Backup point guard Kendall Marshall was handed a rotation spot in early February and is slowly but surely playing with confidence.
"Earlier in the season, I tried to just do what was comfortable for me," Marshall acknowledged recently about the difference between now and two months ago. "But to help the team, I have to be able to step outside my comfort zone."
Kendall Marshall was taken 13th overall in the 2012 draft by GM Lance Blanks and his crew. Marshall began the "draft season" as college's highest assist man in a decade, the top-rated point guard and clear top-10 overall pick after leading North Carolina as a sophomore to a top seed in the NCAA tournament.
Despite concerns over Marshall's lack of athleticism and jump shot, Suns GM Lance Blanks and his scouting staff zeroed in on Kendall Marshall as one of their top options with the #13 overall pick. Marshall profiled as a tremendous floor leader, something the Suns would definitely need once they let Steve Nash go that summer.
Only 20 years old, Marshall struggled in summer league, preseason and later in D-League, fueling the fires of calling him a draft bust. He is still not even ranked in David Thorpe's weekly top-50 rookie rankings.
The passer extraordinaire logged fewer than 2 assists in 10 of his first 12 games. He took almost no shot attempts and was quick to dump the ball off to anyone who would take it once he crossed mid court.
But since he was handed a rotation spot on February 1 after the Suns had fallen completely out of the playoff picture, the now-21-year-old Marshall has dished at least two assists in 14 of the last 18 games (averaging 2.8 per game in 16 minutes). Modest totals to be sure. But progress is progress.
His best games have come against tough competition: in February against Memphis (11 points and 4 assists) and last Saturday against Houston (9 and 4).
"I think you saw him growing up a little bit tonight," said head coach Lindsey Hunter after the Houston game. Marshall had an eye-popping assist between the legs of Asik (see video below) and a running jumper to hold onto a fourth-quarter lead.
Modest stats, to be sure. But Marshall has gotten the respect of his teammates.
"I am always on the floor a lot of minutes," point guard Goran Dragic said of the Houston game. "Tonight Kendall played great, so I spent more minutes on the bench. I was happy for him."
"Kendall played a great game," Jared Dudley said. "I could play with him any day. He's always looking to pass. He has some deficiencies, but his passing makes up for it."
Ah yes, the deficiencies. Mainly, his
jump shot is so bad that he's afraid to take the shot even when he's open, and it's such a set shot he can't take it with a defender on him.
Marshall has scored more than 5 points in only 5 of 30 games this season. He has made only 40% of his shots this season, 33% of three-pointers. He has taken more three-point shots (36) than two-point shots (34), getting assisted on 92% of his threes.
"I know my jump shot is what it is," Marshall says. "It's just getting to the point of being comfortable enough to take that shot. It's repetition, every single day. One thing Lindsey [Hunter] told me is that I'm never allowed to take a day off."
On an off day, Marshall takes enough jumpers to make 300 a night. On practice days, its a minimum of 150 makes, with half of them off the dribble.
Sometimes, he even goes to the practice court to shoot after a game. "It's just to blow steam off," he said. "If I didn't shoot the ball well, or didn't shoot it confidently."
Lately, we are seeing Marshall stay on the court even after Dragic returns. Against Houston, Dragic played the off-guard position in the fourth while Marshall played the point. Dragic was able to attack and score, getting 15 of his 18 points in the 4th quarter alone.
Against Denver, it was often Dragic and Marshall playing together opposite Denver's two point guards, Andre Miller and Ty Lawson.
Marshall is aware of the comparisons of his game to Andre Miller's.
"We're both not the most athletic people in the world," he starts off about Miller, with a chuckle. "He's also an extremely talented passer and that's something I take pride in, running a team. Honestly, I was looking forward to playing against him, someone I watched growing up."
Marshall expanded on how Miller makes up for his lack of elite athleticism to remain a threat.
"You could see some of the tricks of the trade he's learned throughout the years," Marshall said. "He used them on me. Stuff that hopefully I can pick up and use in my own game.
