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Suns' darkest stretch is Duane Washington Jr.'s opportunity to shine

Gerald Bourguet Avatar
January 10, 2023

When teams are decimated by injuries and losing streaks, the only things that shine through dark times are silver linings and golden opportunities. For the Phoenix Suns, Duane Washington Jr. represents both.

The Suns are limping through a brutal stretch that’s testing their mental resolve. They’ve lost six straight games and 15 of their last 20. Devin Booker has missed more than two weeks of action with a left groin strain and won’t be re-evaluated for another two. Cam Payne’s right foot sprain won’t be re-evaluated for two weeks. Cam Johnson’s been out for more than two months, and now Chris Paul — who missed a month earlier in the season — will miss his second straight game on Tuesday with right hip soreness.

A lack of ball-handling and shot creation on this roster beyond Booker, Paul and Payne was apparent heading into the season; now the Suns are trying to make do without all three. That means Washington is one of the last remaining round pegs trying to fill two separate square holes.

No one should be expecting a guy averaging 7.8 points and 1.8 assists in 11.9 minutes per game to be the savior. He’s still a young player on a two-way contract shooting below 40 percent on the season. The struggles are evident, like the Suns’ recent loss to the Miami Heat when Paul missed the second half with his latest injury and Washington struggled to fill the void, shooting 5-for-16 with three turnovers.

“I just gotta be better,” Washington observed. “I’m gonna be better. I’m gonna go watch this, soak in and learn from it. I know what I need to do and I know what I’m capable of. The opportunity’s presented itself now, and tonight I felt like I kind of just wasn’t what I want it to be.”

Washington’s next game was a mostly positive outing before a rough fourth-quarter stretch. His two turnovers and two missed layups in that span helped the Cleveland Cavaliers open up a double-digit lead en route to a 112-98 win. Even so, his game-high 25 points off the bench on 9-of-18 shooting, including 5-of-6 from deep, proved what’s been obvious since the preseason: This kid can score, and he deserves a crack at the rotation.

“I’m proud of his heart, I’m proud of the way he’s playing,” coach Monty Williams said afterward. “This summer, you would’ve never pegged him to be playing this type of a role for us in January, and he hasn’t backed off at all.”

Duane Washington Jr.’s much-needed scoring

The scoring flashes have always been there. In games where Washington has played at least 15 minutes this season, he’s averaged 14.9 points and 3.6 assists in just 20 minutes per game, all off the bench. And although he’s only shot 40.6 percent overall in those games, he’s made an impressive 44.9 percent of his 3s.

That 25-point outburst wasn’t the first time he’s erupted with the second unit, and with Paul and Payne banged up, it won’t be the last. The man gets buckets.

“That’s what Wash does,” Williams said. “He can score the ball — at the rim, in the midrange, shoot it from 3. Like, you don’t have to tell him to go score. You may have to tell them two or three other things, but you don’t have to tell him to score, and he’s not afraid.”

Although his overall shooting numbers aren’t pretty, they’re a byproduct of small sample size and his sporadic minutes. When he’s on the court, Washington doesn’t hesitate. Not only does he lead all Suns players in shot attempts per 36 minutes by a healthy margin, but according to The BBall Index, he also ranks in the NBA’s 99th percentile in usage rate and the 98th percentile in scoring possessions per 75 possessions.

On a Suns team that desperately needs some firepower after failing to crack 100 points four straight times, Washington’s willingness to take shots and his ability to create his own looks feels like oxygen.

The 3-point shooting hasn’t been quite as potent as expected, and Washington is actually shooting a much higher percentage on pull-up 3s (43.3 percent) than catch-and-shoot 3s (30.2 percent). But his increased volume off the bounce speaks to Phoenix’s need for him to play with the ball in his hands more often.

