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From two-way contract to Summer League leader, Ish Wainright deserves to stay with Suns

Gerald Bourguet Avatar
July 11, 2022

On an NBA Summer League roster full of players from different backgrounds, nationalities and levels of experience, Ish Wainright is the lone holdover from the Phoenix Suns’ roster.

And despite being the new guy just a few months ago, he’s come to represent this organization’s best case-scenario for player development on the margins. Last August, Wainright signed a two-way contract with the Suns that wouldn’t see him make his NBA debut until November. Eight months later, he’s the standard for the rest of Phoenix’s Summer League squad to look up to.

“He has the whole NBA package,” teammate Louis King said. “He’s physical, he got the body shape, he can shoot the 3-ball well, and he could get to the rim at ease. So I mean, he’s a three-level scorer in my eyes. Sky’s the limit for him.”

Assistant coach Steve Scalzi, who’s currently serving as the Suns’ Summer League head coach, has been there for every step of Wainright’s development. The two could be seen working together every day in practice, so it’s only fitting they’re the main figureheads representing Phoenix in Las Vegas.

“I could not be more proud,” Scalzi said of Wainright. “The whole program is proud, but it also shows the rest of these guys there’s a pathway to do it. And he was playing for his national team. The group sort of heard about him, and now they see it all in action. It’s awesome.”

3-point progress

So far, the Suns are 1-1 in Vegas, beating the Los Angeles Lakers by 20 in their debut on Friday before getting blown out by 25 in their follow-up game on Sunday. Through the first two games, Wainright is averaging 14.0 points on 8-of-17 shooting, including 6-of-14 from 3-point range.

He only went 1-for-5 from downtown against the Washington Wizards, but against the Lakers, all the progress he’s made on his shot was on full display, as he went 5-for-9 from deep.

“Work is showing,” Wainright said after the game. “It doesn’t go unnoticed, and I’m gonna keep working. Just because I’ve knocked down a few of them, now let’s see what else I can do. I’m not gonna force it. Just like I said, I’m not going to overshoot. And just keep working. Work don’t stop.”

At the forefront of Wainright’s improvement has been his ability to knock down 3s off movement — something he and the coaching staff have diligently worked on for months.

“Ish is one of the best shooters in our gym because he works at it, he cares about it, people believe in him, his head coach believes in him, and we have a ‘let it fly’ mentality,” Scalzi explained. “We have a ‘we score’ mentality. That’s Phoenix Suns basketball. He represents that.”

Wainright only made 32.2 percent of his 59 3-point attempts last season, but he’s also looked much more comfortable of late, once he started getting more opportunities. Including these first two Summer League games, the 6-foot-5 forward has now hit 17 of his last 37 attempts with the team (45.9 percent).

Sure, it’s a small sample size, but the confidence is building.

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“It was relaxed,” Wainright said of his stroke against the Lakers. “Like I said, I’ve been shooting all season, just getting to that point where my shot is effortless. It’s a relaxed shot. I don’t overthink it anymore, catch-and-shoot.”

Learning from experience

Wainright only has 45 NBA games to his name, but he’s quickly proven he can channel his experiences toward his future in this league. Right before Summer League, Wainright played for the Ugandan national team. Although he had always dreamed of playing for the United States, being able to represent an African nation meant a lot, and it gave him perspective on his own situation.

“It’s opened up my eyes,” he said, reflecting on going from that experience to Summer League. “I take none of this for granted. Right now you’re gonna see none of this in Africa. You will one day, but I’m not taking none of it for granted. All the rides took back and forth between the practice, back and forth to practice and games and stuff like that, you see little kids out there don’t have anything.”

Wainright admitted to feeling jetlagged from more than 30 hours of traveling leading into his first Summer League game, but that’s not the only hectic experience he has to draw on. Like everyone else in the Valley, Wainright admitted he still hasn’t quite processed what happened in the Suns’ horrific Game 7 loss to the Dallas Mavericks — and probably won’t fully do so until preseason begins.