Regarding a particular example, he replied without hesitation, "In the first half, in a pick and roll I was trying to push [Miller] to our big man who was sitting there waiting on him and all he did was, right before he curled off the screen, he's dribbling the ball, he bumps me, takes one dribble, pulls up and I can't contest it. When somebody bumps you, that takes your legs from you."
"Just little crafty stuff like that I want to learn from him."
What point guards in the NBA does Marshall want to emulate? "Andre Miller, Steve Nash, Jason Kidd, Jose Calderon," he replied quickly. "I feel like I can get the most out of myself if I can take bits and pieces out of their game."
A Pyrrhic victory is a victory with such a devastating cost that it carries the implication that another such victory will ultimately lead to defeat. Someone who wins a Pyrrhic victory has been victorious in some way; however, the heavy toll negates any sense of achievement or profit.
Does anyone else get the sense that this would be better applied to the Suns' Saturday night victory against the Houston Rockets than it was after King Pyrrhus defeated the Romans at Heraclea and Asculum during the Pyrrhic War? How many more games can the Suns afford to win before they sabotage their draft status, which is (practically) the sole redeeming quality stemming from one of the worst seasons in franchise history?
Don't the Suns realize that sometimes when you lose, you really win?
Gloria Clemente tried to impress this upon Billy Hoyle in the legendary movie "White Men Can't Jump."
"Sometimes when you win, you really lose, and sometimes when you lose, you really win, and sometimes when you win or lose, you actually tie, and sometimes when you tie, you actually win or lose."
Billy, however, was recalcitrant and ended up losing Gloria. He won his small, petty victory and lost out on something of much greater importance in the long run. Sound familiar?
I want the Suns to lose. I want my team to lose. Every victory is like a nail in the coffin of our draft lottery positioning. I'm not cheering against my team, I'm cheering for them. I'm cheering for them to take a step back to take two forward. I'm cheering for something better than development of middling young players as a consequence of a lost season. I'm not advocating throwing games. In fact, I'm not advocating that the Suns deviate from the current strategy one iota.
I simply want them to lose.
Even after last night's 108-93 loss to the Denver Nuggets, the Suns' four wins in their last seven games tie a season best for any seven game stretch this season. Talk about an inconvenient time for them to be playing their best basketball of the season. They even had their best win of the season, a 105-101 OT victory in San Antonio, during the stretch.
Lineups are in flux. In recent wins against the Minnesota Timberwolves, San Antonio Spurs, and Atlanta Hawks, the Suns started Goran Dragic, Jared Dudley, P.J. Tucker, Luis Scola and Marcin Gortat. Saturday night, they started Goran Dragic, Wesley Johnson, Marcus Morris, Markieff Morris and Luis Scola. But they won. Kendall Marshall and Hamed Haddadi each played 28 minutes. Final score Suns 107, Rockets 105...
Starting center Marcin Gortat is out (most likely for the season) with a Lisfranc sprain. But they beat the Rockets. Backup center Jermaine O'Neal has missed games due to family issues. Yet they win.
You almost couldn't script a better scenario for the team to crumble to pieces, but they haven't. I don't know what Lindsey Hunter could do to lose more games even if he tried at this point. There's nobody else sitting on the end of the bench. Smilin' Wes is playing. The twins are starting. Some guy named Hamed who I didn't even know existed three weeks ago is logging heavy minutes. What can Hunter do? Start pulling players if they make a shot?
The Suns are within 1.5 games of third and within three games of eleventh in lottery positioning. The Suns still have two games against the Wizards (third) and the Timberwolves (ninth). They also host both the Hornets (T-sixth) and Kings (fifth). The Suns are presently tied with the Pelicans for sixth. Think some of those games might have draft order implications?
Not to mention they play the Rockets three more times and the Jazz and Warriors once each... And of course the Lakers. That's the game of paramount importance for the Suns to win, yet I wouldn't be surprised if they misinterpret my message and pick that game to lose.
If the Suns end up with the 10th and 30th picks, it will be nauseatingly unfulfilling. Yet, I sit nonplussed. In awe of a Utah Jazz team that is failing amazingly and catastrophically. Perturbed by a Lakers team hellbent on sneaking into the playoffs to cost the Suns up to 16 spots in draft positioning. In dread that the glimmering hope of a top five pick will fade into the gloaming of selecting in the double digits....
