After a year learning the system, Suns coach Jeff Hornacek expects better defense from this year's team as they evolve into a more self-controlled defensive unit.

Despite the debacle on Saturday night against the Utah Jazz, Phoenix Suns head coach Jeff Hornacek expects this year's team to play better defense.

"Getting after it a little bit more," he says of the plan. "Quicker rotations. Last year, most of these guys it was their first year playing. When you start playing these teams over and over, you know what they can do."

The Suns last season were the league's second least experienced team. Late in the year as the Suns prepared to face the Spurs, Suns stat guru Cole Mikelson pointed out that Tim Duncan had played more career NBA minutes than the entire Suns roster put together.

Only Goran Dragic and P.J. Tucker had started a majority of NBA games the prior year (2012-13), and none of the major rotation players had been full-time starters for more than that. Add in a new coaching staff with new schemes and you've got the recipe for defensive disaster.

Yet last year's Suns played respectable defense. They finished 15th overall in points-per-possession allowed. Middle of the pack for sure, but the best defensive showing since the heyday of the mid-2000s. And this without their best perimeter defender, Eric Bledsoe, for half of the season.

The Suns actually held up okay without Bledsoe. They were 14th overall on defense in the half-season he played and 17th in defense in the half season he didn't.

"Defensively, we should be a little bit better," Hornacek said of this season.

He thinks a year of experience in the system will make the guys a lot more comfortable in the rotations, and in the options at their disposal during live action.

"To be a good defensive team, you have your rules and principles," he explained. "But when you're on the court, they should be able to do things on their own. When there's a "small" in and "big" out, try to invert that. Sometimes we are a little slow to do it, we don't do it as much as we can.

"You watch some of the top teams when they are in certain areas of the court they know to interchange and get up there even if it's not your matchup. We want them to do that."

A large portion of the Suns defensive success has to do with P.J. Tucker's dogged defense of the other team's best big wing player. Tucker missed the first three games this year, but the Suns once again held up okay without a key missing piece by helping each other out.

"We are pretty interchangeable," Hornacek said before the Lakers game on opening night, of the Suns defense on Bryant without the services of Tucker. "If Goran guards Kobe a few times and he's fighting and fighting, we give him the freedom to just say hey Marcus you take him this time and then go back to him the next play. It will keep us fresh defensively."

They stayed fresh indeed. While Kobe got his points, the Suns played effective-enough defense on him without requiring constant double teams, allowing the rest of the team to stay on their own man. The Suns led the game by 29 in the third quarter, and ended up winning by 20 in the final score.

In the second game, against the Spurs, the Suns scratched and clawed their way through a bad offensive game and ended up winning 94-89 with a 10-2 closing run in the final minutes.

Alex Len had a breakout game in the pivot and Eric Bledsoe piloted the defense from the point.

"Eric we give a little more leeway," he said of guys taking risks, jumping passing lanes, straying from their man. "As quick and strong as he is, when he takes a chance he usually gets it. Some other guys when they take chances they get it one out of every five times and it puts you in a bad position four of those times. We don't want to take it away from those guys, but if it happens once or twice we'll tell them don't take so many chances."

But there will always be letdowns. When most of your success comes from intense effort rather than natural skill set or Borg-like mentality, there will be games like the Utah debacle that left the team scratching their heads over how bad they played.

Hornacek foretold of games like that because he saw them last year too. In fact, I asked him about a quote from the Jazz coach after their preseason game in which coach Snyder said he only played rookie Dante Exum 11 minutes because the Suns' guards were so physical and aggressive and Exum wasn't ready to handle that. The Suns won that preseason game in Utah.

"We want all of our guys to do that," he said of being aggressive on every play. "If you just just let teams run their offense and swing it around, you're not going to be very good."

The Suns allowed the Jazz to do anything they wanted to do on Saturday night. After getting up 9-2, the Suns collectively turned off their focus and couldn't turn it back on. Maybe it was the first back-to-back of the year. Maybe it was a bad matchup. Or maybe the Suns thought it would be an easy win. Whatever it was, the Suns looked real bad. The 27-point loss was only "beaten" once last season by a 29-point loss to Golden State when a healthy Suns team failed to show up in Oakland.