Fortunately, Washington isn’t shy about handling the rock. He ranks in the 93rd percentile in ball dominance, the 90th percentile in 3-point shot creation and the 84th percentile in points per possession on isolation plays. His prowess as a corner 3-point shooter and spot-up guy (he’s only in the eighth percentile there) should return in time, but for now, he’s making 36.8 percent of his above-the-break 3s.

“The arena started getting loud when he just started bombing away from 3,” Deandre Ayton said after the Cavs loss. “You could just tell he felt it and he started getting amplified and talking to the crowd. That’s what you love to see.”

Of course, there’s more to scoring than just launching from beyond the arc. Washington may not have been a great finisher at the rim with the Indiana Pacers, and he may not be off to a great start in Phoenix at 45.5 percent within the restricted area, but he’s placed an emphasis on driving to the basket lately. In fact, he’s one of the few guys who’s both willing and able to drive in among the trees.

“He has to, you know?” Williams said after the Heat loss. “I’m sure he wants to shoot it a bit better, but he was aggressive. He got to the paint more than anybody else did tonight, so that was a plus for him.”

This is still very much an area for improvement, though. According to Cleaning The Glass, Washington’s 50 percent shooting at the rim ranks in the fifth percentile at his position. The BBall Index places him in the 12th percentile in adjusted field goal percentage at the rim, the 14th percentile in rim shot quality and the 21st percentile in rim shot-making.

Shooting a cool 44.4 percent from the midrange is great, but much like Cam Payne, for every sneaky scoop layup around the basket, Washington misses a bunny or gets an ambitious attempt swatted away.

Still, beggars can’t be choosers, and someone who can drive and put pressure on the rim helps.

Learning to manage the team

There’s no question about what Duane Washington Jr. brings to the table. The question is what the Suns need from him and what he’s capable of providing as a guy who’s primarily played off the ball in his career.

Without their two main point guards and their best offensive initiator, the Suns need Washington to tailor his approach.

“That’s what he has to do, to manage the team and manage the ball when we have it,” Williams said.

The signs of smart playmaking were there in Indiana too, but they were sparing since he mostly functioned as a secondary facilitator. They’ve been on display in limited doses in Phoenix too:

Duane Washington Jr.'s playmaking metrics, per The Bball Index
(Stats via The BBall Index)

“Just controlling the game — run the team, run the show,” Washington said. “I’m the point guard. Put my guys where I want ’em to go, where coach wants ’em to go. Run the offense, execute, pay attention to details I can go top to bottom. It won’t happen in one game, but continue to get better, stacking good days brick-by-brick, and it’ll pay off in the long run.”

So far this season, Washington ranks in the 93rd percentile in points per possession as a pick-and-roll ball-handler. In games where he’s played at least 10 minutes, and his assist-to-turnover ratio has held solid, with 40 dimes to 20 turnovers.

Not all of his assists involve flashy passes or sophisticated reads, but he’s been a good fit in the Suns’ 0.5 offense from the start, and now he’s gotten to show more of it:

However, as Washington alluded to, that transformation into a 1-guard doesn’t happen overnight. In his 25-point detonation against Cleveland, his four turnovers set the Cavs up for easy scoring opportunities.

“With where we are, he’s doing a good job,” Williams said. “There are times where he gets himself in a little bit of trouble deep in the paint. He had a couple of turnovers that he could have avoided, but I don’t want him playing fearful or worrying about making mistakes, even though you want him to have some balance.”

Washington’s teammates have been similarly supportive, but during this ongoing skid, there’s little room for error. Just watch the reactions of Torrey Craig and Deandre Ayton midway through this clip when Washington fires a no-look bounce pass out of Landry Shamet’s reach on a fast break:

Ayton loved the energy Washington brings in the scoring column, but he also told the young guard to take his foot off the gas in order to let plays develop and screens set up properly.

“D-Wash did good tonight, but I told him, I was like, ‘D-Wash, you’re doing everything coach want, but baby, let’s really punish teams and slow down,'” Ayton said. “I love it, we ain’t takin’ nothing away from D-Wash, but mos’ def, I whispered in his ear, ‘Just slow down a little bit.'”

