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Friday was a normal game day for the Phoenix Suns. Coming off the All-Star break and the media circus that followed Kevin Durant’s arrival, a game against the Oklahoma City Thunder represented a return to the norm. For Ish Wainright, however, it was a turbulent, emotionally charged day.
Wainright, who was still playing on a two-way contract, officially ran out of eligibility with the Suns right before the break. Unless Phoenix converted his deal to the team’s 15th and final roster spot, he would no longer be able to suit up for any more regular-season games, and he’d automatically be ineligible for the playoffs too.
Aside from the anxiety of waiting to see whether the Suns would give him a full contract for the second straight year, he was dealing with grief that extended beyond basketball: Earlier that morning, his family had buried Wainright’s aunt, who passed away this week.
Wainright doesn’t normally take naps on game days, but this type of emotional roller coaster demanded one to help him clear his mind. When he woke up, he had a text message from Monty Williams congratulating him: His contract would be converted. He’d be eligible to play Friday, available for playoff action, and possibly stick around for next season too.
The Phoenix Suns are signing two-way forward Ish Wainwright to a new two-year, $2.5 million deal, his agents Jim Tanner and Deirunas Visockas of Tandem Sports told @TheAthletic @Stadium. Team option on the 2023-24 season.
— Shams Charania (@ShamsCharania) February 24, 2023
The news was cathartic…and almost too much to process.
“I was so excited, I started throwing up,” Wainright said. “Ran to the restroom, let everything out. My brother came in, was freaking out, like, ‘Yo, are you all right?’ I was like, ‘I’m just excited.'”
After Wainright got it all out, he and his brother Amaad prayed together. It peaked with joyful news, but it had been a tumultuous day, in what has been a tumultuous year for Ish and his family.
Back in October, Wainright’s father, Calvin, passed away. Ish spent some time away from the team to grieve, delaying his season debut until mid-November. When he returned, he was embraced by teammates Wainright consistently calls his “brothers.”
“I love these guys, man,” Wainright said. “That means a lot, just the brotherhood that we have. And just having a whole bunch of guys believe in you, and the whole organization believe in you and give you an opportunity to get my first official contract.”
The Suns gave him his space upon his return, but also embraced him back into their gym with open arms. Wainright, in turn, continued to display the work ethic that made him such an admired addition to a gym full of hard workers.
“It’s hard to put words to, because you guys know how much of a great guy he is if you get a chance to talk to him, but you don’t get to see behind the scenes — what he does for our team, what he does for the locker room,” Devin Booker said. “Being the first one in there every day, the last one to leave, that was earned, not given.”
Ish Wainright earns his security
It was never guaranteed Wainright would earn the Suns’ final roster spot, of course. He had put himself in position to do so, but with Phoenix reportedly eyeing the buyout market and fellow two-way contract Saben Lee filling a potential position of need, the news came on the last possible day before Wainright would’ve been forced to miss games.
As it came down to the wire, Wainright seemed largely unbothered leading up to decision day. By the time his last two games of eligibility had rolled around right before All-Star weekend, Wainright had taken the lessons his father taught him to heart.
“My dad taught me a lot,” Wainright explained. “He said a lot to me, so that’s another thing: Control what you can control. I can’t control what other people think, I can only control myself — my thoughts my actions and my words and stuff like that. I can control that.”
Keep shining down on us Popz.
— Ish Strongman Wainright 😈 (@Wainright24) February 25, 2023
Wainright failed to score in those two games before the break, but he had already done enough to secure his future. Despite his mundane averages of 4.4 points and 2.1 rebounds in 15.5 minutes per game on .388/.341/.826 shooting splits, the 28-year-old has come on strong lately, tallying 10, 13 and 17 points off the bench in three of his last five games.
On Friday, his 10 points on 3-of-6 shooting (including 2-of-5 from deep) spoke to the immense progress he’s made over the last year in Phoenix.
“It is player development, but it’s the player committing to the development,” Williams said. “You can come into the gym and just jack up shots and do your job and collect the check, or you can be intentional about it. Our guys have been that way since we’ve been here, and so it speaks to the kinds of players that we have.”
Cam Payne, who’s been there before when it comes to waiting around anxiously for an NBA team to hand out a new contract, said Wainright has earned his opportunity.
“He don’t know if he’s gonna play, but he stay ready,” Payne said. “That’s big-time. A lot of guys don’t do that. A lot of guys will be like, ‘Man, I ain’t playing’ and come late to workout, just do anything. Ish is a top-tier, lead by example kind of guy. He out there on the court early, he get his shots in. He writes on his shoes, ‘stay ready,’ and that’s everything for him.”
How Ish got ready before he could stay ready
Wainright’s journey to the NBA is nothing short of remarkable. From playing professional football with the Buffalo Bills to playing basketball overseas to grinding in the G League and then on two-way contracts, the 6-foot-5 wing built like a refrigerator had to work for every second of playing time he’s received in Phoenix.
Progressing as a shooter was the biggest key to his development, and Wainright’s long hours in the gym with assistant coach Steve Scalzi began to pay dividends.
“The young man puts in the work every day with coach Scalzi, and he has a pound the rock mentality,” Williams said. “He’s grateful to be in the league, let alone being in the game like that.”
Wainright never imagined he’d be identified as a shooter in the NBA, but now he hears opposing coaches calling him one. Between that, the work he’s put in, and the Suns continually encouraging their players to adopt their “let it fly” mentality, his confidence is at an all-time high.
