With one of the youngest rosters in the league this season bound to get younger still - with veteran trades and more draft picks on the horizon - player development is absolutely key to rise of the Phoenix Suns in the coming years.
Enter first-time head coach Jeff Hornacek, who said when he was hired in May that he had always envisioned himself a college coach-to-be so that he could teach fundamentals.
"My goal was never to be a coach in the NBA," Hornacek said in May when he was hired. "I always felt I would coach, but I thought that would be on the college level. I felt that what I'd learned over the years would be too much for high school, but the pro guys... they already know everything, so why would I do that?"
After joining the Utah Jazz coaching staff several years ago, he realized that young NBA players didn't know those fundamentals after all, so the transition to NBA coaching became much more viable.
"There's so many pro guys that are one-and-dones," Hornacek said. "Or didn't get the teaching in college on how to play the game, and they don't know a lot of this stuff."
Throughout the summer, I've heard comments that Hornacek and his hand-picked coaching staff - big men coaches Mark West and Kenny Gattison, assistant head coach Jerry Sichting and defensive coordinator Mike Longabardi - were very committed to player development with the young guys who stuck around the arena all summer.
"I think you can do anything with them, you just can't have organized practices," Hornacek said at the beginning of the summer. "You can't make them come, but they're here and they want help they can just ask one of the coaches and that's totally fine to do."
According to reports, rookies Alex Len and Archie Goodwin were around all summer along with young veterans Kendall Marshall, Marcus Morris and Markieff Morris and older players Shannon Brown and P.J. Tucker among others. In August, more players started showing up, including new acquisition Miles Plumlee.
"The coaching staff has been great," new backup center Miles Plumlee said at Media Day. "I feel like I've improved a lot in the past month, so that's been great for me."
He's been working the most with Kenny Gattison and Mark West, the big man coaches. While the Suns have always had a stable of big men coaches in the past, recently Bill Cartwright, Sean Rooks and Ralph Sampson, the feeling is that these new full-time coaches (West was in the Suns front office for a long time) are much more focused on the little things and have been successful getting their points across.
"Improving your offensive package, working on your moves and pivots," Plumlee said of that they've taught him so far. "Across the whole coaching staff, everybody's got a great attention to detail. Even though it's pickup, they're letting us know if we're not guarding ball screens correctly, and what we should be doing. A lot of teams in the summer just let you play."
21-year old second year pro Kendall Marshall had a lot of positives to say about the staff as well.
"I'm excited about it," Marshall said of Hornacek and the staff. "[Hornacek]'s very involved. whether its workouts, or something he sees on the court, he doesn't take a back seat. He's very hands on. I think that's great for us, especially with a younger team. It's a great coaching staff. Everybody is very involved. They come to the table with a very business-like attitude."
Suns President of Basketball Operations Lon Babby has been impressed.
"There is genuine teaching going on at a level we never had," Babby said in an exclusive interview with Bright Side. "Jeff, first and foremost. He has a great way of communicating with the kids.
"He's a teacher. And his staff has been teaching. I come down here and I'm just sort of amazed at the level of teaching that's going on now that didn't exist before. And he's not just paying lip service to it. He genuinely enjoys it."
All coaching staffs have made effort in teaching fundamentals, and to be fair this is only preseason so the Sh%t hasn't hit the fan yet and there's no reason to finger-point. Alvin Gentry's staffs taught fundamentals as well, and so did Lindsey Hunter's staff.
Hornacek could be seen pulling guys aside to explain, during Monday's preseason game, what they did wrong on the immediately completed play or telling them as they ran down the court on defense. He does it in a quiet, calm manner to help get the point across without the use of a hammer.
It remains to be seen if this coaching staff has success on the court, and whether their teachings result in significant positive development of the team.
But at least it's a strong start.
The Suns started tonight's game with a slightly altered line-up of Eric Bledsoe, Shannon Brown, Marcus Morris, Markieff Morris, and Marcin Gortat. This is what the preseason's made for, especially for young teams and new coaches who are looking at different line-ups and playing with the rotations to see what works and what doesn't.
Despite playing on the road with a new starting line-up and a roster full of new faces, Phoenix immediately jumped out to a hot start and took the lead, mostly behind the play of Eric Bledsoe and the shooting of Marcus Morris.
Things heated up even more for Phoenix when Dragic entered the game and hit seven of nine shots for 14 points in the first half, and although the Blazers fought back in the second quarter to briefly take the lead, the Suns were able to sustain and lead the Blazers 56-51 at halftime.
The third quarter was once again all Suns. Phoenix came out hot and began to separate themselves from Portland all the way into the fourth quarter, where they extended the lead by as much as 19. However, Portland once again fought back and gradually closed the gap; trailing by only four points with just three minutes to play.
Still, the Suns were able to sustain and hold off the Blazers to a quality win on the road against a good Western conference opponent. Preseason or not, the Suns have to feel good about tonight's win.
Goran Dragic, or should I say Drahj-itch (inside joke for those who watched/listened to the Portland feed and commentary) unleashed the Dragon tonight with 19 points on just 7/9 shooting, to go along with his 5 assists in just 17 minutes of play.
Marcus Morris, who got the start at the three, impressed in his 29 minutes of playing time. He scored 15 points on 5/10 shooting, grabbed 7 rebounds, dished 2 assists, and also got 1 steal.
Channing Frye also picked up right where he left off with his 14 points off the bench on 5/6 shooting, including 3/4 from behind the arc.
Although Eric Bledsoe couldn't seem to find his shot tonight (only six points on 3/11 shooting), he did plenty of other things to help the team, such as contributing a team high 9 assists to go along with 5 rebounds and 4 steals.
Damian Lillard led Portland with 19 points on 7/15 shooting, and 4 assists in 25 minutes of play. Lillard is a very potent scoring threat, but the team actually seemed to run more efficiently with Mo Williams at the point...who led the Blazers with 7 assists to go along with his 9 points.
Allen Crabbe was also impressive, scoring 14 points on 6/11 shooting from the field; currently tying the high score for a rookie thus far in the preseason.
Will Barton helped inject the Blazers with energy off the bench, scoring 13 points on a very efficient 5/6 shooting.
After a feel-good, blow-out rout against the clearly inferior Maccabi Haifa of Israel, the Phoenix Suns will face their first actual NBA competition of the preseason tonight, as they play the young and talented, but very injured Portland Trail Blazers, in what should still be a much more competitive match-up.
When : Wed., Oct. 9 at 7 p.m. PST
Where: Portland Trail Blazers Moda Center, Portland Or.
Watch: NBA League Pass
Listen: 620 AM (Locally)
PG - Goran Dragic
SG - Eric Bledsoe
SF - P.J. Tucker
PF - Markieff Morris
C - Marcin Gortat
PG - Damian Lillard
SG - Allen Crabbe
SF - Wesley Mathews
PF - Thomas Robinson
C - Robin Lopez