That type of insight is valuable for a younger player still trying to feel things out.

“It’s not cookie-cut,” Washington explained. “You can’t say, ‘Go super fast right here or super slow right here.’ It’s a feeling, it’s a read. Coach [Steve] Scalzi talks to me about the heartbeat of the game and knowing when to go, knowing when not to go, and that’s something that I’m just continuing to instill in my brain.”

Washington probably isn’t suited to be a lead general in the NBA at this juncture, and that’s perfectly understandable. It also brings him and the Suns to a place outside everyone’s comfort zone, where growth is possible, but not without growing pains first.

Finding the right balance

Imagine being in your second NBA season, with 72 games total under your belt, playing for an expected contender that has more than half of its starting lineup out. Imagine trying to prove yourself as a guy on a two-way contract, learn entirely new offensive and defensive schemes, produce in inconsistent minutes, and stay true to yourself as a scorer while also managing a team, all with less talent around you than usual.

That is Duane Washington Jr.’s current juggling act, and it’s no wonder Williams has tried not to bog down his mind with too many concepts at once.

“It’s a tough thing when you’re trying to coach a guy who has the ability to score, but you also want him to have some balance and manage situations — in particular, two-for-ones, after free throw situations, understanding who’s on the floor,” Williams said. “That’s a lot for a young guard, and so I’ve tried to not fill his head up with too much stuff. But from time to time, I have to bring him to the side and just give him a lay of the land, if you will, so he can manage a bit better.”

In that way, Washington is not unlike the backup point guard ahead of him, Cam Payne. “Turbo” had to adjust to finding the right balance between his downhill, score-heavy approach and running the team over the last few seasons too. Williams said that like Payne, Washington’s strengths will come out if they just let him go, and then they’ll figure out how to manage games on their own.

“We don’t want guys to reinvent themselves just because this guy is out and he does this,” Williams explained. “I want him to be himself but also have the balance of managing the team. It’s the same conversation that I had with Cam Payne when we first got him. Like, we didn’t need him to be Chris; we needed him to be himself, but we also needed him to have a little bit more balance as far as managing the team.”

Striking the right balance with a depleted roster would be difficult for anyone, let alone a 22-year-old who’s acting as the lead floor general in spurts for the first time. Fortunately, he has some terrific playmakers around to help guide him through the process in Paul and Booker, whom Washington often refers to as “big bros.”

“That’s what we keep telling him to do, like, go out there and play free,” Booker said weeks back. “He has the talent, he has the skill to do that. I just think he hasn’t had as much opportunity in his career thus far, but that’s a part of being a young player in the NBA. Now he’s getting some big minutes on a winning team, which is also rare as a young player. So I’m proud of him. That’s my little brother, and I know he’s not gonna stop.”

Washington’s longtime connection with Booker has been well-documented, but he’s also established a quick bond with the Point God. Paul has given him plenty of veteran insight, but the respect and admiration is mutual.

“Wash is a great player, man,” Paul said. “I love sitting next to him on the bench talking basketball. It’s just a joy he has with the game. It’s been really fun, and he’s so dynamic, ’cause he can score the ball. He loves to play basketball. I think when you have somebody that does that, then the sky’s the limit.”

During one of the most difficult stretches of the season, Washington has a golden opportunity to become one of the Suns’ few silver linings. There will be plenty of trials along the way, but as one of the only young, developing players in Phoenix, those bumps in the road are more than worth it.

“Yeah, it’s really, really hard,” Washington laughed. “But I love it. I love getting better. I love the struggle. I love the greatness of it. The good and the bad, you gotta love it all. It sucks losing, it sucks turning the ball over in crunch-time, it sucks making the wrong play at the wrong time, but I’m a real confident guy and I have an unconscious ability just to move forward. So gotta continue to get better, man.”

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