Growth of Suns’ youngsters more important than Western Conference Finals appearance

The development of Goran Dragic, among others, was even more important than the Suns' deep playoff run. (AP Photo/Chris Carlson)

PHOENIX — There are two distinct types of teams in the NBA: those putting all of their effort into chasing a championship and those developing young talent in preparation for a hopefully bright future.

But like GM Steve Kerr hoped would happen, the Phoenix Suns were able to merge the two this season and get to the Western Conference Finals while developing youngsters like Goran Dragic, Robin Lopez and Jared Dudley.

“It’s a great sign for the future of our organization because we’ve got a lot of young talented fighters and some vets who have mentored those young guys, and I think it’s a really good situation,” Kerr said.

“The young guys were phenomenal,” Steve Nash added. “It was really important for the success of our team that they develop this year. Goran, Robin, Jared, all of those guys.”

Remember the days when the Suns were scrambling desperately for Steve Nash’s backup? Remember when they yearned for that defensive-minded center with some size? Yes, it was only a year ago.

Dragic and Lopez were written off after last season, but thanks to Alvin Gentry’s bench love and the hard work of the second-year players, they saved the future of the Suns and made it OK that they don’t hold a 2010 first-round draft pick.

They made it OK that the Suns weren’t able to win a championship in what may be the last year of the Nash-Amare duo. They made it slightly OK that they might lose Amare Stoudemire for nothing this offseason.

Not only did Dragic become a suitable backup point guard for Nash, he proved that he is indeed the successor of the two-time MVP and holds the keys to the future of the team. Backup point guards don’t score 23 points in the fourth quarter of a second-round playoff game, point guards of the future do and Suns players and coaches alike have nothing but good things to say about the once-timid Dragic.

“He just proved himself,” Kerr said. “We just felt like he could do that all along, but just the fact that he did it on the biggest stage. The guy’s fearless, and he’s really talented and he can get a lot better.”

“I think he’s gotten better the more confident the more comfortable he feels he plays at a real high level,” added head coach Alvin Gentry. “I think the other thing you can see is he’s an unbelievable competitior. He’s an aggressive player and I think he feels like he belongs now, and that’s a huge key for us.”

While Dragic took over offensively at times, Lopez proved he’s much more than just a serviceable big man who can take up space and provide minutes. He showed he has some offensive upside when he scored 20 points in Game 3 of the Western Conference Finals in only his third career playoff game. The seven-footer made his presence felt defensively changing games from the minute he was inserted into the starting lineup during the regular season.

And people tend to forget about Jared Dudley, who only has one more year of experience than the 2008 draftees. He was considered a throw-in to the Jason Richardson deal, but he proved to be every bit as valuable as J-Rich this season, and he’s only improving.

Remember that this was a guy who did a lot of his damage in the post when he earned ACC Player of the Year honors at Boston College, but he adjusted his game to the Phoenix Suns’ style of basketball, led the bench unit and finished the regular season fourth in the NBA in three-point percentage (45.8 percent).

Needless to say, the ability of these youngsters to develop gave the Suns a future after Nash and Amare.

Kerr can sleep well at night just thinking about the 23 fourth-quarter points Dragic scored against the Spurs, or the way he took over and gave the Suns a chance after taking a blow to the chin from Sasha Vujacic.

He can live with the heat that he took for some trades he made knowing that Dudley is becoming a Shane Battier type defensively while lingering around the top of the NBA in three-point shooting. He can now live with the fact that he took a raw defensive-minded center 15th overall in 2008.

The Phoenix Suns now have a future, starting with the two most important positions on the court — point guard and center. Add in their potential cap room if Amare doesn’t re-sign and after J-Rich comes off the books after next season and the Suns will surely avoid the post-Nash hangover seasons many have predicted for them.

The most important thing is that the Suns are developing their talent from within. The nucleus of this team will most likely be Dragic-Dudley-Earl Clark-Lopez, who are all on rookie contracts and three of whom were drafted by the Suns.

By building talent from within, money is then available to tweak the roster and add important pieces that fit needs. The progress of these youngsters is undoubtedly the silver lining of the season in which the Suns were two wins shy of reaching the NBA Finals for the first time since 1993.

When people look back at the Phoenix Suns’ 2009-10 campaign, they will think about their playoff run and eventual loss to the Lakers in the Western Conference Finals. But the important thing isn’t that they got to the West Finals, rather that they were able to build a future for themselves along the way.

“I think this year showed that the future’s bright, there’s a lot to look forward to, and things can be turned around, so we’re all proud of that,” Grant Hill said.

Tags: Goran Dragic Jared Dudley Robin Lopez

  • Sean

    No question that the growth of the young guys was inspiring, and it's a great foundation for the future. I'm hoping that Earl Clark can develop and become sort of a hybrid Amare/Marion, or at least that type of player.

    One overlooked thing that's important about the Suns WCF run is the extra cash it brought to Sarver and the team. Do you have any idea how much money the playoff run might have brought the Suns?

  • Kyle

    Why should J-Rich automatically be written off after his contract expires? I get that alot of people don't think he meshes with the Suns too well, but he's proved to put up numbers in important games. He's also been a big offensive threat who can make outside shots or take it to the rim.

    When the Suns traded for him I actually gave it a year before he demanded a trade to another team that was willing to run more plays for him. But he's never complained about minutes, attention, star-dom or anything the way that Marion did.

