New Suns General Manager Ryan McDonough and head coach Jeff Hornacek have their first official (unofficial) game under their belts. The Suns 82-69 paddling of the Portland Trail Blazers has the tandem sporting an undefeated career record.
Obviously these games on the UNLV campus don't propitiate similar regular season success. The results may not even translate from one game to the next. Last night's game, though, did seem to be indicative of a fresh approach to the game and positive aura projecting from the team from the top to the bottom.
After the game Suns owner Robert Sarver stood with McDonough and Hornacek outside the locker room exchanging quick smiles. Precocious rookie Archie Goodwin was the topic of whispered discussion. It was a cacophony of whispers over a rookie with unique talents that can't be taught. For one game, the attention was deserving.
This didn't feel like the funereal atmosphere that blanketed US Airways Center much of last season. First of all, McDonough took time to talk one-on-one with media members in a tunnel under the bleachers. Second, Hornacek was amiable and easy-going. Third, Sarver was smiling and looked excited.
The result of the game didn't hurt. After struggling in the first half, the Suns used a 28 point third quarter to seize the momentum in the game and coast to a win.
"We want to push the ball," said Hornacek. "We want our point guards to get the ball on the outlet pass and take off with it. Put some pressure on the defense and get everybody back in the lane and if we have shooters kick it back out."
The Suns were able to implement that strategy successfully in the second half thanks to defensive adjustments and increased intensity. One player's performance which was very reflective of the overall flow of the game was Archie Goodwin, who scored 13 points in his professional debut.
"As an 18 year old rookie I think the game was moving a little fast for him in the first half. I thought it slowed down as the game went on," critiqued McDonough. "He played pretty effectively in the second half. Our coaches did a good job with the halftime adjustments because McCollum was killing us in the first half."
C.J. McCollum had in fact scored 15 points for Portland in the first half and was the main reason the Blazers led by three going into halftime against a Suns team that was having difficulty scraping together buckets. Things weren't quite as easy for McCollum after the intermission.
"They used doubles to try to get the ball out of his hands and make other guys beat us," said McDonough. "I was really impressed with the defensive effort and energy, not just of Archie, but of Arinze Onuaku and our group as a whole."
Onuaku, who pulled down a game high 11 rebounds to go along with seven points, caught the attention of coach Hornacek as well.
"We saw it in practice (Onuaku's intensity). A couple of the guys said they got hit in the chest by him," said Jeff. "He's a big strong kid and he did a nice job for us getting those boards."
The game wasn't just about the new kids, though. "Veterans" Markieff and Marcus Morris also worked through their first half malaise and joined in the second half resurgence. The Suns new coach felt that it was just a matter of letting the game come to them and playing in rhythm.
"When you try to force something yourself it usually doesn't turn out well. In the second half they did a great job of rolling to the open spot and guys hit them with passes and they knocked down shots," said Hornacek.
Goodwin stole the show, though, with about as impressive of a debut as anyone could have possibly hoped for. At times he looked overmatched against the Blazers C.J. McCollum, but let's not forget that C.J. is three years older than Archie and was just drafted #10 overall in the lottery. Let's also not forget that Goodwin held his own in the second half, showing all of us hints at what McDonough saw in him going into the draft.
"Archie didn't shoot the ball very well (in college), that's an area he absolutely has to improve on, but he really knows how to get in the paint," commented McDonough. "He knows how to break down defenses and get to the basket."
This was clearly evident in the game. Goodwin attempted a game high six free throws, making four, while displaying a mesmerizing combination of quickness and fluidity. Maybe graceful would be a fitting adjective? Coming into this job many had emphasized McDonough's analytical background in his scouting process. His first three major additions, Alex Len, Eric Bledsoe and Goodwin, however, are not guys that analytics really love.
"Analytics are important, but I think also that the projection of upside and potential is important," explained Ryan. "You have to factor in the analytics along with what your eyes and traditional scouting tell you."
The Summer League not only serves as a chance to get roster players game experience, but is also a proving ground for athletes trying to carve out a niche for themselves by making a team. The Suns already have 15 players under contract, but that doesn't necessarily preclude the chance of someone from the Summer League team sticking.
"You can bring up to 20 guys to camp. I don't know that we'll bring that many, but we'll probably bring more than 15," said McDonough. "As Jeff and I told these guys when we got hired here it's an open competition. Whoever the best players are will be the ones that play."
Three guys that I will be keeping an eye on for the remainder of the Summer League slate are Phoenix's second round pick Alex Oriakhi, Arinze Onuaku and... Dwayne Collins, who was selected by the Suns with the 60th pick in the 2010 draft. Collins wasn't even listed on the Suns Summer League roster in their media publication. I didn't even realize it was Collins until after he threw down a put-back dunk. Collins donned the #60 on his jersey.
"Dwayne Collins had a knee injury that was pretty bad and took him a few years to recover from. We got a call from his agent a few months ago who said Dwayne is doing better and would like to come in and work out," said McDonough. "He's been working with our coaches on the floor. He's been working with our strength and conditioning coach and our trainers. He's finally getting to where his body and knee feels good. When he's healthy he's pretty explosive around the basket. He's just getting back into game shape now, but physically there's a lot of stuff to work with."
Oriakhi, Onuaku and Collins could be competing for one roster spot. It would be hard to imagine the Suns keeping more than one of them since they duplicate each other's skill sets. With no assurances that the set of bigs currently on the roster will be intact on opening night it leads me to believe there is at least a possible opening here.
Despite the levity surrounding a Summer League romp, it is just that.. a Summer League romp. These proceedings need to be put in perspective. That being said, it just felt different to me than the last time I was around the team in this type of setting.
Many of us (Jim raises hand) at least somewhat bought into the false hope that the organization was selling heading into last season. Maybe this season the team will just let the results speak for themselves instead of making lofty, unrealistic propositions. Not to say the results will be lots of wins (because they won't), but a plan to build around a young core looking to the future would be refreshing.
It's been difficult to watch the Suns these past three seasons because there didn't seem to be a clear strategy. There wasn't something concrete to point to as the foundation for a new successful era. Last season was especially painful. It's one thing to watch young kids with potential take their lumps as they grow as players. It's a completely different, and unsavory, scenario to watch veterans who have already hit their ceiling get pummeled on a nightly basis. Last season the savage beatings piled up like circling vultures around a purple and orange carcass.
It didn't feel like I was watching a dying team last night. It felt like I was watching a growing team.