I have recently heard the term "crapshoot" bandied around with respect to the draft. Crapshoot - anything unpredictable, risky or problematical; a gamble. I guess that's applicable to a certain extent. However, the higher your lottery positioning, and ultimately your draft order, the better your odds in the gamble. This isn't suppositious conjecture. This is rooted in empirical evidence and data. Of course there are no guarantees, but as Seth Pollack detailed in this story where I participated with ten other NBA writers in ranking the quality of players selected with the top ten picks over the last five years, the odds are heavily stacked in favor of top five picks. So would you rather have a 28% chance of drafting a franchise player or a 0% chance?
Which is why losing isn't necessarily bad. In fact, it can be downright good. As Eddie Murphy instructed us in "Vampire In Brooklyn", things are not always as they seem...
"Well, the bottom line, what I'm trying to tell you today, is that losing... llllosing... is necessary. Losing is necessary, thereby, if it's necessary, losing... - Losing... - ...must be good."
I may have slightly augmented the previous quote to serve my nefarious needs, but I think you get the gist. At least I hope you get the gist, even if you disagree, because I've kind of been hammering the point and the story is almost over. Losing can be good. Losing can actually propagate long-term positive outcomes. I am actually a proponent of losing in certain situations. This year for the Suns is one of those situations.
In the immortal words of John Witherspoon in "Friday."
"You win some, you lose some... But you live, you live to fight another day!"
I know we'll get through this, Suns. I know we'll live to fight another day. But in the interim, please lose.
Coming into the week, the Phoenix Suns had two seemingly winnable games: one that could have easily been a lopsided loss, and another that ended up being exactly what it should have been.
In classic 2013 Suns fashion, they dropped both games against the lesser opponents, beat a playoff team, and then were routed by another playoff team. It has been that type of season for the Suns so far and after going 1-3 in their last four games, they hit the road for three games in four nights.
@ Toronto Raptors - L (71-98)
@ Sacramento Kings - L (112-121)
vs. Houston Rockets - W (107-105)
vs. Denver Nuggets - L (108-93)
Jared Dudley on Tanking
"It is understandable because you want to have the highest pick but at the same time, if I lose on purpose, I may not be able to find a job in Phoenix. If Jared is not playing well, let's get rid of him. I am trying to be here for a long time and have a good reputation in the league. At the end of the day, we will be in the lottery no matter, so hopefully we get the best pick."
These three losses pushed the Suns into the sixth slot in the lottery after getting as high as third just a week ago. The schedule gets very interesting over the next few weeks as they will play the Wizards, Lakers, Timberwolves, and Jazz, all of which have some significance on the season. A win over the Lakers is beneficial, but losses to the Jazz, Timberwolves, and Wizards could easily vault the Suns back into the Top three of the lottery.
More on lottery odds in the coming weeks.
360 (5.62 per game)
Season to date, the Suns have scored 6,056 points to the 6,416 that they have given up to their opponents.
The margin of victory (or loss) this season has been, on average, -5.62 points per game. There were a lot of close calls, some wins, and some blow-out losses. That was the identity of the team through roughly 50 games of basketball. Well, since the All-Star Break, the team has gone 5-6 overall, but the margin has gotten worse at -7.27.
This season, there have been very few highlights, but against the Rockets, they had a few that were noteworthy. Kendall Marshall threw a pass between the legs of Omer Asik that drew national attention on Twitter and more as one of the highlights of the night.
Later that night, Marshall hit a circus shot with the shot clock expiring that helped the Suns stay on top late in the fourth quarter.
Another week, another dance with franchise futility on the offensive end. The switch to the defensive culture has been tough to watch at times, but it has allowed the Suns to go 5-6 since the All-Star Break, allowing 101.7 points per game on the defensive end. Of course, the offense has struggled, only scoring 94.4 points per game and to reference the key stat, that is not an improvement, as that is a differential of -7.27 points per game.
A look at three different players on the Suns for the week forming a good, bad, and a surprise either way each week.
