Jared Dudley will continue as Phoenix's one given

PHOENIX — Jared Dudley’s career could be misleading because of his style.

Maybe it’s because while it feels like the Phoenix Suns guard has been in the NBA for a decade, he’s only finishing up his fifth year in the league. As one of the better — if not the best — quotes in the locker room, it’s hard to believe he’s only 26 years old.

It’s also hard to conceptualize how the 22nd pick by the Charlotte Bobcats in 2007 was a throw-in when the Suns acquired Jason Richardson. The man was starting as Richardson’s replacement this past season, and while one could argue that represents a fault of Phoenix’s management, there’s nothing bad about someone taking advantage of an opportunity.

“I thought this year for me, I took a step in the right direction starting and improving my game from last year,” Dudley said in April. “I want to continue improving.”

At 12.7 points, 4.6 rebounds and 1.7 assists per game, Dudley’s not blowing anyone away, but his career trajectory hasn’t yet peaked. Instead, it’s slowly but surely creeping upwards in relevance, and for a Suns team that missed out on the playoffs by a few games, that relevance can be marked by the small forward’s PER of 15.48, which was third on the team behind Steve Nash and Marcin Gortat.

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Along with Grant Hill, a slimmed down Dudley pulled much of the weight in the Suns’ perimeter defense. His minutes shot up to 31.1 per game, yet he still was smart enough and had the legs to shoot at a career-best 48.5 percent on the year.

Simply put, Dudley is one of the few guys that we know will be around next season, and there’s little doubt his role will not diminish.

So why was Dudley so important to the Suns this season, and why will he continue to be a key cog in Phoenix’s future plans?

Spreading the floor

Like Channing Frye, Dudley’s importance as a long-range shooter is paramount in Phoenix’s system. While his percentage from beyond the three-point line dipped to 38.3 percent in the 2011-12 season, Dudley’s catch-and-shoot ability — Dudley was assisted on 98.8 percent of his three-pointers, according to HoopData.com  will be even more important next season.

Asked what the Suns need the most next season, Dudley’s hopes purposely or inadvertently shed light on what will help him as a individual player the most.

“We definitely need someone to be able to score, to demand a double in the post,” Dudley said. “Teams like the Spurs want to switch all big screen-and-rolls … we had trouble with (Utah Jazz center Al) Jefferson where we didn’t want to double, he scored, we finally doubled and they put you in rotation.”

With a post scoring threat, Dudley will thrive. Even without one this season, he still remained pretty efficient.

In a worst-case scenario where the Suns don’t sign such a player and fail to re-sign Nash, Dudley hanging out around the perimeter will still be helpful to Gortat, who will be working on his individual post game this offseason.

But if opponents are running Dudley off the line, that’s not the worst thing because of …

The improved mid-range game

From the 2010-11 season to the 2011-12 season, Dudley did transition from the bench leader to a starter, and his minutes increased from 26 minutes to 31 minutes per game. Remember, that difference of five minutes is likely higher considering the Jason Richardson trade happened midseason, but we’ll stick to the stats by season for simplicities’ sake.

Dudley attempted an average of 2.2 more field goals in those five minutes, and the biggest bump in his shot attempts came from 16-23 feet, where he averaged 1.0 more shots in that range between the 2010-11 season and this past year. And from the past year, his average of 49 percent in that range was a 3 percent improvement.

That makes Dudley the 23rd best NBA player from that range, according to HoopData.com — most of the best players in this range are pure shooters like Nash, Stephen Curry and Steve Novak, or set-shooting power forwards like Dirk Nowitzki, Nick Collison and Zaza Pachulia.

But considering only nine of those players ahead of Dudley in accuracy are guys I’d consider regular rotation players and only seven played more than 40 games this past year, can we say Jared Dudley is one of the best mid-range shooters in the game today?

The Suns’ glove

Grant Hill was the primary perimeter defender when it came down to locking down the NBA’s most deadly scorers, but his return to Phoenix is in question as much as his return to an NBA court.

If Hill’s no longer in a Suns uniform, it’s on Dudley to cover the Kevin Durants and Kobe Bryants of the league.

Dudley said he’ll be improving his defensive skills from a basketball IQ and a physical standpoint this offseason. He’ll spend much of his time at home in San Diego.

“Defensively taking that next stride … I don’t know if G-Hill will be here, if he is here, just feeding off him,” Dudley said. “If he’s not here, just taking that role of being one of the perimeter defenders, and that’s something I need to improve on in watching film and working on my body and lateral quickness.”

There’s little doubt Dudley will continue inching along in his improvements. And with so many questions this offseason, his presence next year — no matter how his role changes — surely will be one that head coach Alvin Gentry can count upon.

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