The Phoenix Suns actually got younger this summer and will enter next year as one of the younger teams in the league. For young teams to succeed, players must develop new skills during the off season. That's the name of the game.
It is well-known that true improvement in a player's game happens during the off season. Once the season starts, you spend all your time learning and executing the game plan.
In the off season, you can really develop your skills as long as you are doing the right drills. A skills coach, who works with teens, once explained to me that it's tough to get better with some of the most well-known drills, such as "dribbling two basketballs at once". When exactly are you going to use that skill in a game?, he asked me. If you're never going to play with two basketballs at once, why practice it? Or shooting by yourself, or with a coach, in a gym where you're practicing the same shot over and over. You don't get multiple chances in a game to make a set shot. The other team doesn't tap the missed ball back to you for another go.
What you really need to practice dribbling and shooting in game-like situations. He has players try to beat each other off the dribble, with instructions on which way to go and how to get there. He gradually increases the speed of the play as the player gets more proficient.
This player development coach also talked about shooting form. That the entire shooting motion needs to start and end above the head so you never lose sight of what you're shooting at: the rim. When the ball crosses your vision during the shooting motion, you lose concentration even for that split second. Kendall Marshall would do that every time, starting at his chest, and look where that got him.
He also believes, as does Phoenix Suns coach Jeff Hornacek, that you need to practice shooting in game-like situations. Not just tossing up hundreds of jumpers in a closed gym. Last summer, coach Hornacek had players practicing their shots by running around a set screen, pulling up or catching the ball on the other side of the screen, and taking the shot in real time.
Hornacek's first Phoenix Suns team, made up of players who had stunk up the gym the year before, made tremendous strides in shooting.
It's just astounding how much better every single Suns player was in 2013-14 versus the year before. True Shooting Percentage factors in free throws and three-point shots, making it a global statistic of just how effective the player is when the ball goes to the rim.
The big question now is whether this improvement is repeatable. Players have career years. They have blips on the radar that portend a great future, only to come back the next season to lay an egg. It is reasonable to assume that at least one of these guys drops down in 2013-14.
But what's also true is that these players showed that improvement over the course of more minutes than they'd ever played in their careers. These weren't little spikes on the chart. These improvement were already proven sustainable over the course of a long year.
Everyone but Channing Frye and Eric Bledsoe played more minutes than they'd ever played before in a season. Frye's was higher than his last NBA season and he'd taken the whole prior year off for his heart issue. Bledsoe was on pace for a career high, but didn't play nearly enough games to add up to the previous season.
So, the improvement in shooting wasn't simply because they were "contained" by the offense or the rotation. These guys blossomed on the big stage with big pressure on their shoulders.
In addition, to assume many of those were "career years" is to take credit away from Hornacek and his staff, who designed an offense to cater to each player's strengths even with high usage. The staff worked with players last summer to build strengths where they did not exist.
What they did last summer
Besides the impressive uptick in shooting percentages, some players developed reliable new skills during the last off season.
P.J. Tucker developed a reliable corner three-point shot he never had before. He made 41% of his threes from the corner last season (vs. 31% the year before). Considering the league average is well below that, P.J. was a revelation. That all happened through P.J.'s hard work and Hornacek's coaching. The three-point shot accounted for 31% of Tucker's attempts last season, whereas the year before he'd taken a larger share of his shots at the rim.
Archie Goodwin began to change his shot, which is now entering his second year of work. It took Hornacek more than a year to revamp his own shot before becoming a threat, so this is not a big problem. Archie can be SO dangerous if he could add a reliable jumper.
What they did this summer
The coaching and training staffs were around this summer as well, working with the players. Reports out of US Airways Center were that 8-10 players were practice court regulars from the end of the season through summer league before some of them took off for vacation until Labor Day.
- Markieff Morris and Marcus Morris have been lifting, preparing for a heavier load at the PF position now that Channing Frye has moved on.
- Keef has also been working to improve his three-point shot, knowing that spacing is the name of the Suns game. Hopefully, he's not only improving the accuracy but also working to release the ball a lot quicker. Right now, it's too easy to close out on him.
- Miles Plumlee has been working on his post game.
- Archie Goodwin has been working on remaking his shot and adding strength.
- Alex Len was working on strength and conditioning - making great strides - before hurting his pinkie in SL.
- Draft picks T.J. Warren, Tyler Ennis and Alec Brown have been regulars since draft day
- Dionte Christmas and Ish Smith were regulars as well, before being released in July to make room for the rookies
Now that Labor Day is over and training camp is less than a month away, voluntary pickup games will soon commence. Most of the rotation players will return (if not already here) to get in shape, and hopefully to impress the coaches.
Archie Goodwin, Alex Len, Marcus and Markieff Morris, Miles Plumlee, Shavlik Randolph, Anthony Tolliver and P.J. Tucker came into US Airways Center this week and Tyler Ennis, Gerald Green, Isaiah Thomas and T.J. Warren are expected to arrive Monday.
It should be no problem getting 5-on-5 games going this week, considering the additions of Casey Prather and Earl Barron on top of the summer regulars. Any time they get over 3-on-3, the coaches cannot participate but they can still watch and learn what they have in this team.
It was during this period of September a year ago that Miles Plumlee was so good that the team felt comfortable moving on from Marcin Gortat. Plumlee went on to start 79 of 82 games for the 48-win team.
Rookie Tyler Ennis will get plenty of run at the point guard spot during the pickup games. Archie Goodwin will have to handle the ball as well, just to fill the time. Don't be surprised to hear of a PG signing in the coming days, if only to fill out some pickup games.
New PG Isaiah Thomas (wrist) will be limited this month. Goran Dragic will likely take a couple of weeks to recuperate from the World Cup games once they finish. He usually gets to Phoenix about a week before training camp to re-acclimate himself to the desert. And Eric Bledsoe is, well, never mind about that.
Turning the corner to this season
Now is the time to put last year behind them and look forward. Same goes for the fans.
This year's team is even younger than last year's, though the group as a whole has more NBA experience. Last year, the Suns were middle of the pack in terms of age but were the second-least experienced in terms of NBA minutes played.
Tim Duncan of the Spurs had played more NBA minutes than the entire Suns roster, entering last season. And the Suns, collectively, didn't even pass him until late in the year.
This year, the Suns oldest rotation regular figures to be 29-year old P.J. Tucker (not counting 34 year old Earl Barron here, or 31-year old Shavlik Randolph).
In the offseason, the Suns subtracted Leandro Barbosa (32), Channing Frye (31), Dionte Christmas (26), Ish Smith (26), while adding Anthony Tolliver (28), Isaiah Thomas (25), T.J. Warren (21) and Tyler Ennis (20).
This is still a team full of kids and young veterans out to prove themselves in the NBA.
We need to start asking ourselves - who will improve this season? Who will make that leap into the next echelon of players? Watch for notes from Coro and Grialou this month, as they find time to hang out at the arena to catch rumors of attendance and other anecdotes.
Training camp is just over three weeks away!