From impressive performances by Jon Leuer and Alex Len to disappointing showings from Mirza Teletovic and others, the Suns' preseason has provided much to take in. Oh, and how 'bout that defense?
With training camp over and the preseason underway, there has been a lot to digest about this year's Suns squad. Here are a few of the meatiest morsels.
The Suns' defense is improved
Defense was a point of emphasis for coach Jeff Hornacek and his staff during training camp, and while most around these parts have grown tired of the same song and dance from seasons past, Phoenix's defense has looked markedly improved over the first two preseason games.
In their wins over Sacramento and Utah, the Suns allowed a combined 91.5 points on 40.5-percent shooting from the field and 28.6-percent shooting from beyond the arc. Over the course of last season, Phoenix surrendered 103.3 points on 45.2-percent field-goal shooting and 35.2 percent from 3-point range.
Even more encouraging than the shooting percentages is the fact that Phoenix is averaging 12.5 steals and forcing 20 turnovers per game, bettering 2014-15 in both aspects (8.5 steals, 15.6 turnovers forced).
In the spirit of the unbridled hype and unreasonable expectations that follow these exhibition games, I will inform you of the following:
- Phoenix has not held its opponents to 40.5 percent from the field over a full season in its history
- Phoenix has not held its opponents to 28.6 percent from 3 over a full season since 1983-84
- Phoenix has only averaged more than 12.5 steals for a season once (1977-78, 12.9)
- Phoenix has not forced more than 20 turnovers per game for a season since 1980-81
But before you go and anoint this as the best defensive Suns team ever, I remind you that these promising numbers were accumulated over a mere two preseason games against teams acclimating to each other. Still, there is legitimate reason for excitement, especially seeing how many players have been willing to dive on the floor for loose balls in the first two games just to secure possession.
Alex Len has improved...a lot
It would be easy to gush over Alex Len's 21-point, 6-rebound, 3-block stat line against Utah. I prefer to gush over how he got those numbers.
From last season to this season, Len looks like a different player. He has yet to be pushed around down low the way he used to be, which in turn has led to an increased comfort around the basket. Where Len used to shy away from contact and finesse the ball towards the basket, he now powers his way to the basket. He has also shown off an improved post game that includes two underrated components — establishing deep post position and quick decision-making.
His rebounding has also improved, with Len boxing out well and then pursuing the basketball aggressively. Len has even cut down his fouls, picking up just two in almost 40 preseason minutes. Cutting back on reaching over the backs of opponents on rebounds has helped significantly.
Len's biggest test will come when he faces stiffer competition than Willie Cauley-Stein, Eric Moreland, Trevor Booker, and Tibor Pleiss, but mentally he is a different player.
P.J. Tucker has started 189 of his 238 games in a Phoenix uniform, but T.J. Warren got the start ahead of Tucker against Utah. While it is hard to read much into a lineup that also replaced Eric Bledsoe with Archie Goodwin, there have been other whispers of Warren's ascension lately.
First, Warren was spotted practicing with the starting unit by an eagle-eyed Paul Coro during training camp. Later, Hornacek cryptically stated, "There might be guys that have earned the right to start, but for the best of the team we might have you come off the bench."
And now in the first two games of the preseason, no Sun has seen more court time than Warren.
Any number of factors could dispel the Warren-over-Tucker rumors. The staff could be getting a better look at how Warren fares against NBA competition since Tucker is a known quantity. The Suns might be saving Tucker like they are Tyson Chandler, knowing these guys are better spent when the games start to count. Maybe Tucker has a nagging injury that's not worth playing through at the moment.
However, Tucker's contract for next season is not fully guaranteed, and if Phoenix believes Warren will soon make Tucker expendable, replacing Tucker with Warren in the starting lineup would be the first step down that road.
Just don't count Tucker out. He has a knack for taking back his spot in the lineup.
By now everybody knows about Leuer's monster game against the Kings. That was followed by coach Hornacek gluing Leuer's butt to the bench until late in the 3rd quarter against Utah. Hornacek knows what he'll get from Leuer — effort — but wanted to give Teletovic a chance to redeem his 1-of-10 shooting performance in his preseason debut. Teletovic answered with a 1-of-5 display in 9 uninspiring minutes.
Leuer has proven already that he provides value beyond his offense. He is a better rebounder than Teletovic and has the size to match up well defensively. Thus far, Teletovic's value has been tethered to his 3-point stroke.
There is still time for Teletovic to find his groove, and coach Hornacek will undoubtedly give him that time, knowing how valuable he can be as a stretch four. With that said, Leuer is lurking in the shadows, ready to pounce if Teletovic becomes more Anthony Tolliver than Channing Frye.
Who are these guys?
With 13 guaranteed contracts on the roster, the Suns have two openings for training-camp invitees Henry Sims, Cory Jefferson, Terrico White, and Kyle Casey to fight over. To this point, though, the fight has been pretty tame.
Sims and White were given first crack at proving themselves against Sacramento, and they mustered one point and four rebounds between them. Casey and Jefferson got the bulk of the proving time against Utah, with similar results to their counterparts two nights earlier.
The safe bet is that unless someone better shakes loose between now and the regular season, one of these four will make the opening-night roster and GM Ryan McDonough will leave the last spot open. As for who will snag that vaunted suit-modeling position behind the bench, that is impossible to say. The spot is literally there for the taking, but all four candidates have displayed T. rex arms in reaching for it.