“Every shot that I’ve shot, I feel like I made it,” Wainright said. “Everybody know I work on that shot every day, corner shot every day, thousands of them. So it’s like, I know that I can make that shot, so the next one is going in.”
The numbers aren’t flattering, as Wainright has only made 34.1 percent of his triples this season. Last year, it was only 32.2 percent. He still has a long ways to go in order to prove himself as anything close to a knockdown shooter.
But these are also small sample sizes we’re dealing with. On just 123 attempts this year, if Wainright made his next four 3-pointers, he’d increase his efficiency all the way to a league-average 36.2 percent.
He’s also been effective from the corners, canning 35.6 percent of his 3s there. If he makes his next three corner 3s, he’d improve to 38.7 percent. Living on those small-sample size margins will be crucial for a guy who may not see as much playing time once Kevin Durant is on the floor.
Defenses are already leaving him unattended from behind the arc without having to worry about guarding Booker, KD, Chris Paul and Deandre Ayton at the same time; The BBall Index places Wainright in the 92nd percentile in “openness rating” from long range. Given that information, it’s encouraging he also ranks in the league’s 82nd percentile in points per possession on spot-up looks.
Last thought for tonight.
People are severely underrating how good Ish Wainright has been this season.
It’s the difference between someone who watches basketball vs. someone who actually knows the game.
I’ll leave it at that.
— Xin Varlock (@XinNBA) February 25, 2023
Wainright can’t just be a league-average shooter to stay on the floor, however. Like quite a few other players on the roster, the Suns have been more willing to let Wainright try new things on offense. That includes putting the ball on the floor and even committing turnovers as long as he’s staying aggressive and gaining new experience.
“”He’s had a few turnovers, but I like the fact that he’s taking those chances, ’cause it sounds like a broken record, but the more you do that, the more you understand what it takes to achieve success in those environments, as opposed to not doing it and being afraid of it,” Williams said. “Because you never know when you’re going to need that or you’re going to need that guy, and you’d rather him go through some of that stuff early in the season.”
Wainright acknowledged that being on the court for longer stretches and being allowed to make mistakes has brought on a whole new dimension to understanding the game. He’s had plenty of bench conversations with Damion Lee about certain coverages or reads, but there’s a difference between seeing it from the sidelines and actually being out there to experience sequences firsthand.
“It’s crazy because you check on the court and a coach is like, ‘Hey, shooter,'” Wainright said. “So now I’m automatically thinking, ‘Okay, if I don’t have an open 3, 0.5 mentality, get to the rim, dump off, anything is possible once you get to the lane.’ So I’m also proving that I can do more than just shoot. And foul.”
Of course, the most likely reason Wainright is currently earning minutes over new arrivals like T.J. Warren and Darius Bazley is his familiarity with the Suns’ system, particularly on defense. With Defensive Player of the Year runner-up Mikal Bridges gone, plus a quality team defender like Cam Johnson joining him and Durant still sidelined, Wainright has had to step up on that end.
“Defensively, just being able to guard multiple positions,” Williams said. “Last year, we just had him guarding 4s, now he’s guarding 1-4 from time to time.”
According to The BBall Index, Wainright ranks in the 89th percentile in defensive position versatility and the 81st percentile in defensive role versatility. He’s been actively wreaking havoc, placing in the 88th percentile in passing lane defense, the 97th percentile in steals per 75 possessions and the 82nd percentile in deflections per 75 possessions.
How Ish Wainright stays ready
“Stay ready so you don’t have to get ready” is one of the mottos Ish Wainright lives by when it comes to basketball. It’s been a long, winding road to the NBA, but that mantra has served him well so far in Phoenix.
“I think when you see somebody like him rewarded for the hard work, the steady attitude, and the improvement in his game, I enjoy watching that kind of thing happen,” Williams said. “For me as a coach, one of the good parts about coaching is being a part of somebody’s development and seeing them get a fully guaranteed contract, because that’s life-changing.”
Payne called Wainright’s contract a testament to the Suns and how everyone in that practice facility operates. He also knows that now, it’s all about playing for the next contract. Payne doesn’t see Wainright getting complacent, and he won’t let him either.
“I stay in his ear, ’cause I want him to keep going,” Payne said. “It don’t happen every day you get to be in the NBA, especially his story. His story’s crazy. So the fact he come out every day and be locked in and ready to go, and he don’t even know his name getting called, that’s tough. He earned that contract, every bit of it.”
Well-deserved for Ish Wainright. I know some people wanted the Suns to look at someone on the buyout market, but they may be comfortable with the ball-handlers they have now, and Wainright's size, strength, defense and 3-point shooting make this a well-earned deal to stay put
— Gerald Bourguet (@GeraldBourguet) February 24, 2023
Back in mid-January, Monty Williams was asked about the unique perspective a former football player like Wainright had during his journey to the NBA. He dropped an interesting tidbit in the process:
“I think there’s an appreciation for what he gets to do, just because of his journey to this point,” Williams said. “And he’s pretty much the same guy every day. He comes into the gym and he screams before he steps on the floor, and I think it’s just his way of saying ‘I’m thankful to be here.'”
Just hours after he found out his contract was getting converted, Wainright arrived at the arena parking garage. He let out another yell.
The last 24 hours had provided another cruel reminder that nothing is permanent in this life, and that a lot of things are bigger than basketball. But in spite of that pain and uncertainty, he had family within the Suns locker room and without. For the next few months and another playoff run, at least, he wasn’t going anywhere. And he was thankful for it.