The Suns need to have a lot more games like the ones against the Lakers and Spurs, and to hold these games like the Jazz no-show to a minimum.

Having P.J. Tucker back will help. Starting on Tuesday night, against the Lakers, the Suns full defensive arsenal will at least be at their disposal. Tucker fights and claws every single game. While some guys take nights off, as is human nature, Tucker appears to defy nature by showing up every time. He led all NBA wing players in rebound rate last year and expects to spend time not only on the perimeter this year but also as a fill-in power forward in small lineups simply because he can bulldoze bigger guys and get them off balance.

The Phoenix Suns season opened last Wednesday to great fanfare.

The Suns gave away T-shirts and the schedule offered a chance to bury the hopes of a hated foe, for the fans as much or more than the players themselves.

Check out Evan's recap of opening night, right up until the anthem. League rules prohibit non-sanctioned video beyond that, until it's time for post-game interviews.

Picked to be among the worst teams in the Western Conference, the Utah Jazz reminded the Phoenix Suns of two things in a 118-91 drubbing in Salt Lake City on Saturday. The first: there’s a...

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Teams spent more than $450 million on rookie extensions to ten players, a record number of players to receive extensions prior to their fourth season. The Phoenix Suns Morris twins signed for the lowest amount of any players.

With the promise of a new TV rights deal leading to a skyrocketing salary cap in the next two seasons, NBA teams were more willing than ever to commit large sums of money in long-term extensions to the 2011 NBA Draft class.

Cleveland got the ball rolling in July 2014 by signing Kyrie Irving to a maximum extension (5 years, $90) and before the clock struck midnight on October 31 a record ten players had committed themselves to their teams through at least the 2018-19 season. All of the extensions will go into effect in 2015, after the players complete the final season on their rookie deals.

That's three full seasons beyond a projected jump in the salary cap by as much as 50% and two years beyond the earliest expiration date of the current Collective Bargaining Agreement.

By committing more than $400 million to 2011 Draftees alone, plus another $56 million to an extension for Ricky Rubio, teams have created a bit of certainty as the league enters a new era of salaries that could soon be 50% larger than ever before. Now, if the league or players opt out of the CBA in summer 2017 and create a work stoppage in order to redistribute the "pie", teams at least have more of their players under old contract terms that could make them bargains sooner than later.

The two smallest extensions, by far, were signed by the Phoenix Suns twin forwards Markieff Morris ($32 million over 4 years) and Marcus Morris ($20 million over 4 years). No other player signed for less than $42 million.

The Morris brothers got the smallest deals but have not been the least productive. They preferred the security of committing to play together over the uncertainty of restricted free agency next summer.

Extensions-2011-draft

On the other end of the spectrum, eight players from the first round of the 2011 Draft are either out of the league entirely or will be unrestricted free agents next summer, including two of the top ten players picked (Jan Vesely and Jimmer Fredette).

While ten contract extensions were signed, some of the best players from the 2011 draft decided to wait until next summer to decide their fates. Tristan Thompson (repped by LeBron and Eric Bledsoe's agent Rich Paul), Kawhi Leonard, Reggie Jackson and Jimmy Butler could all have signed contracts north of $12 million per year this fall but decided to wait to see if the offers would get even bigger next summer.

It's quite possible that the league will ease into the 50% increase in the salary cap in 2016 by raising next year's cap halfway. If the league does that, contracts signed in 2015 could make the 2014 contracts look like bargains because "maximum" salaries are a function of the cap. When the cap goes up, maximum salaries go up. Teams like Charlotte (Kemba Walker), Utah (Alec Burks), Phoenix (the Morrii), Orlando (Nikola Vucevic), Minnesota (Rubio) and Denver (Kenneth Faried) have insulated themselves against that. Even Golden State, who gave Klay Thompson the maximum salary it could offer, is hoping that $16 million per year is nothing compared to what they'd have had to pay a year from now.

The Morrii

The Phoenix Suns should be thrilled with the contracts they signed with the Morris twins.

