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The Big 3 may have been sidelined, but there was still plenty to take away from the second Phoenix Suns preseason game on Tuesday night.
Although the Suns fell 115-107 at home in their matchup with the defending champion Denver Nuggets, there were a few encouraging signs from a group playing without Devin Booker, Kevin Durant and Bradley Beal.
We didn’t get a look at Jordan Goodwin (right hamstring tightness), Ish Wainright (right calf strain) or Damion Lee (right knee mensicus) once again, but Frank Vogel nearly emptied the bench for the second time, giving fans an extended look at some of the team’s role players.
Bearing that in mind, and just like we did with the first one, here are three main observations from the latest Suns preseason game.
1. Josh Okogie is solidifying the starting job
Even without the Big 3, Josh Okogie retained his starting role Tuesday night, and he made the most of it, despite playing without the three superstars who will allow his skill-set to shine.
Okogie finished with 17 points, 6 rebounds, 3 assists, 2 steals and 2 blocks in 24 minutes. In addition to his normal, aggressive defense at the point of attack, Okogie had an efficient shooting night, going 7-for-13 overall and 3-for-6 from long range. The 25-year-old acknowledged he’s aware defenses will leave him open a lot this year to cover the Big 3, so he put in extra work over the summer to make sure he can knock those looks down.
“I didn’t do no tweaks [to my jump shot], just repetition,” Okogie explained. “I feel I shot the ball pretty well last year. From January to the end of the regular season, I shot the ball well.”
It wasn’t just the efficient shooting from beyond the arc that stood out, however. That’s an added luxury at this point, but Okogie functioniong so well as a driver and offensive initiator showcased traits that will make him a welcome fit whenever he shares the court with Booker, Durant and Beal.
“Shooting the ball with confidence from the perimeter, but also attacking,” Frank Vogel summed up. “His ability to use the space that those three guys create to attack the basket, he’s an exceptional driver.”
We’ve written at length about Vogel being a fan of Okogie’s game, and why he has a strong case for the fifth starting spot. Tuesday night, Vogel referred to him as a “capable ball-handler” and mentioned the Suns need as much rim pressure as they can get.
Okogie won’t be running as much offense with the Big 3 out there as he did against Denver, but if he can read those situations and pick his spots, he’ll be a back-breaker for even the best defenses.
“I think he’s got a good feel for when to do it and when not to do it,” Vogel said. “We want to get as many shots for guys like Beal, Booker and Durant as we can, but when those guys are out or the defense is hugging up on those guys, he’s going to be ‘green-lighted’ to be in attack mode and utilize that space to attack the basket.”
At this point, it feels like the fifth starting job is Okogie’s to lose. He’s brought the defensive tenacity Phoenix needs at the point of attack through these first two preseason contests, Vogel loves his game, and if he’s able to attack selectively or even knock down the occasional 3, there’s no one on the roster better suited for that spot.
From Okogie’s perspective, it’s all about simplifying things on the offensive end.
“For me, my biggest thing this year is just to play with an open mind offensively,” he said. “If I’m open, keep it simple: Shoot it. If I catch the ball and I have a lane: Drive it. If I don’t: Pass it. It gives me three options, and it’s just easy to play basketball that way.”
2. Grayson Allen is a Suns preseason standout
Okogie’s biggest competition for the fifth starting spot may be the other Suns preseason standout, Grayson Allen. Allen is probably best-utilized in a bench role, staggered with the starters or called upon to help close games, but either way, he looks like a starting-caliber player. If he comes off the bench, he has to be considered a potential Sixth Man of the Year candidate.
On Tuesday, Allen followed up his 18-point birthday performance against the Detroit Pistons with 10 points and 7 assists in 26 minutes against Denver. He shot 4-for-7 overall and went 1-of-2 from long range.
Although he committed 5 turnovers (which he referred to as “disgusting” after the game), his ability to initiate offense, navigate pick-and-rolls and penetrate the lane continued to be a pleasant surprise.
“It’s been fun, kind of mixing up the looks in our offense,” Allen said. “I don’t expect it to be that way all year. Like, I’m sure I’m still gonna be a ‘more 3s than 2s’ kind of guy. But a lot of the games we’ve played, with high bigs in the pick-and-roll, we’re getting a lot of backside drives, a lot of stuff in transition. So tonight I was able to get into the paint and draw two, kick it out.”
