounding opposing guards, but it should be noted he’s certainly no Mikal Bridges in that respect. While Bridges (96th percentile) and Okogie (77th percentile) are more formidable defenders when it comes to ball screen navigation, Craig (66th percentile) is good but not great.
He doesn’t quite fit the bill in terms of replacing Bridges’ point-of-attack defense. He’s only in the 22nd percentile when it comes to time spent on shot creators this season, compared to Okogie’s 46th percentile and Bridges’ 43rd percentile. He’s also not really the guy they’d want to be defending opposing point guards when the Suns need to hide Chris Paul: Craig is only in the 53rd percentile defending 1s, while Okogie and Bridges are both in the 75th percentile.
And as much as Craig can create extra possessions with his offensive rebounding, his questionable decision-making and passing can give them right back. When he’s forced into handling the ball for too long or making passes under pressure, Craig is prone to committing baffling turnovers that make it harder to trust him in crunch-time.
In the interest of continuity, Craig may be the most seamless option to win the starting role. Then again, it’s worth noting that four of the Suns’ seven-most used lineups involving Craig have a negative net rating, including a -0.8 for Phoenix’s most-used lineup of the season and a -22.6 in 96 minutes for a Paul-Booker-Bridges-Craig-Ayton lineup that will soon be swapping Bridges for Durant.
KD is obviously in a different tier compared to Bridges, but that’s not ideal! To that end, there may be a player who fits the Suns’ starting lineup needs a bit better than Craig.
The case for Josh Okogie
The obvious benefit of starting Josh Okogie is replacing some of the void Bridges left as a point-of-attack defender — something Williams acknowledged, but stresses is unfair to both Okogie and Craig.
“We have to figure out how those guys affect the team in a good way from a defensive standpoint, and then maybe build some stuff around them the way that we tried to do with Mikal,” Williams said. “There is some crossover, but I think you have to get rid of that mindset, because you just end up being critical or judgmental about what people can’t do, as opposed to looking at what they can.”
For his part, Okogie relishes the opportunity to take on that central role as a point-of-attack defender.
“I feel like that’s what I’m here to do, just to guard,” he said. “It’s very exciting to guard the best players in the league and something I take pride in, and I’m ready for the matchup every night.”
Of course, everyone already knows what Okogie brings on the defensive end. From Williams to Okogie to Devin Booker, who’s marveled at his physical, “never off-balance” defense during their one-on-one battles after practice, everyone’s on the same page about that.
The question is whether he can be enough of a threat on the offensive end to avoid becoming another Tony Allen in the playoffs. Over the last week before the All-Star break, Okogie answered with a resounding “yes.”
In the Suns’ last four games, three of which he started in, Okogie put up 21.3 points, 5.3 rebounds, 2.3 steals in 37 minutes per game. He also shot a scorching 55.4 percent overall and 55.6 percent from 3.
“He’s realizing that teams are probably putting their lesser defender on him every night, and he’s making them pay,” Booker said. “He’s making quick decisions, he’s not hesitant about anything. He’s catching it, and he’s putting pressure on the rim, and they back up off him, he’s just taking what the defense gives him.”
The aggressive drives and ability to get to the free-throw line are qualities we’ve praised Okogie for in the past, and they’ve been on full display again lately. When defenses focus on stopping CP3 pick-and-rolls with Ayton or trying to contain three-level scorers like KD and Booker, Okogie will have opportunities to attack open spaces or lazy closeouts.
To conserve Paul’s energy, the Suns have used guys like Bridges, Johnson and Lee to initiate offense. They’ve stepped up those efforts lately with Okogie, who’s also helped Phoenix push the pace from 98.66 without him on the court to 101.21 when he’s out there.
“We’re just trying to figure out ways to use what he brings to the table,” Williams explained. “Having enough versatility to get the ball down on the floor so that Chris and Book don’t always have to do it is something that we’ve been trying to work on all year long. The pain of the playoffs last year, and even the year before that, has taught us that you gotta have multiple guys facilitate offense.”
Sound On 🔊
The Suns accepted the Kings defensive coverage & picked it apart – in multiple ways – to the tune of a 114.9 half-court ortg (their 4th best mark of the season) last night
One way they did so was via multiple PnR's, while also strategically using Okogie to initiate: pic.twitter.com/8rQYoW0MUn
— Stephen PridGeon ☯️🏁 (@StayTrueSDot3) February 15, 2023
Defenses can sag off non-shooters who simply stick their head down every time and drive, but Okogie has been making them pay from beyond the arc too. His hot shooting isn’t just some four-game fluke either; since the start of 2023, Okogie has nailed 25 of his 56 attempts from 3-point range — good for a 44.6 percent conversion rate.
With each passing month, Okogie has taken — and made — more 3s than the month before. The 24-year-old credited Williams’ trust in him and the team’s “let it fly” mentality with his progress in this area, despite being a career 28.7 percent shooter from long range.
“I used to get down on myself after missing some, and coach would just tell me, ‘I don’t care if you miss eight in a row, shoot the next one,'” Okogie said. “‘I won’t take you out for missing, but I’ll take you out for not shooting.’ So I’m like, ‘All right, I better get to shooting.’”
Williams is well aware of what Okogie brings to the table without the recent uptick in 3-point percentage, but with that growth, he becomes even more difficult to take off the floor.
“It just gives us a chance to figure out who to play with those guys when we have a group, and he may be the guy, because he gives you versatility on defense,” Williams said. “If he can — which he has shown the ability to — knock down shots and get to the paint and offensive rebound, he becomes really valuable to the team.”
The question is, will the 3-point shooting hold up as a sustainable new trend, or will it prove to be more of a six-week fluke? This version of Okogie, with his tenacious defense, aggressive drives and tidy 3-point shooting, would be an obvious asset to Phoenix’s starting lineup. Even if his 3-point efficiency dips, the Suns have more than enough firepower to compensate, and Okogie’s defense would make life easier on everyone else.
Williams has emphasized cutting the team’s rotation down to “nine and a half guys” soon, in order to allow them to get more comfortable with each other over the final 22 games. Picking one starter and sticking with him would help, but for now, the Suns may keep their options open based on matchups. The size component — Okogie is only 6-foot-4 while Craig is 6-foor-7 — may come into play.
“I got an open mind about it, to be honest with you,” Williams said. “I think there’s gonna be some games, we’re not quite sure how we’re gonna do it, but there may be games where [Okogie] starts. There may be games where Torrey starts, depending on the size of that guy.”
Okogie’s defensive instincts, athleticism and 7-foot wingspan help make up for the height disadvantage, but no matter what direction Williams goes in, Okogie is taking it step by step.
“I don’t really look towards the future, ’cause sometimes when we do that, we forget to be in the present,” he said. “So I just take each game day by day. Coach has to make his decision, but I can control what I can control by just going out there and play free and play to the best of my ability.”
Get Arizona's Best Sports Content In Your Inbox!
Become a smarter Arizona sports fan with the latest game recaps, analysis and exclusive content from PHNX's writers and podcasters!
Just drop your email below!