University of California San Diego stands apart from most other public universities. A typical state school forces its students to find their way in a sea of 20,000-40,000 people just like them. UCSD, on the other hand, breaks its student body up into six smaller colleges. Each college offers a unique educational experience, and each new student chooses which college they wish to join. That choice is the first of many every UCSD student makes as they strive to find out who and what they are.
The Suns have spent the last week at UCSD hoping to answer those same questions. Phoenix’s training camp culminated today with a full intrasquad scrimmage, so as the team heads back to AZ, let’s take a look back at the last five days to see what the Suns have learned so far.
Phoenix added several new faces this offseason, including Goran Dragic, Michael Beasley, Wesley Johnson, and Luis Scola. While Dragic was unable to participate in training camp because of a twisted ankle, the other three wasted no time in making an impression on the coaches and their teammates.
Wesley Johnson, who was traded from Minnesota this summer, caught the eye of many in attendance. Suns.com writer Stefan Swiat was pleasantly surprised by Johnson’s athleticism and long range accuracy. Paul Coro of AZCentral.com noted Wesley’s potent scoring punch in scrimmages early in the week. Both writers also remarked that coach Alvin Gentry’s was attempting to instill more confidence in him.
“I had to stop him today and say, ‘Hey, that shot right there, we want you to shoot and if you shoot it 20 times, you shoot it 20 times,’” Gentry said.
Johnson blossomed in college only after Jim Boeheim gave him the confidence to shine. Maybe a month with Gentry will have the same effect in Johnson’s third NBA season.
As written by our own Kevin Zimmerman yesterday, Jared Dudley seems to be asserting himself as the leader of this team. Dudley is now the longest-tenured member of the Suns, and while he might not be the most talented man on the roster, he proves himself to be the most dedicated day after day. Dudley is currently engaged in a battle with Shannon Brown to be Phoenix’s starting shooting guard. Jared’s 31 points in today’s full scrimmage will no doubt help his case to win that spot.
Aside from shooting guard, the rest of the Suns’ starting lineup is settled for now. Dragic, assuming his ankle heals quickly, will start at point guard. Beasley and Scola will start at the three and four, respectively. And the Polish Gazelle (more on this later), Marcin Gortat, will start at center.
Although these spots are decided, the rest of the roster is not yet set. Sebastian Telfair and rookie Kendall Marshall are battling for the backup point guard spot. With Dragic out, these two were opposite one another for each and every scrimmage. Both have played fiercely, but neither has gained an advantage yet. A stalemate is probably a win for Marshall as he is the first-round draft pick and is under contract for far longer than Telfair.
Every media member covering training camp has noted how good backup center Jermaine O’Neal looks. Even though he’s very unlikely to dislodge Gortat from the starting job, O’Neal pushing Marcin to be better can only help Phoenix this season. For more on Jermaine, check out his blog on Suns.com.
As for Gortat, he told Paul Coro, “I’m in incredible shape. … Trust me, I can outrun everybody, even point guards.”
Hence the new nickname, Polish Gazelle. I’ve always thought Gortat was very fleet of foot for someone his size. If he’s actually increased his quickness and agility, he could really take the next step as an interior scorer, even without Steve Nash to feed him.
Another player who is definitely looking to prove himself in camp is Markieff Morris. Morris starred in the team’s second scrimmage of the week and followed it up with 23 points today. Just like Marshall and Telfair, Scola and Markieff battled all week long in practice. Markieff is by far the more physical player of the two, but Scola is as patient, polished, and consistent as big men come in the NBA.
Fueling this contest, is the fact that both players had great offseasons. Morris dominated NBA Summer League, while Scola led the Argentine national team in the Olympics as the veteran squad’s captain. Scola put up huge scoring numbers for Argentina, who made it all the way to the bronze medal game before losing to Russia.
Morris is still maturing and growing as a player. Scola is who he is at this point in his career, but how effective he can be in the Suns’ system is still to be determined. I expect these two to battle for playing time all year long. One advantage Gentry might have is the ability to play them together if the Suns go small with a frontcourt of Beasley, Morris and Scola.
So there is still much to be decided on the Phoenix roster, but for the first time in a long time, Gentry and the rest of the coaching staff have two things they haven’t had in a while: youth and flexibility. This roster will be molded throughout the preseason and the subsequent 82-game schedule, but the Suns’ fate is far from decided. If today’s scrimmage is any indication, Phoenix’s ceiling may be higher than expected.
The rosters for the scrimmage, which you can see here, basically amounted to first unit versus second unit (with Dragic sitting out). The starters were Team Black and the second unit was Team White. Dudley led Team Black in scoring with 31 points on 11-of-11 shooting, and Morris led Team White with 23 on 9-of-15 shooting (including 8-of-9 from inside the arc.)
Team Black pulled out the victory, 83-81, with Team White’s Shannon Brown missing the game-winning three as time expired. Brown played aggressively, but was outshone by Dudley’s stellar game in his hometown of San Diego. Morris had a great night scoring, but Luis Scola’s overall line was equally impressive (13 points, six boards, and five assists.)
Wes Johnson scored 12 points and had a much more efficient night than Michael Beasley, who hit only four of his 16 shots. Ike Diogu and Jermaine O’Neal were both impressive in the paint. O’Neal was efficient scoring around the rim and Diogu had two monster dunks and one monster slam miss. Both guys should bring a level of physicality to the paint that the Suns haven’t had in a long while.
The scrimmage was hard-fought and incredibly close — a fitting end to training camp in La Jolla, Calif. Our friends at BlogNBAsketball.com did a live blog, which you can read here, and wrote some follow-up impressions here. Visit Paul Coro’s blog for the “official” stats.
From here, the Suns will head back to US Airways Center for a few practices before their first preseason game. Phoenix squares off with the Kings in Sacramento next Wednesday with their first regular season game tipping off only three weeks after that. The Suns still have much to learn, but there is nothing but positivity coming out of this camp, and it appears the Suns are off to a great start this season.