    Who would J-Rich's replacement be? Barbosa? I'd like to think so but I don't think the team sees Barbosa as a consisten starter (which is too bad, I do).

  • rtz

    I know this is probably going to sound outrageous but I'll ask it anyway. If Amar'e opts out and Barbosa is traded, is it even remotely possible that Lebron is doable?

  • Mel.

    @ rtz: Financially, you could cook up an NBA Live '10-style scenario that would give the Suns enough cash to provide a max-money offer for Lebron.

    That said, I don't think PHX is even on the big guy's radar. The intangibles–such as location, the degree of captainship allowed, the regional competition and the "big pond" ticket that's making places like Chicago and New York the primo contenders on his FA tour–just aren't happening with the Suns. They're a meat and potatoes team (Albeit with an "au gratin/julienne" flair), given to guys who grit, grind and let their game speak for themselves. I think a Lebron signing would look a lot like when Shaqtus came to town, with a deeper playoff run.

    Though honestly, I have no clue how LBJ would mesh with Gentry's system. I don't think it would be an ill fit… but swapping out Amar'e (Who could subtly vanish during 32 minutes of play, only to magically produce a 20-10 line) for a guy who's going to be an offensive outlet (Who KNOWS he's going for a 20+-10 line on any given night) could blow out the whole rebuilt engine.

    Anyways, it's a pipe dream, but a fun one to waste bandwidth writing about. As for J-Rich, he's no less volatile or consistent than STAT is; I honestly believe that Amar'e leaving would provide a catalyst for the guy to start making his big numbers a nightly routine. For all the talk of the Suns being a "three-star team," I have to think that a player with Richardson's competitive streak would rise to the occasion in the scenario of a "one-and-a-half-star-team." Maybe not all the way to the WCF (Sans a major roleplayer signing), but a less sketchy performance than we saw throughout this year.

  • Brian

    I think Richardson is a pretty consistent player at this point and he’s probably just into his prime as a player. I hope he sticks around.

  • Ace Phoenix

    Yes, the Suns have a seemingly bright future after a few of the young guys played well in a nice playoff run. If it sounds familiar to valley sports fans, it should, just replace Suns with D-backs, and see where the young talent got them.

    Not to sound like a pessimist, but we need some reality splashed in here.

    Nash will be one year older, which means a lot more minutes for Goran, how does his body hold up to the extra time on the court. Will he continue to grow his offensive game and become consistently aggressive. Further and more importantly, can he develop defensively so that he can keep other teams PGs out of the paint. It all starts at the top with the defense and I think Dragic can do it, but questions do remain. That said, I love Goran, he is rapidly becoming one of my favorite Suns and I fully expect him to take the title from Ginobili this year as best foreign guard in the game.

    Dudley, what can you say, his energy is contagious and his personality really helps blend the team. More importantly his basketball IQ really adds to the team, especially on the defensive end. Can he consistently shoot two seasons in a row, can he continue to refine his slashing game and still keep playing consistent defensively, all while possibly playing 5-8 more minutes a night in the 25 range? Big questions, from a guy who did it on big stages in college and thus far in the Pros. Anyone who was ACC player of the year, I don't care what year, they are welcome on my team.

    Lopez, wow, he has some serious game and his ability to run the floor as a seven footer can drastically change this team. Of course it all starts and ends with his back, if he can get and remain healthy through the season and into the playoffs, well, the sky is the limit with him. There is slowly a growing number of quality big men in the league (i.e. Bogat, B. Lopez, Howard, Bynum, etc.) and this guy certainly has the ability to establish himself as one of the best. It all comes down to health and that is a big question for such a big man.

    So with these three in particular, questions remain, but yeah, they have a chance to be part of something big. The contract situations are good so we can avoid a D-backs like fiasco and sign them as appropriate after consecutive years of production.

    Earl Clark, I sure hope you are watching and learning, something tells me you will have your rotation opportunity next year, are you going to be ready my man?

    JRich and Amar'e are my guys, I want them on my team. Amar'e just keep the $17 million and cash in next year when you will own the market not be an asterisks on the year of LeBron. JRich you proved to me you know what it takes to get it done on this team as the third man and still grind out the 20 points. I hope you both stay on my team for a long time. That said, let's keep working on the defense, which you both showed this year you could play pretty well. Now do it consistently. Amar'e there is no reason on earth that you are not considered with Dwight Howard for defense player of the year other than you. I'd love to see it, how would that be for a free agent offseason, no LeBron, defense player of the year and maybe even an appearance in the Finals, can anyone else offer you that and $17,450,000….

    Thanks for the season, good luck Suns, let's make the most of the offseason, let me know how I can help.


  • Tony

    The problem is the owner. Is Steve Kerr going to stay or take Doug Collins job at TNT? Will Sarver step up and pay Kerr and Gentry what they are worth. I heard Gentry is like 28th in the league in pay. I also heard players had to PAY for their families tickets to go to playoff games. As positive as the season was, I am hearing that there is an underlying sense of bitterness because Sarver is so cheap, he has yet to reward anyone on staff for that great season. Watch out, Kerr might bolt to TV, and Gentry to another coaching job where he's appreciated.

  • Michael Schwartz

    @Sean I've been wondering that myself. I'd love to do a story on that, but I can't figure out where I can find those official numbers. I will let you all know if I find something. What we do know is that there were eight home playoff games, so it's got to be a pretty substantial amount of dough.

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