One (sometimes) overlooked aspect of training camp is the battle for the last few roster spots. Many fans don't know the player's histories, or even names for that matter, but these guys are fighting for their dreams and the stakes are of epic proportions.
Enter Dionte Christmas.
Christmas graduated from Temple in 2009 and went undrafted despite a slew of accolades. The former Owl led the Atlantic 10 in scoring three consecutive years and was conference first team and conference tournament most outstanding player the last two. He played in the Orlando and Vegas summer leagues that year for the Philadelphia 76ers and Orlando Magic, respectively, and even signed a contract with the Sixers, but was waived before the beginning of the season.
Dionte has traveled a tortuous road since then that has included the Israeli Basketball Super League, Sacramento Kings (summer league), Czech National League, Greek Basket League, Houston Rockets, Boston Celtics (summer league), CSKA Moscow, Montepaschi Siena, Utah Jazz (summer league) and Phoenix Suns (summer league).
Dionte Christmas has yet to step foot on the court in an NBA regular season game. But that hasn't dissuaded him from pursuing his goal.
"I've been cut from two teams (Philadelphia and Boston). I've been knocked down a lot. People telling me that maybe the NBA isn't for me. Things like that help give me a bigger drive."
At 27, Christmas realizes that being in a situation like he is now, with a legitimate chance to make an NBA roster, brings him agonizingly close to bringing his ultimate aspirations to fruition.
"This is a great opportunity for me," said Christmas. "A lot of other teams wanted to bring me in just for another body. I know from talking with these guys and playing in summer league with these guys that they really like me and that they really thought I could be a piece of this team."
For his part, Dionte feels that he's been diligent in improving his game to prepare him for this moment.
"Coming out of college I was strictly a shooter, now I can create my own shot. I'm a much better defender. I'm smarter. I've matured in a lot of ways, especially on the defensive end and I've gotten better physically as well."
Christmas displayed these skills this summer in Las Vegas while playing for the Suns. Christmas scored 10.1 points per game and impressed the Suns enough to garner a partially guaranteed contract to join them for training camp. But Christmas has had a partially guaranteed contract before (with the Celtics) and knows that there are no guarantees that come along with that (except for the partial ones).
"Knowing how many people are on this roster and getting a partially guaranteed contract tells me that the Suns are really interested in me and that they are going to give me a chance," speculated Christmas. "Coming into camp it gives me a little security, but not full. So in the back of my mind I've still got to work hard and I've still got to come in here and show these guys what I can do because any day I can still be released."
Although Dionte is cognizant of the uncertainty hovering over his potential spot on the regular season roster he did speak with conviction about new Suns' GM Ryan McDonough.
"A lot of teams tell you one thing and mean another thing. When I went to Boston that was a great organization ran by great people and Ryan was one of those guys. All of those people were stand up guys and when they told you something they meant it. Ryan told me that he wanted me here and he wanted me here for training camp... and it happened. I've gotten teams that told me they wanted me but never called back, things like that."
"The last two years with Ryan everything he's said he's done and everything he's said he's meant it and it happened. My trust with Ryan is 100%. If he says he's going to do it, he's going to do it. As a man I respect that to the utmost. I'm a loyal guy and in the last few years I've come to realize that he's a loyal guy as well."
Christmas came across as genuine when he spoke of their relationship, even though a little bit of ingratiating oneself never hurt in this type of situation...
Christmas also did some scouting based on the Suns' September practices and pick up games. So who impressed Dionte?
"Bledsoe is a really good player. He's strong. He's physical. He's a very good defender."
"Plumlee has a motor. He doesn't stop and he's super athletic."
"Marcus Morris has gotten a lot better. He's a great post up guard. He can play (three positions) from the two to the four. He's been guarding Miles in practice and then he'll turn around and guard me."
Yesterday after the interview Christmas headed up the hill with the team to Flagstaff. He is prepared, he is confident, he is hungry... like burlap sack full of Snickers hungry. The man with the name synonymous with gifts knows that nothing will be given to him. If he's going to finally attain his lifelong dream he's going to have to step up and take that roster spot. This October Christmas will not be in the spirit of giving (yes, I'm still leaning on that angle... it's pathetic). He's focused on basketball, and finally stepping foot on that court during a real NBA game.