Markieff Morris parlayed a career year (13 points, 6 rebounds per 26 minutes) into an $8 million/year contract extension a year after he was considered an underachiever. This year, in three games, he has proven even more productive. Morris is now the team's best power forward, producing 15 points and 7 rebounds per game. On a per-minute basis, Morris has maintained his 2013-14 production with remarkable consistency.

Marcus Morris is armed with a $5 million/year extension after producing 10 points, 4 rebounds per 22 minutes. He started the first three games this season at small forward thanks in part to the three-game suspension of the likewise newly re-signed P.J. Tucker. "Mook" made 5 of 9 three pointers in the opener, totaling 21 points, and has averaged 12.3 points per game over three games. His three-point percentage of 38.9% is third-best on the team so far. Mook may never be a star player, but $5 million per year will soon be a bargain in a league whose average salary could be $9 million per year.

Utah's Alec Burks ($11 million per year) got nearly as much money per season as the Morris twins combined ($13 million per year). Burks has a career 9.8 PPG average and 35% three-point percentage, though he upped that PPG to 14 last season on 28 minutes per game.

In today's D-League Draft, the Jam selected 6 players overall, four of whom are 26 or older and one of whom is Elijah Millsap, the younger brother of Atlanta Hawks forward Paul Millsap.

Yesterday marked the Bakersfield Jam's first D-League draft as a hybrid affiliate with the Phoenix Suns.

The D-League draft differs wildly from the one the NBA uses. Players who signed a D-League contract but are not retained by their previous teams are eligible for the NBA D-League Draft, along with new players who sign with the league. So when you see a D-League draft result, it's not about the best and brightest but more about who is the most available.

Last season, the Jam finished 24-26, a respectable record but good for only the last spot in the talented West Division. New head coach Nate Bjorkgren along with veteran Suns scout and new Jam General Manager Bubba Burrage are hoping for a better outcome this season for the team.

It remains to be seen exactly how the Suns plan to use their new hybrid affiliation with the Jam, but one thing is clear from the players that were drafted today: experience and winning are going to be important.

And, family. The Phoenix Suns already employ two pairs of brothers on their 15-man active roster - Markieff Morris and Marcus Morris, and Goran Dragic and Zoran Dragic. Now, a conspiracy theorist could conclude that their D-League affiliate is laying the groundwork for another brother pairing in the coming year. On top of that, they drafted the Blur's nephew.

The first move of the draft actually came a few days ago, when the Jam orchestrated a trade for D-League stalwart and occasional NBA player Elijah Millsap. Millsap is the younger brother of current NBA player Paul Millsap, who plays for the Atlanta Hawks. In exchange for Millsap, a 2014 6th round pick and a 2015 5th round pick, the Jam sent the Los Angeles D-Fenders Dennis Horner, two 2014 second round picks and a 2015 second round pick.

Millsap is a coveted asset in the D-League. He was one of the final roster cuts this off-season of the Milwaukee Bucks, and he has three years of experience playing for the D-Fenders, with career D-League averages of 17 points, 6 rebounds, 3 assists and 2 steals per game. His last consistent minutes came for Maccabi Ashdod in Israel in 2013-14, where over 8 games he put up 12 points and 6 rebounds in 25 minutes per game.

In the draft itself, the Jam prioritized veteran experience over youth and potential.

With their first overall pick, the Jam selected Robert Vaden, while prominent younger players such as Fuquan Edwin, Marquis Teague and Chane Behanan remained on the board. Vaden is a 29 year old shooting guard picked by Charlotte in the late 2nd round in 2009, before he was traded to the Thunder. Vaden has never played any NBA games, but has been a constant participant in NBA Training Camps, Summer Leagues and private tryouts. Last season he played in Belgium, where in 51 games he averaged 11 points and 3 rebounds on 42% shooting from beyond the arc, where he took about 2/3rds of his shots.

The Jam's next pick came in the 4th round, when the team selected 33 year old guard/forward Michael Haynes, who played his college ball at Fordham. Haynes played in Europe and has bounced around the D-League, but his most recent playing experience came in 2011-12, when he played for Optima Gent in the Belgian League. He put up 14 points, 4.5 rebounds, 1.5 assists and 1.5 steals per game. He apparently has not played professionally since then.

