After finishing with the worst record in the Western Conference before the All-Star break, the Phoenix Suns have a new look in their game-by-game rotation. Some of that has to do with their only trade before the trade deadline, in which they sent P.J. Tucker to Toronto for now-free agent Jared Sullinger and two second-round draft picks. Yet the shuffling did not end there.
Alan Williams, Tyler Ulis, and Derrick Jones Jr. have become regulars off the bench during the Suns’ last five games while Tyson Chandler and Brandon Knight have lost their playing time. Williams, in particular, has burst into the Phoenix and NBA scene as one of the most surprising players in the second half of the season.
Five games is a small sample size for an unknown, but his consistent production in those games look sustainable thus far. Before the break, he had three occasions where he scored in double figures, and he had at least 11 rebounds in each of them. On Nov. 18, a night in which the Suns’ bench scored a league-high 78 points, Williams had 15 points and a career-high 15 rebounds to help the Suns rout Indiana.
Since the roster mix-up, he has reached double figures in each game, including a career-high 17 points in a four-point loss to Milwaukee. He completed the double-double in three of those five games: 15 boards in Milwaukee and a combined 25 rebounds in Phoenix’s two home wins against Charlotte and Oklahoma City.
Williams is not a dunker, nor does he have the height (6’8”) or speed that some of the best centers boast. What he does have is a soft, and amazingly accurate, floater and hook shot and an outstanding IQ. He has hounded defenses by creating or finding space inside the paint while opponents stare at the quick Ulis. He has a quick release to avoid blocks, but the rushed shots have also gone in regularly. Friday’s victory over the Thunder was the first time this season in which Williams failed to shoot at least 50% on more than three attempts, and he went 7-15 in that game. He was part of a balanced attack that somehow bested Russell Westbrook’s 48-point night.
His IQ has led to a handful of key blocks. While he only has 21 blocks this season (0.8 per game played), Williams had three against the Thunder. He has done an excellent job at positioning himself so that shooters looking for a layup think they can pass him to the hoop. Blocks are easier to obtain off to the side because opponents cannot adjust their shot selection for defenders they cannot immediately see. Williams has the intangible skill of playing the game away on the ball on both the offensive side and defensive side, and head coach Earl Watson has noticed it and rewarded the Phoenix native with more playing time.
The UC-Santa Barbara graduate is likely the least flashy player out of the three Phoenix players to get a recent jolt in playing time. Jones, who had almost no NBA game experience when he finished second in the NBA Slam Dunk Contest, has caught the fans’ attention with his continued rim rocking.
Meanwhile, 2016 second-round pick Ulis, who won the Bob Cousy Award, SEC Player of the Year, SEC Defensive Player of the Year, and a first-team All-American in his third and final season at the University of Kentucky in 2016, saw a little more action in the first half of the season. He, however, has heavily benefitted while playing with Williams. He has at least seven assists in each of his last three games after having no such games beforehand, and that includes a career high eight assists in the 17-point win over the Hornets.
Phoenix’s two recent wins against potential playoff teams may be concerning for fans hoping for a top pick, especially since Friday’s win pushed the Suns past the Lakers in the Western Conference standings. The question is whether the Suns need such a high pick when they are likely getting a top five pick anyway.
While second overall pick Brandon Ingram has been miserable on offense (he was scoreless against the Celtics on Friday), the Suns have had a great year developing their young talent. Aside from strong performances from Devin Booker and TJ Warren, Marquese Chriss has established himself as an everyday starter. With the added wave of youngsters, who includes the refreshingly old-fashioned Williams, the Suns have a lengthy roster of future everyday players that could be fearsome in the near future.
Imagine how much more formidable the Suns could be if 19-year-old Dragan Bender lives up to being picked fourth in this year’s draft?
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