Technically, today is the first day of the NBA season for the Phoenix Suns as they arrived in Flagstaff for Training Camp today after meeting with the "media" yesterday. Media goes in quotations' because they let Dave King in...
At camp the team is going to try and establish a style, a rotation, and a general feel for the season.
Bright Side will be at camp for most of the days to get the ins-and-outs of what new head coach Jeff Hornacek and the new look Suns are up to. What the most intriguing battles heading into camp between positions, minutes, and other factors?
Eighteenth Topic: Roster Battles
Jim Coughenour: Dragic is by far the superior distributor. His average of 7.9 assists per 36 minutes easily surpassed Bledsoe's 5.4. Goran was 8th in the league in assists per game (7.4) and 12th in assist percentage (35.7). It would be folly to limit his ability to play to his strength. The point guard duties don't have to be exclusive to one player, though. Hornacek himself played the role of point two in his career and I wouldn't be surprised to see him implement a system where both have facilitating duties.
Kris Habbas: Goran Bledsoe or Eric Dragic, neither really have a ring to them, but that is the nonanswer to this question. They are both going to run the point evenly in my opinion with pick-and-rolls, attacking the rim, and running the offense. There is no right answer here because this is an open audition for these two for the starting job of the future here in the Valley.
Richard Parker: They'll both share duties at the one and two spots but on offense, Dragic will most likely be the primary distributor, simply because he's proven to be better at it than Bledsose. On defense, Bledsoe will handle opposing point guards and Dragic will have to deal with opposing twos on most ights.
Sean Sullivan: Dragic. I think Dragic continues to be the main distributor of the Suns, which will free up Bledsoe to attack more off the ball and run in transition. The versatility will allow this to change however depending on certain match-ups, but I think Dragic is our default distributor.
KH: Depending on what the team does on the wing (more on that below) Brown is either the man out of the rotation or the first guard off the bench while Goodwin works on cutting his teeth in the NBA. Realistically, the inexperience of Goodwin should equal the miscues that Brown provides so they are a wash in terms of on-court impact, but the development of Goodwin has to be the priority. Lee and Christmas have little chance of cracking the rotation in general. At camp the battle between Brown and Goodwin is the third most interesting to me.
RP: Personally, I would much rather give minutes to Goodwin than any of the other three. I would give him the bulk of the backup shooting guard minutes, with Brown or Christmas earning a some minutes every now and then or if Archie takes a D-League vacation at some point throughout the season. As for Malcolm Lee, I fully expect him to be off the team by the first regular season game. If not, just play him 48 minutes a game. At center.
SS: I think Goodwin is the only real priority for minutes beyond Dragic and Bledsoe. They need to develop Goodwin and bring him along (hopefully as a two guard), but none of the other players are in the Suns' long term vision, so I don't see why it's necessary to give them time, unless it's needed to help rest the other players.
JC: 0, depends on performance leading into the season, 0, 0. Actually, can I play Shannon negative minutes?
KH: Here is the biggest question for me, and Dave and I disagree on this one, but Tucker to me has earned the starting job. He is also the type of player that can help erase some of the defensive inefficiencies that will be caused by a two-point guard line-up and the hole at the four. Marcus provides shooting whereas Tucker is the veteran and the best defensive option that can defend up to four different positions.
RP: With this roster, anything can happen. Tucker is a known quantity at this point in his career, so I would not at all be surprised if the team gave Marcus Morris significant run as the starting three. In fact, I expect that to happen at some point in the season.
SS: Anything's possible. If the Suns' are serious about trying to develop Marcus as a starting three, then they could give him additional time. Otherwise, they may just stick with Tucker for the time being. I don't see Green really being a factor at all.
JC: The team would be wise to give their younger players every opportunity to supplant the veterans. Despite the infatuation some people have with Tucker, which includes coaches to a certain extent, he is an 8th man. He struggles to score and is overrated as a defender. Green is entering his 7th NBA season, which would be 9th if not for playing overseas for two years. It is unlikely that he "figures it out" as a 28 year old halfway through the season. This job is Marcus's for the taking, but he needs to earn it.
4. Overall the four position has been suspect post-Amare Stoudemire and the current candidates to man spot are Markieff Morris and Channing Frye. Does this team need more than just stretch-fours? (Or as Lindsey Hunter calls them, "What is a stretch-four?")
