Fate dealt Eric Bledsoe a cruel blow when the Phoenix Suns guard went down with a knee injury that required season-ending meniscus surgery. Two years after recovering from a similar injury to his other knee, Bledsoe has to face his athletic mortality and deal with the possibility of adjusting his game, which is based primarily on his jaw-dropping athleticism, while at the height of his powers. At 26, Bledsoe was emerging as one of the best point guards in the NBA and he was the only thing keeping the Suns afloat amidst a season from hell where nothing has gone right.
Following the signing of Tyson Chandler in the offseason, Phoenix was expecting to emerge from the middle of the pack in the Western Conference and win a playoff spot. Chandler was supposed to provide veteran leadership for a young team and improve them as a roll man and a rim protector. Instead, the Suns have regressed on both sides of the ball and have been one of the most disappointing teams in the NBA. Even with Bledsoe, the odds of them turning things around weren’t great.
With Bledsoe on the shelf and Markieff Morris playing like a shadow of himself following the trade of his twin brother, there’s almost no one left from the Suns' unlikely run to an 48-season two years ago. Goran Dragic, Gerald Green, Channing Frye, Marcus Morris and Miles Plumlee are all gone, taking whatever optimism that was generated in Hornacek’s first season in charge. If there’s a bright side for the Suns, it’s that the implosion of this year’s roster allows them to focus on what they should have been doing all along. The original plan when Ryan McDonough took over was for them to rebuild through the draft and now it’s time to see what the players he drafted can do.
TJ Warren: The No. 14 pick in last year’s draft, Warren has more than held his own after spending most of his rookie season on the bench and in the D-League. Warren is averaging 11.5 points and 3.8 rebounds on 51.7% shooting in only 22.4 minutes a game this season and he is coming off the best game of his young career against the Oklahoma City Thunder on New Year’s Eve - 29 points, 9 rebounds, 3 assists and 4 steals on 17 shots.
At 6’8 220 with a 6’11 wingspan, Warren is a good athlete and a pure scorer with an uncanny ability to score from every part of the floor. He has a bewildering array of floaters, great touch around the rim and the ability to create a shot either off the dribble or in the post. Like most combo forwards in the modern NBA, he’s a better fit as a PF than a SF, where he can take advantage of having more space to operate in and attack bigger and slower defenders.
Warren can score playing off the ball but he needs the ball in his hands to maximize the strengths of his game and the Suns need to see whether he can function as a primary option on offense. If he can improve his three-point shooting (41.6% this season on 1.4 attempts a season) and his playmaking ability, there’s no ceiling to his ability as a scorer. The better he can play on defense, meanwhile, the more the Suns can play jump-shooters who compliment him on offense.
Devin Booker: The youngest player in the NBA and the No. 14 pick in the 2015 draft, Booker was overshadowed on a Kentucky team where he came off the bench and was one of four future lottery picks. He has a chance to be another draft coup for McDonough - one executive from a lottery team told me he was getting looked at in the Top 5 by the end of this year’s draft process.
Most of the optimism about Booker surrounds his jumper. He’s a pure shooter and the rare young guard who hasn’t needed to adjust to the longer NBA 3-point line. Booker shot 47.0% from the field, 41.1% from 3 and 82.8% from the free-throw line as freshman at Kentucky and he is shooting 48.6% - 51.4% - 78.9% as a rookie in the NBA. He has a smooth stroke, a quick release and the ability to put the ball on the floor and attack a defense when they press up on him.
The concern about Booker is the rest of his game, as he’s not a great athlete, he doesn’t have a large reach (6’6 200 with a 6’8 wingspan) and he had a limited role at Kentucky where he wasn’t asked to do much but spot up and play off their big men. If he can just hold his own at the other facets of the game, though, he can provide a ton of value with his ability to threaten a defense from 25+ feet - an elite shooter who can be multi-dimensional on offense is a defense’s worst nightmare in the modern NBA.
Alex Len: Len is in his 3rd season in the NBA and he’s still only scratching the surface of his game. At 7’1 260 with a 7’3 wingspan, Len has great mobility for a guy with his immense size and the potential to be a high-level contributor on both sides of the ball. He has all the tools - the ability to score with his back to the basket, step out and knock down a mid-range jumper, roll to the rim and catch lobs in the pick-and-roll, move his feet in defense and to play above the rim and clear the defensive glass.
His game has taken a step back this season thanks to Chandler’s presence and Morris’ regression but his per-36 minute numbers - 13.1 points, 11.1 rebounds, 1.4 assists, 1.0 steals and 1.7 blocks on 46.1% shooting - are still encouraging for a 22-year old C. He doesn’t always look like a natural out there, he makes a lot of mental errors and he still needs to get stronger but the only way he’s going to improve is to get out on the floor and play through his mistakes.
Signing Chandler made sense when they were trying to go after LaMarcus Aldridge in free agency and build a relevant team around Eric Bledsoe and Brandon Knight but all he’s doing on a bad team is blocking playing time for Len. Morris is a similar impediment at PF, as his presence means Warren gets a tougher individual assignment on both sides of the floor, takes the ball out of his hands and clogs up the lane.
It’s hard to know what they could get for Chandler and Morris in the trade market but they need to de-emphasize them either way. A lost season is the perfect time for the Suns to play Len, Booker and Warren as much as possible in roles that emphasize their strengths in order to figure out exactly what they have. And if Bledsoe can come back and play with three guys who have gotten better in his absence and a high lottery pick, Phoenix might not be down too long.