In the 6th round, the Jam had two picks. The first they used on 30 year old big man Mohamed Tangara, a native of Mali who played for four seasons at the University of Arizona. Tangara most recently played as part of a touring team in China, coached by D-League veteran and current Nets assistant coach Jay Humphries. He has also bounced around the Middle East and North Africa, playing in Morocco, Libya, and Qatar. In the 2013 FIBA Africa Championship, Tangara started for Mali, and averaged 9 points and 5 rebounds in 30 minutes per game.

The second 6th round pick was used on Bill Clark, a 26 year old guard/forward who played college ball at Duquesne. Clark has played in Europe the last few years, including stints in France, Turkey, Ukraine and Cyprus. Last season, in appearances split between Ukraine, Cyprus and France, he averaged 11.5 points, 5.5 rebounds and 2.5 assists in 26 minutes per game.

In the 7th round, the Jam selected perhaps their most intriguing player, the 20 year old, 6'3 combo guard out of Brazil Ricardo Barbosa. Barbosa is the nephew of longtime Sun and current Warrior Leandro Barbosa. Barbosa was a teammate of Bruno Caboclo and Leandro (before his signing with the Suns) at Pinheiros last season, but did not get any playing time. He is apparently a pretty raw player, but has reportedly worked significantly with his uncle to improve his game.

With their final pick, the Jam selected 22 year old 6'4 guard/forward John Petrucelli out of Molloy. Molloy is a small NCAA Division II school in New York. Petrucelli was among the active NCAA leaders in points, steals and steals per game last season at all NCAA levels. In his senior season he averaged 23 points, 8 rebounds, 3 assists and 3 steals per game. He was named the All-Met Division II Player of the Year by the Metropolitan Basketball Writers Association.

The finalized roster for the Jam is still taking shape, and more information will be provided as it becomes more concrete.

Here is a rundown of how players are acquired for D-League teams.

  • The Draft
  • NBA Assignments: NBA teams can assign players who are in their first three years of their NBA career to their D-League affiliate. Players can stay with the D-League affiliate for as long as the NBA team wishes, and be recalled back to the NBA at any time. NBA teams can assign players as many times as they choose. For the third consecutive year, players beyond the first three years of their NBA careers may be assigned to their NBA D-League affiliate with their consent and the consent of the NBA Players Association. Last season, the NBA D-League saw veterans Amar'e Stoudemire (New York Knicks, Erie BayHawks) and Keyon Dooling (Memphis Grizzlies, Reno Bighorns) take advantage of NBA D-League assignments to rehabilitate injuries or further develop their games. Suns players most likely to spend time in Bakersfield this season are Tyler Ennis, T.J. Warren, Archie Goodwin and Zoran Dragic.
  • NBA Training Camp Allocations: Up to three players released from the roster of an NBA team before the D-League Draft can be allocated to that team's D-League affiliate provided they sign the standard D-League contract. They are known as "affiliate players." Eligible players from the Suns training camp include PG Joe Jackson, SF Casey Prather and SF Jamil Wilson.
  • Open Tryouts: All D-League teams conduct local tryouts in late October of each year, from which players can be invited to training camp with a chance of making the team's roster. The Jam held their tryouts the weekend of September 29, but names of players who made the team have not been released.
  • Returning Players: Teams can invite a limited number of players who played for that respective club during the previous season. No returning players have been confirmed for the 2014-15 Jam. Ike Diogu was the Jam's best player last year, scoring 18 points and pulling down 7 rebounds a game. He was named the D-League's Impact Player of the Year but has since signed in China for the 2014-15 season.

NBA D-League rosters must consist of 10 NBA D-League players, but may not exceed a total of 12 players, including NBA assignments. If more than two NBA players are assigned at once, a team must reduce its roster to avoid going over 12 players.

Teams are limited to 12 roster moves a season, although additional moves can be gained in certain situations, such as a player being signed by an NBA team or leaving to play in Europe. Training camp roster cuts do not count against the 12 moves.

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