KH: It is almost Markieff's job by default with Channing working himself into basketball shape and the general lack of viable options at the position. The team can go against the grain and start Marcus here going very small with more shooting and offensive options because the issues are similar no matter the Morris twin. This position continues to be a huge hole on the court for the Suns since the Amare days.
RP: This team needs a long-term answer at the PF spot, one which can't be found in any player currently on the roster. Therefore, it really doesn't matter who they run at the four. A stretch four would definitely help Gortat, Dragic, Bledsoe and the overall spacing of the team but Frye will likely be rusty to start the season. Unless Markieff shows significant improvement, especially in his consistency, the PF spot will probably be somewhat of a revolving door throughout the course of the season.
SS: Yes, yes, yes. Markieff was supposed to be that guy. He was drafted to be that hard-nosed, punishing defender in the paint who could also score down low on offense. However, he's progressed more toward being the next Channing Frye instead by trying to shoot threes. It's also valuable to have a floor-stretcher like Frye, but a guy who can reliably finish at the rim off of a pick and roll the way STAT used to is something the Suns are very much missing.
JC: I wouldn't classify Morris as a stretch four because teams dare him to shoot and he still only hits at a 33% clip. I think of him as more of a borderline wasted draft pick that better show massive improvement this year since he's 24 and that's a year which improvement tends to taper off after... Stretch and traditional bigs can work on a system specific basis. But... unless whichever type of four you have is also one of the top five players in the league it doesn't really matter because that's generally what it takes to win. If I'm cornered I'll take a guy as close to 20/10 as possible (basically a unicorn) which is more of the Randolph (who still has a nice midrange game) mold.
RP: The first rule of Viacheslav Kravtsov is you do not talk about Viacheslav Kravtsov.
SS: Haha. Well...He's tall.
JC: Well... Kravtsov had a .086 WS/48 last season - the exact same as Gortat. In fact, that would have qualified him for fourth on the team. With Len and Frye on the roster Gortat is unnecessary and incongruous. Hopefully he (Marcin) can shake the malcontent label and improve on his fairly abysmal 2012-13 season so the Suns can get something for him. The major trade bait label may be inapt due to the fact that he's not an upgrade for nearly any contending team (this has already been discussed ad nauseam). While we're on the subject of disgusting to a ridiculous degree, that will be my general feeling if Ryan can't wonder weave his way into some kind of return for the Polish Pillow.
KH: In EuroBasket Kravtsov played well in moments showing some potential as a defender and a shot-blocker. He is going to have to fight Miles Plumlee and Alex Len for minutes and at the start of the season might be fourth on the depth chart. Having said that, in basically 19 minutes a night Kravtsov was good for 7.4 points per game, 4.5 rebounds, and 2.0 blocks. Solid numbers in a very competitive atmosphere.
BONUS: What position battle are most excited to see play out? Does anyone have a bold prediction on a starter or rotation player?
SS: Frye vs. Markieff? Bledsoe vs. Dragic? Len vs. Gortat? Goodwin vs. other 6th man? Any of these position battles could be topics of contention once the season starts and we begin to see how the players are adjusting to the new system and the new roster as well. I think Len vs. Gortat will definitely be one to keep an eye on if Len is indeed healthy from the beginning and ready to go. Len will face a steep learning curve early on, but if he picks it up well enough he could make the fans start clamoring for him to start ahead of Marcin, especially if Gortat faces another one of his slumps.
JC: I'd like to see a three guard lineup of Dragic, Bledsoe and Goodwin get a chance to run teams off the court. It really wouldn't be that big of a size mismatch (against some teams) and it might be fun to watch. I'm all about trying to make getting pummeled as fun as possible. It beats watching a mundane pummeling.
KH: I already mentioned the first (Tucker v. Marcus Morris at the three) and my third (Goodwin v. Brown at back-up two) battles on the roster, but my first is another on the bench, for the last point guard minutes. The team invested a lottery pick in Kendall Marshall, then brought in Dragic, Bledsoe, Lee, and Ish Smith that can all void him from the roster ledger. This front office and coaching staff did not draft Marshall which could lead to him losing a spot in the rotation an, eventually, off the roster.
RP: Positional battle? Malcolm Lee vs. Ish Smith vs. Dionte Christmas vs. James Nunnally for the first guard to be cut by the Suns. Bold prediction? Gerald Green and Miles Plumlee will each start at least one game at some point this season (I'm actually serious about this).
