PHOENIX — Veteran-laden.
It’s a term not often thrown around when describing Summer League teams, but one that is more than apropos for the contingent the Phoenix Suns will be marching out on the Las Vegas hardwood over the next 10 days.
The Suns, who open Summer League play Saturday night at 5:30 p.m. against the Portland Trail Blazers, have a roster filled with players — Kendall Marshall (14.6 minutes per game), Marcus Morris (16.1 minutes per game), Markieff Morris (22.4 minutes per game) and P.J. Tucker (24.2 minutes per game) — who contributed notable minutes at some point during the 2012-13 season.
But while having a veteran group in July might seem like a good problem to have, in the case of the Suns, it’s also a sign of the times. As the Suns transition into full-on rebuild mode under the direction of general manager Ryan McDonough and head coach Jeff Hornacek, they must first establish the worth of their current personnel — which is made up of several unknown commodities.
None more so than the final first-round draft pick of the Lance Blanks era, Marshall.
Marshall, who was selected No. 13 overall out of North Carolina in the 2012 NBA Draft, didn’t exactly receive a lot of playing time under former head coach Alvin Gentry — 49 total minutes before his departure on Jan. 18 — and didn’t exactly earn the minutes he was awarded — three double-digit scoring games over the final three months — under interim head coach Lindsey Hunter.
In all, the 2012 Bob Cousy Award winner played in 48 games, averaged 3.0 points and 3.0 assists per game and more or less lived up to the scouting report most teams had on him going into the draft: a point guard with great vision and handles, but who often times is an offensive liability due to a flat, inconsistent shot.
The 21-year-old won’t deny his shooting numbers (37 percent from the field and 31 percent from three-point range) left something to be desired, but he’ll also will be the first to mention he feels a whole lot more confident going into his second appearance at the Las Vegas Summer League.
“My game is much more advanced this time around,” Marshall said. “Last year in Summer League, I was still lost. I was just kind of out there moving around, not really leading. One of better qualities is leadership, and I feel like I’ve done a much better job with that the last couple days and plan to do the same when we’re in Las Vegas.”
It doesn’t hurt, either, that the inexperienced guard gets to learn under the tutelage of Hornacek and the rest of the Suns coaching staff.
“Playing right now under the entire staff is great,” said Marshall. “We’re learning the defensive concepts that we will be asked to use during the season. It’s great to be around them, because we’re hearing directly from them how we’re going to do things this year. There’s no arguing that, this is how it’s going to be. And I think that’s great for us.”
Although Marshall admittedly has enjoyed interacting with Hornacek and Co., the question remains how much longer will he get the chance to do so?
While the second-year guard was honing his skills in preparation for the Summer League, about a few hundred feet down the hall at US Airways Center Thursday, point guard Eric Bledsoe — the prized gem of a three-way deal with the Los Angeles Clippers and Milwaukee Bucks — was being shown off to the Valley media.
A simple look at the math would indicate that even if Bledsoe and starting point guard Goran Dragic share the back court at times in 2013-14, there still won’t be many quality minutes for Marshall to get on the court.
Nevertheless, he’s not all that concerned about potentially being the odd man out. His focus, instead, is on improving his jump shot.
“I still feel like I’m a contributor right now,” said Marshall. “Then again, I know it’s just my second year in the league, so it’s still about getting better. That’s where my focus is. I want to be able to do both and part of that is me improving and being able to knock down open shots.
“My confidence in the shot is a lot greater than it was last year. At the end of the day, you’re going to either make it or miss it. And it seems like they already expect me to miss it. But it’s a process, it’s not something that just improves over night. The greatest shooters in our game didn’t necessary become what they were in one year. Jason Kidd couldn’t shoot for years, and now he’s one of the top three of all-time. It’ll take time, but I know the time I’m putting into it will pay off.”
When Lance Blanks pulled the trigger on a trade for Houston Rockets forward Marcus Morris on Feb. 20, the Suns former GM thought it would be just the move to ignite his brother, Markieff, the Suns’ first-round pick from 2011.
Like most moves Blanks made during his tenure, the trade didn’t quite play out according to plan.
According to 82games.com, the Morris twins played 120 minutes together during after the trade and finished with -43 plus/minus rating.
From Feb. 27 to March 11, Marcus Morris played some of the best basketball of his career — double-digit scoring in four of five games – but things quickly went downhill from there. Over the final 18 games, he stopped scoring, he stopped hitting perimeter shots, he stopped driving to basket with his 6-foot-9 frame and ultimately, he stopped playing.
On the other hand, Markieff Morris was tremendous over the final 18 games. The former Kansas standout recorded nine games of 10 points or more and 10 games of seven rebounds or more during that span.
The short-term result of the trade left many wondering if there was really a need to have both twins on the roster, let alone on the court at the same time. What the combination may have worked for Bill Self in Lawrence, it appeared to be a failed experiment in Phoenix and one that highlighted the players’ shortcomings rather than their strengths.
With that said, head coach Jeff Hornacek said the organization still wants to see a bigger simple size and that the twins will play plenty of minutes together in Vegas – primarily with Markieff at the four and Marcus at three.
“For me, it’s just a chance to get better going into my third season,” Markieff Morris said. “It’s never bad to get some extra time out on the court especially when I get to do it with Marcus [Morris].”
The 23-year-old combo forward believes the duo’s best days are still ahead of them.
“It’s great, because it allows us to get back to what we did in college together,” said Marcus Morris. “We always push each other to pick up the slack. I think we make each other better and that will show this summer.”
The coach’s take
Before heading to Vegas this week, the Suns’ Summer League squad took part in a three-day minicamp, which featured multiple Two-a-Day practices. The sessions left head coach Jeff Hornacek with plenty to talk about on a variety of topics. Here are some of the best:
“What’s great is that we are already showing [the veteran guys] how hard we work. They’re going to have to be ready to do that. I don’t know what they’ve done in the past, guys come from places or different situations where they don’t practice or don’t practice hard. But, we’re going to go hard and they at least understand that. We’re just trying to do that to make them better players.” — Hornacek on working with players who were on last year’s team
“We’ll they’re still one and two-year guys, it’s not as if they’ve been around for eight years. We expect them to kind of go out there and be our main guys right now. During the season they might not be your main guys, but during the summer at the position they’re at – you know Markieff was a main guy towards the end of last year – but being a main guy doesn’t mean that you don’t do all the little things to help all the other guys. We’re not out here to train those three or four guys. We want to play the right way.” — Hornacek on the idea of having a “veteran” Summer League roster
“The biggest thing with him is that he is a competitor. He’s in great shape, these practices have been hard with a lot of running, he’s right at the front of it all the time. Just the fact that he’s picking up things quickly [has been impressive]. You tell him something one time, and he does it right the rest of the time. You don’t have to repeat it over and over again. That’s always great from a coaching staff’s perspective.” — Hornacek on first-round pick Archie Goodwin
“It’s good training for how things are flowing, the timing of things and putting in plays. If these guys can get it at this pace then our veteran guys should be able to get it at this pace, too. It helps us with timing issues for when we get back to training camp for the real thing.” — Hornacek on coaching the Summer League team in preparation of the 2013-14 season