Player of the Week:
Hamed Haddadi - 5.3 PPG 6.3 RPG 0.5 APG 2.0 BPG 41.2% FG
Why not? The team dropped two games that were lost in fairly embarrassing fashion and the win was paced by the play of Haddadi. There was not one member of the Suns that played a consistently good brand of basketball for three games, but Haddadi had arguably the best game based on circumstance. He is now the only center on the roster and when facing teams with larger frontcourts, he becomes a valuable asset. This week, he achieved his career-highs in points, rebounds, and minutes played over the past four games.
Previewing the Week Ahead:
Wednesday, March 13th @ Houston Rockets (34-30)
Friday, March 15th @ Atlanta Hawks (34-28)
Saturday, March 16th @ Washington Wizards (18-46)
The Phoenix Suns fell to 22-42 after losing 108-93 to a Denver Nuggets team that is surging towards the top of the Western Conference Standings. They played tough, but the Nuggets were just too much.
The Denver Nuggets are 44-22 on the season, but only 14-19 on the road.
The Phoenix Suns are 22-41 on the season, but at least they are 15-16 at home.
Yet, it's difficult to imagine anything but a blowout in favor of the Nuggets tonight. Denver has topped 100 points in 22 of their last 23 games for an average of 104. The Suns average about 10 points less than that on the season.
Even factoring in the Suns' improved D (keeping opponents to 4 points below their season average of late), you've still got a clean victory for the Nuggets.
Add in the fact the Suns topped 100 points on Saturday night for the first time at home in 2013 (the hadn't scored 100+ points at home since before Christmas), the outlook looks even bleaker.
Not to be a pessimist, but...the Nuggets have won 9 consecutive games (18 of their last 22), while the Suns are feeling pretty about a 5-5 record since the All-Star break (9 of of their last 22).
In a part-time matchup of 2011 draft picks, the Suns trot out Markieff and Marcus Morris ("the Morri") - who were drafted #13 and #14 overall - opposite the Nuggets' Kenneth Faried who went #22 overall.
It's easy - and proper - to bash the Suns' front office for this oversight, but don't forget to throw 20 other teams into the same fire. Faried has exceeded pre-draft expectations of pundits, scouts and front office personnel alike.
Faried starts at PF for a winning team, bringing the kind of fire and energy that new Suns coach Lindsey Hunter absolutely craves. He grabs 9.6 rebounds a night despite being only 6'8", and drops 11 points in the bucket each night as well.
Marcus and Markieff Morris bring less to the table - about 9 points and 4 rebounds per game, each.
Don't expect the Morri to outplay Faried, but it will be interesting to see how they fare.
Here is a better matchup to watch. Both point guards will dominate the ball, trying to score first and pass second.
Lawson's stats (17 points, 7 assists on the season, but 23 and 7 over his last 10 games) are gaudier than Dragic's.
Dragic has season averages of 14 and 7, with 15 and 9.8 in his last 10 games.
Expect one of these guys to set the tone, while the other takes a back seat in comparison. Could be either of them.
Some have looked at Marshall's physique and skills and tried to peg his ceiling as Andre Miller. Well, Suns fans get to see a first-hand comparison tonight when each steps into his team's second unit, even pairing with the starter for stretches at a time.
My guess is that you won't see a lot of similarities once you see them facing off.
Marshall is a better passer and even slightly better at shooting open 3s (33% now on the season). Marshall sees the floor better, but as a rookie he struggles to predict the speed of the NBA game at times.
Andre Miller is a good passer and a pretty good defender, but still a terrible shooter after more than a decade to work on it. Miller defends better than Marshall ever will.
Neither is good at creating their own shot anywhere on the court, so there's that.
Denver is the poster child of winning without a superstar. They have a lot of pretty good players, but no one guy who can carry the team. Not one guy made the All-Star game this year, even.
Can they win a championship without a superstar? Probably not. But they are a darn good team regardless.
The Suns did beat Denver at home earlier this season. It was Phoenix's first win of the year against a winning team (only 4-3 at the time).
So take that for what it's worth.
I wish I could say the Suns will win this game, but don't count on it.