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Landry Shamet has oddly become a scapegoat for Phoenix Suns fans. It could be due to his arrival forcing the departure of a fan favorite like Jevon Carter. Maybe it’s because of the timing of Shamet’s 4-year, $43 million extension right at the deadline, while Deandre Ayton was left hanging. Or perhaps it’s simply because, with knockdown shooters, there’s a heightened expectation for every 3-pointer to fall.
Whatever the case, navigating Shamet’s fit with the Suns bench has been the greatest challenge for the second unit so far. Cam Payne’s absence for a week due to a hamstring injury didn’t help, but even with him back on the court, Shamet struggled to find his groove, often appearing too passive for a shooter of his caliber.
“We don’t put handcuffs on anybody, and I think that’s a new world for him,” Monty Williams said at practice back in the beginning of November. “He’s getting used to it. I mean, the guys on the side are like, ‘How many times do we hear shoot it, Landry? Go Landry?’ Like, somebody’s telling him to go because our guys have seen him on other teams. We want him to just go play.”
While it’s only natural to defer when you suddenly share the court with Chris Paul and Devin Booker, Shamet got acclimated during the Suns’ ongoing, franchise-record 18-game win streak. And now that Booker’s sidelined by a hamstring injury, the Wichita State product has his chance to get even more comfortable.
On Thursday night against the Detroit Pistons, Shamet got his first start of the season in Booker’s place, finishing with 14 points on 5-of-11 shooting, including 4-for-8 from deep. While the discourse on Suns Twitter continued to focus on every misfire, the final numbers told a different story, as he was a game-high +12 in the win.
“I like his movement, for sure,” Williams said afterward. “Defensively, he’s pretty sound. He has the ability to get over screens. We can still switch with Landry, and he understands concepts. So that certainly helps, but we could change the lineup game by game just based on what we need. There’s a number of guys we can put in that spot.”
While that’s not exactly a ringing endorsement for Shamet to remain in the starting role, it really doesn’t matter. Whether it’s in Booker’s place with the starters — a lineup that boasts a +12.0 Net Rating in 36 minutes this season — or coming off the bench, he’s already proving his value, even on the nights where shots aren’t falling.
The last two games have been perfect examples. In Phoenix’s best win of the season against the Golden State Warriors, Booker left the game midway through the second quarter with a hamstring injury. Shamet was only 2-for-8 heading into the game’s final minute, including 1-for-6 from deep.
It was at that point he supplied the dagger 3, as well as an assist to Deandre Ayton for extra insurance.
On Thursday, as the Pistons tried to close the distance with an unexpected second-half push, Shamet once again buried a dagger 3, despite only being 4-for-10 from the field to that point.
The fact that both of those buckets were set up by Chris Paul bodes well if the Suns continue to start Shamet for the injured Booker, as does the fact that Paul has assisted on more of Shamet’s made buckets than anyone. But whether he’s starting or relegated back to the bench, finding that comfort level will be key.
“We’re just taking the handcuffs off of him, he puts them on himself,” Williams said. “Our guys tell him all the time, shoot the ball or go make a play. And I think he’s getting used to it. We don’t want to play reckless, but we also don’t want our guys to feel like they’re constricted at all. And I think he’s starting to understand that we trust him to make plays. He has good intentions on the floor, and we value what he brings to the table.”
On the season, Shamet is averaging a pedestrian 7.6 points in his 19.2 minutes per game. He’s only shooting 38.6 percent from the field, and it can’t be ignored that the Suns’ Net Rating with him on the court (+3.2, the third-lowest mark on the roster aside from Abdel Nader’s -0.9 and Elfrid Payton’s atrocious -5.6) is significantly lower than their Net Rating when he’s on the bench (+10.3, second-highest on the team).
However, if we’re going to play that game, it’s worth pointing out that the Suns are a superior +10.7 without Deandre Ayton on the court. No one would say they’re better without their starting center just because of some flukey on/off numbers early in the season.
Shamet’s also been as good as advertised from beyond the arc, canning 38.8 percent of his 4.7 attempts per game.