Bright Siders, what do you think?
The Phoenix Suns announced on Monday at Media Day that Channing Frye was completely cleared to return to basketball as a member of the team.
In the first part of his interview with me, Alex Len talked about his improving health and his role on this Phoenix Suns team. He mentioned that he was hoping to use training camp as a period to " get in shape, get [his] wind back." The 20 year old Ukranian big man is hoping to get back to 100% after his two ankle surgeries and reiterated his willingness to do whatever he can to help the team win.
For a brief review of the highlights of Len's game, watch the following DraftExpress breakdown of his strengths and weaknesses:
DraftExpress, who had Len listed #1 prospect in the 2013 NBA class in their final pre-draft rankings a few months ago, listed transition, protecting the rim, pick & roll, face up game, post passing and "major upside" all as strengths of Alex's game. Although he is quite young and raw, he no doubt has the sinze, potential and versatile skillset to be a premier big man in this league. With this scouting report in mind, let's jump into the interview:
Q: I know you started playing again recently but has the coaching staff been telling you what to work on in terms of any specific skills?
A: Right now, I've been working a lot on defense, like team defense. Just trying to learn little things to help the team overall. I've been working a little bit with coaches on my post moves and stuff like that but I think for me, it's going to be about just helping the team on defense and being a presence at the rim - block shots, rebound, run the floor. Things like that are going to be big.
Q: Who's the best European player in the league right now?
A: I really like Marc Gasol and Tony Parker. I think they're really good players. I tried to watch a lot of Gasol this offseason because I really like his game. I've been trying to watch his footwork and how he uses his body and stuff like that.
Q: I do see some similarities in both your games and actually think your skillset and potential put you somewhere between both Marc and Pau Gasol in terms of style. Other than Ilgauskas, who a lot of people compare you to, who do you think is a good NBA comparison for you and who do you try to model your game after?
A: It's hard to say. I don't really compare myself with anybody. I just try to watch other guys who are really good players like Tim Duncan so I can try and take little things from them. But I don't think it makes sense to compare myself to anybody. I just need to work hard.
Q: Let's step off the court for a moment. What are your favorite off-court hobbies?
A: I really like movies. I love watching movies.
Q: Awesome, me too. What's your favorite movie?
A: I really like old-school movies. My favorite movie of all time probably, I don't know if you've heard of it, is A Bronx Tale. That's my favorite. I really like Tarantino movies, too, like Pulp Fiction. I've probably watched every Tarantino movie.
Q: Wow, you have great taste. I love Tarantino as well. How do you like the city of Phoenix so far?
A: I like Phoenix so far. I really like the weather, I've been getting tan. The people are really nice, too. All these people already recognize me on the streets and just wish me good luck and stuff like that, so that's really nice.
Q: What's your favorite jersey of the new Suns uniform sets you and some other guys modeled so well recently?
A: The orange ones with the sleeves. I used to wear sleeves in college so I like those.
Q: One thing I thought was very interesting about you is that you like to play chess. That seems like a somewhat rare and unique interest for an NBA player. On a personal level, I think it's really cool because I love to play chess too and used to play in a lot of tournaments when I was younger. Is chess something you do in your spare time off the court to relax?
A: I play a lot with my agent and actually with some guys from Maryland, too. We play online sometimes. I've been playing chess since I was maybe 6, when my grandfather taught me. When I moved to Maryland two years ago, I had been playing a lot online with my grandfather. From Skype, you can call and play at the same time.
Q: Let's end with this: what would be a successful rookie season for you in your own opinion?
A: I would be happy if we're going to win games this year, you know? I want to be part of a winning team. It doesn't really matter if I play good and the team loses. Nobody really cares. When the team wins and you don't score a lot of points but you contributed to help the team win, that's good.
If there's one conclusion I personally surmised from this interview, it's that Alex Len and I are basically the same person. We both play chess, are fans of Tarantino and are currently in long-distance interracial relationships. Really, the only differences are that I'm a little over a year older than Alex and Alex is a little over a foot taller than me. That's pretty much it.
Suns fans, get excited. Not only is Alex Len the highest drafted Suns player in 26 years, but he's a humble, likable and talented rookie. Here's wishing Alex Len all the best as he gets ready for training camp and the start of his first NBA season. Let the Lensanity begin.