But like everything else in his basketball career, he’s taking that experience and using it as an opportunity to learn alongside Suns mainstays like Chris Paul, Devin Booker, Mikal Bridges, Jae Crowder and Deandre Ayton.

“It’s basketball, we lost,” Wainright said. “We took a tough L, we learned about it, guys are still learning about it. I’m pretty sure we’re gonna come back hungrier, with even more chip on our shoulder. I know guys are still upset. I talk to Book, I talk to Jae, I talk to DA, I talk to all those guys. Those are my brothers, I know how they feel, and I feel their pain. So we’re learning.”

Trailing by 30 at one point on Sunday in Vegas, it was hard not to think of that infamous Game 7 loss. Rather than let those feelings fester, Wainright used his own experience to address the team afterward, echoing the “next-up” message Scalzi has been preaching all week.

“Walked into the locker room, a lot of guys have not played 90-plus games, so first thing I said: ‘Hey, I know we don’t like hearing this, I know because I just got that out of my system, but next game,'” he said. “No matter how that game just happened, we can’t take that game back. We can learn, but next game. Now we know what we did, we know what we gotta do, next game. Get it out of our system.”

Wainright will hardly be called upon as a locker room leader for a 64-win team like the Suns, nor should leadership on a Summer League team be overblown into anything too extravagant. But there’s something to be said for the “new guy” on last year’s Suns team becoming a shining example of what player development can look like in this organization.

The bulky forward decided to play in Summer League to get the extra game reps in, but he’s also quickly established himself as a mentor for a ragtag group of players from all around the globe, with all types of international experience.

“Guys like that, they want confidence, they need encouragement, because they sat there and watched the whole game,” Wainright explained. “So I kind of put myself in their shoes. Because I didn’t play a whole game. I played a couple seconds here and every now and then. So when they get in, I want to have the same effect that Book and them gave me when I’d come and I subbed in.”

Instead of doing everything in his power to stand out or make an impression in Summer League, Wainright has continued to stay within himself and play the same role he’d occupy on the Suns. He’s allowed others to shine while showcasing the things he can do if he’s back in Phoenix next season.

That constant encouragement and selfless brand of leadership hasn’t been lost on his new teammates, many of whom aspire to land on their own NBA team in the future.

“I like Wainright a lot, and what he brings to the team,” Tyson Carter said. “And as far as defense and leadership, I mean, it says a lot about the organization as a whole if he’s on their team and he’s leading the way for the Summer League team.”

Against the Lakers on Friday, Louis King had crossed the 20-point threshold with plenty of time left in the game. Wainright immediately started scheming ways to get him to 30.

“Down the stretch, I think it was like, two minutes left in the fourth, he was like, ‘Man, I need you to go for 10 straight, you got 20,'” King laughed. “I’m like, ‘Aight. You ain’t gotta tell me no more.’ It’s great, man.”

From two-way contract to leadership role to free agency

With all the uncertainty from Deandre Ayton’s murky situation and nonstop Kevin Durant trade rumors, the Suns need capable players on minimum contracts to fill out the roster. They’ve done well with the additions of Damion Lee, Jock Landale and Josh Okogie, but bringing Wainright back needs to be somewhere on their offseason checklist.

On June 29, the Suns declined his $1.82 million qualifying offer, making him an unrestricted free agent. They currently have bigger fish to fry in trying to land KD, but Wainright shouldn’t be lost in the shuffle.

A few months ago, Ish Wainright was trying to stick on a new NBA team. Now, he’s found something of a home for himself, and nobody should be surprised he wants to stay there.

“Me personally, I don’t really take care of the business side,” he said of his first brush with free agency. “Everybody knows I love the Suns, everybody knows I love the whole entire organization. Everybody knows I want to be back, so it’s out of my hands. I can only control what I can control, but yes, I would love to have that [Suns name] across my chest. Everybody knows that.

“I’m here, I’m playing Summer League with the Suns, and so I’m embracing every moment. I’m taking it a day at a time, and that’s out of my control. Only thing I can control is myself and what I do on the court and let that speak for everything else.”

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