After being a bit bashful to start the year, Shamet has fully adopted the Suns’ mantra of “let it fly.” He’s taking 8.8 3-point attempts per 36 minutes, and among all qualified players taking that many, he ranks sixth in percentage, trailing only Mike Muscala, Cedi Osman, Grayson Allen, Stephen Curry and Wayne Ellington.
“I feel like Landry is constantly making shots, shooting shots,” Cam Payne said. “I feel like he’ll catch that Book effect as well. People are gonna be eyeing him, it’s gonna spread the defense out a little bit more, open up lanes for us to drive and get downhill.”
Williams believes Landry Shamet can do more than just shoot as well. As a point guard for most of his playing days before reaching the NBA, Shamet’s ball-handling and passing ability has given Phoenix’s bench added flexibility. Even at a different position, he’s checking some of the boxes Dario Saric used to fill for that second unit.
“I’ve said this about Cam Johnson: People only look at him as if he can only shoot the ball, but Cam can do so many things on the floor and Landry is the same way,” Williams said. “We don’t mind giving Landry the ball and putting him in pick-and-roll. We feel like he’s gonna make the right plays. So we hope other teams view him as only a shooter, ’cause he’ll sneak up on you at times and do something that’s outside of what they think is his box.”
Shamet’s ho-hum 1.6 assists per game don’t exactly suggest a burgeoning primary playmaker who’s been shackled by the one-dimensional shooting role he’s filled on other teams, but the Suns don’t need him to be that anyway. As long as he can swing the ball, create off the bounce, spread the defense with his 3-point gravity and run the occasional pick-and-roll, that”s more than enough for the NBA’s sixth-ranked offense.
Shamet wants to put more on his plate as a ball-handler, and that ranking stands to improve as he gets more assertive in doing so. Ironically enough, while the offensive end has required more trial and error than expected, it’s his defense that has been a surprisingly snug fit.
The 24-year-old combo guard credited Phoenix’s coaching staff with making his transition smoother by understanding that this group’s communication can trump any scheme or hardline rules. The Suns still have their foundation and principles, of course, but Shamet believes their trust leaves things open for improvisation on a team of high-IQ players if they see something that needs to be adjusted on the fly.
For a guy who is well aware of what people think of his defense, Shamet seems to be relishing the opportunity to play on Phoenix’s second-ranked defense.
“Yeah, that’s always been a chip of mine though,” he said. “I’ve always known I’m a good defender, I know I can guard anybody. It’s just a chip I have. I don’t really care if it goes overlooked. I know in these walls, my teammates know I can guard, my coaches do. Outside of that, man, the rest is gravy.”
While the offense drastically improves without Shamet on the floor, the defense has remained relatively the same whether he’s on or off the court.
“Defensively, we’ve put him on some of the tougher pick-and-roll players because he does a really good job of getting over screens,” Williams said. “He’s an aggressive defender. I forget what game it was, it may have been the Houston game where he had the big block at the rim. He doesn’t get enough credit for that.”
To be fair, Shamet only has a grand total of two blocks this season. To be even fairer, they should count for more, because they were both absolute monsters:
Because of his reputation as a long-range marksman, Landry Shamet’s misses will always be remembered more than his makes. His secondary playmaking will usually fly under the radar in an offense that shares the ball so well, and his defense will too on an elite defensive team.
But with Booker out for the short-term and Shamet being the most logical candidate to replace him in the starting lineup, the opportunity to get more comfortable in expanded minutes is there. His approach remains the same as Phoenix collectively tries to make up for Book’s absence, but that’s a good thing, because even before this starting role opened up, Shamet was starting to make his mark.
“It’s an art to be able to really encapsulate those small stretches, get a flow and in a rhythm early,” he said. “I got to see it playing with Lou Williams. I think he was probably one of the best I’ve seen at just coming in and he doesn’t have to wait to find a rhythm. He’s already in rhythm and in flow of the game. That’s an art. So obviously, with any basketball player, the more minutes you play, the more in the rhythm of the game you’ll be.”
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