PHOENIX – It’s funny to think Kendall Marshall as the longest-tenured Phoenix Suns point guard on the roster.
The expectations of replacing Steve Nash weren’t heaped upon his shoulders when the Suns drafted the North Carolina product 13th overall in 2012, at least not by the team and especially not once Goran Dragic signed weeks later. Nonetheless, Marshall’s single season in uniform made heads shake, unfairly for a few reasons.
“I think I’ve grown the most mentally,” Marshall said at media day. “I kind of struggled confidence-wise, you know, knowing what I can and can’t do on the court last year. Even at training camp last year I was lost. Going into it (this year) I’m a lot more confident knowing what I have to do to help this team.”
Whatever the case may be, Phoenix had the chance to sign Dragic in free agency and did, giving the young Marshall time to learn from the bench. The trade for Eric Bledsoe this season and the drafting of Archie Goodwin likewise threatened Marshall’s role on the Suns. For good measure, so do the training camp presences of Ish Smith and Malcolm Lee.
Nothing changes for Marshall, as far as he’s concerned. If anything, the threat of losing playing time will act as a catalyst for the second-year point guard to improve.
“It kind of happens at different times for different guys,” Marshall said. “It doesn’t (change my role). My job as a basketball player is to get better and find ways to help my team. I’m excited about the pickups we did make.”
Marshall’s theme for himself and the team this year is to “stay the course.” As flawed as he might be in a number of ways, he’s immensely talented in one. And for who else was on the draft board, last year’s draft wasn’t all too impressive outside John Henson and Mo Harkless, who were selected immediately after Marshall. The sad state of the 2012 draft class could change, but it’s the situation just a year removed. And that’s the whole point.
Marshall only had half an NBA season as a backup point guard. And being a pass-first and pass-only point guard won’t go well on a team that last year was a terrible shooting team and less than athletic.
Coach Jeff Hornacek has said Marshall is one of the more impressive players at training camp through four days in Flagstaff, according to Paul Coro. It makes sense in a way. Marshall thrived at North Carolina in an offense that started with a rebound and turned into a track meet. Marshall’s best asset in the fullcourt is pushing the ball up with the pass, something he tried often with the Suns last season – it just resulted in turnovers.
As Ryan Weisert detailed this summer, Marshall is flawed even in the fullcourt. He has very poor acceleration and his decision-making was flatout bad; he turned the ball over on 40 percent of transition opportunities.
The good news is that both of those issues can be cured to a degree.
Marshall has trimmed down. At a legitimate 6-foot-4, he said that chasing around speedy point guards on defense is the biggest issue. The weight loss could also do him well in transition.
It’s no secret Marshall’s offensive question-marks involve his lack of athleticism and poor shooting stroke. In the Las Vegas Summer League, a topsy turvy performance by the Suns point guard overall wasn’t as inconsistent in terms of his shooting. He hit just 38 percent overall, similar to last season’s numbers, but hit 40 percent of his threes. Not so bad considering all the technical issues with a shot that moves through the air like a knuckleball.
“A lot of it is just repetition and confidence,” Marshall said of his shot. “When I shoot confidently it’s not a bad shot. Technically, the main thing I just want to focus on and remember is to get air on the ball and get it up in the air.”
Hornacek told The Arizona Republic’s Bob Young that Marshall’s release point could be a lot higher, something that likely hasn’t changed since the summer league. Even on pick-and-rolls, Marshall will have trouble finding penetration, let alone getting that low shot off.
If there’s hope that Marshall can improve, look no further than another NBA backup point guard. Denver Nuggets guard Andre Miller has a striking resemblance to Marshall as a big, less-than-athletic point guard with a wonky and low shooting stroke. When the Suns played Denver last season, Marshall picked up on the intricacies just playing against one of his personal favorites.
“In the first half, closest to that bench, he’s coming off a pick-and-roll and I’m trying to push him to our big man who’s sitting there waiting on him,” Marshall said. “All he did was — right before he curled off the screen — he’s dribbling the ball, he bumps me, takes one dribble and pulls up where I can’t contest it.”
Marshall is smart enough to see the detail. The pressure is on him to use that knowledge to improve. Considering the roster situation and the Suns needing to decide whether or not to pick up the extension for the third year of his rookie deal, he has every reason to play well in camp.
For Marshall, this season will about be earning playing time and then shucking the idea that his draft stock got a misleading boost by playing with a unique, fitting roster at North Carolina. If he keeps the team in mind rather than get caught up in his own struggles, the better off Kendall Marshall will be.
“We stay the course,” he said. “I think that should be the focus for us this year, is realizing instant gratification isn’t always going to be the best. As long as you stay the course and try to get better, the end of the season will be success.”