Allen’s footwork among the trees has been the most impressive thing from the first two games. Whether it’s drop steps, pivots or “slow steps” like this one, the 28-year-old has found ways to convert in the paint.
Like Allen, Vogel is under no illusions that Tuesday’s ball-dominant performance will be Allen’s normal role when the Big 3 play. But having another guy who can get in the lane and creatively get off his own shot is a bonus.
“Grayson in particular is really showing me something offensively,” Vogel said. “Especially when those guys are out, he can really carry the load for us. But when he is on the backside with those guys scoring, he’s gonna really give us a different dynamic.”
When Allen plays with the Big 3, his shooting is going to create some unstoppable, well-spaced lineups. But even when he shares the court with other bench guys like Eric Gordon and Yuta Watanabe, Tuesday night offered a very encouraging glimpse of how potent they can be thanks to Allen’s drive-and-kick game.
“Just drawing two guys and being able to get that penetration into the paint and kickin’ it, it’s fun when you look up and you see shooters and you know they’re gonna knock it down,” Allen said.
3. Suns defense still a work in progress
The Suns’ starting lineup of Saben Lee, Grayson Allen, Josh Okogie, Chimezie Metu and Jusuf Nurkic will obviously change quite a bit when the Big 3 play, but Tuesday revealed how Vogel’s defensive principles and schemes will require more time and reps before they sink in.
However, even if the Suns defense isn’t where he wants it to be yet, Vogel understood the value of testing it against one of the more efficient offenses in the NBA.
“Well, definitely not there, but definitely picking things up too,” Vogel said. “It’s a new system, defensive system, and this [Nuggets] team in particular creates a lot of different challenges that, we have complex layers to our defense that we’re still in the base defense phase. So we walked through some of the coverages this morning, and just asked our guys to compete through those things, even though they’re new.”
Vogel cited the coverages against Denver’s two-man game between Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray as one of Phoenix’s biggest problem areas, but that’s to be expected. That action is one of the most challenging to defend in the NBA, and the Suns have only had a week of training camp and one preseason game to try and get Jusuf Nurkic up to speed as their defensive anchor in the middle.
“We have specific rules for how our bigs want to play, and obviously, playing tonight against Jokic is gonna be as big a challenge as he’ll face all year,” Vogel said. “But all the coverages that go into trying to slow down Jokic is really a team affair. We have to compete on the ball with him, but there’s a lot of coverages that all five guys have gotta be locked into.”
Vogel cited certain “precise rules” about where the Suns want to switch and where they want to employ other coverages. It’ll take time for those scenarios to ingrain themselves in everyone’s brains, so even a steadfast defender like Okogie is accepting the occasional mishap on that end.
“Right now, we’re at the point where we’re just messing up a lot,” Okogie said. “But that’s why we have these preseason games to kind of have live reps. At practice when we do it, we’re going about 75 percent and it’s easy, because people aren’t really moving and we’re repping it out. But in the game, when teams know what you’re trying to do and they’re trying to exploit that, and then to still be able to stick to the principles, I think that’s the hardest part. But that’s why we’re here.”
Going from a top-10 defense under Monty Williams to another aspiring top-10 defense under Vogel would take some time to adjust, even if most of the roster wasn’t brand new. Whether they played in Phoenix or on a completely different team last year, breaking those habits will take time.
As Okogie explained, the key is to practice the new schemes enough so that when fatigue kicks in and instincts take over, Vogel’s preferred coverage is now second nature.
“When he explains it, it’s not like it’s something that I’ve just never done before,” Okogie said. “It’s just being able to rep it out and just keep doing it so now I’m doing it habitually. So under fatigue, I’m still doing the stuff.
“For example, today, I’m going over the pick-and-rolls. I’m used to just chasing, chasing, chasing. There was a couple of times where I was supposed to chase, chase and then peel back and switch, but I didn’t do it, just because I’m just so used to doing it this particular way. But it’s not like I don’t know how to do that; it’s just being able to be aware of the situation and execute defensively.”
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