Jeff Hornacek has developed a winning bench

Going into the season, there were many unknowns about the Phoenix Suns. Most experts expected them to contend for a top-5 pick in the NBA Draft as they struggled with a team full of young players. Instead, the Suns raced out to a 19-11 start and were challenging for a top-5 seed in the Western Conference until Eric Bledsoe went down with an injury.

As the midway point of the season approaches, the Suns are 23-17 and still in contention for a playoff spot, something no one predicted in October. Few, if any, guess that’d be the case. Something else people may not have predicted was how quickly the chemistry of the team, and specifically the bench, would gel.

With Bledsoe out, the second unit has kept the Suns afloat.

“They play together and everyone enjoys the game,” Goran Dragic said of the second unit. “A reason we are so successful is the first unit and bench play well, and we need them in this league on back to backs and playoffs.

“They play team basketball, and everyone is happy on the floor and this is important.”

The bench has been among the strongest in the league this season by averaging 36.9 points per game, which is good for fifth in the league. It currently has four players — Gerald Green, the Morris twins and Leandro Barbosa — averaging more than 10 points per game, though Green has started the past 10 games for Eric Bledsoe and Barbosa has only played in five games.

Markieff Morris won the NBA Player of the Week award in November and remains the only NBA player that has won it while coming off the bench so far this year.

Coach Jeff Hornacek’s confidence in the group has grown throughout the season, and it showed on Sunday night against the Denver Nuggets, when he went with his bench in the fourth quarter to close out a 117-103 victory.

“They were big,” Hornacek said. “There are times we will need our starters to play big minutes and we had a tough schedule recently.

“March will be an even bigger emphasis on having those guys play well to give those guys big minutes. You can’t play 82 games with just five guys.”

Hornacek is a player’s coach.

The other day after practice, he spent over half an hour drilling Archie Goodwin and Dionte Christmas before then participating in a half-court shooting contest. The head coach taking the time with the two third-string guards perhaps exemplifies why the bench unit has played with a “next-man-up” mentality this year — and has done well doing so.

“We are family and every player is a part of the family,” Dragic said.

Also credit Hornacek with development of point guard Ish Smith, who has only played in more than 10 minutes of a game on 19 occasions through the team’s first 40. Since Bledsoe went down, Smith has turned into a change-up type of point guard who has put pressure on opposing defenses.

“Ish is doing a great job of pushing the ball and getting other guys shots,” Markieff Morris said.

Just as importantly, Smith has added personality to the team and has improved upon the lacking chemistry from last season. Called “Worst” by some of his teammates — apparently he has the worst behavior on the team — Smith says the bench unit has simply related well with one another.

“It really is how we are all around the same age, we understand each other,” Smith said. “When we are serious we are serious, but we also know how to joke around a little bit.”

Off the court, shopping outings have become a main source of entertainment for the team. Both Smith and Goodwin name P.J. Tucker as the biggest shopper of the team, and Goodwin calls Tucker’s wardrobe of studded leather, sleeve-less hoodies and too many shoes to count, “extravagant.”

The team loves to joke around off the court, but it is the way they help each other on the court that is the most impressive. It can be very easy for a player like Smith to shut-out the younger Goodwin as they compete for minutes. But it has not stood in the way of them helping each other get better.

Almost daily, a group of Green, Goodwin, Smith and Christmas will stay late to play games of 2-on-2 or get up shooting drills.

“It’s working every day,” Smith said. “It’s a long season, and you have to continue to get better.”

The Suns’ bench unit hasn’t been this tight-knit since the 2009-2010 season, when the Suns were two wins away from making the NBA Finals. That year, a strong 10-man rotation that included Dragic and Barbosa contributed to a deep postseason run. While there are similarities between that bench mob and this year’s to-be-named group, there is still a ways to go for the 2013-14 version to match the 2010 second unit.

“We were the number one scoring bench that year,” Dragic said. “It’s tough to compare them.

“They are a lot more younger and I’m excited with our future.”

Barbosa is back to add an offensive punch, and rookie Alex Len appears ready to solidify his place with the second group as a defensive presence it’s lacked so far. As for a group nickname, that has yet to come, but the Suns may be close to coming up with one.

“We’re going to get it from Sosa, Barbosa, he’s going to come up with it,” Morris said.

Tags: Goran Dragic Ish Smith Jeff Hornacek Markieff Morris Phoenix Suns

  • Gary Boersma

    I could not have worded it better myself. This team with all there new young players to include their newest addition with Barbosa an old favorite of all the spectators in phoenix have made tremendous expectations in team efforts as the suns have over achieved in their ratings as a team that could possibly
    be in the race for play off run this year. Just keep up the good work, play team basketball and have fun.

  • Foreveris2long

    While a lot of fans including me, have frustrations on any given night, from top to bottom this team is a joy to watch and has exceeded all of my expectations. Looking at the teams chasing the Suns for a playoff spot, Denver and Memphis have at least as many road games the rest of the season as the Suns. I think Memphis has 25 road games left and Denver has approximately 20 road games (about the same as the Suns).

    Glad to hear the Suns truly enjoy each other off the court. The extra time they spend after practice will continue to better prepare them for when they are up next.

    I think the toughest decision facing the Suns is whether to make a trade by the deadline without knowing how well Bledsoe will perform by early March. Before Bledsoe’s injury I was 100% behind a move to solidify our playoff positioning. Now I am not sure how much I want to trade away to secure the 8th playoff spot. Tough call.

  • EBJM

    So Hornacek won the contest, right?

    Anybody else catch Dragic’s “I’m excited about OUR future?”

  • BCrayZ

    Jeff is very dedicated.

    Suns are fortunate to have him at the helm.

    Both excited & nervous to see how Jeff’s new offense of driving past defenders running at the 3-point line will work. This is about to get a huge test in tomorrow night’s game. Will help if he can move Barbosa into Eric’s starting spot. This way he & Gogi & even Frye can set up for a trey, then drive by oncoming defenders. Gogi & Frye have that successful history & chemistry together with our Blur from that deep playoff run, four years back. Hope they can start fast & have the Pacers backpedaling the rest of the game. Make it so Jeff.

    MUST start & ALSO finish with LB. Let’s go SUNS!!!!

  • .

    I HEAR JEFF GREEN IS ON THE TRADE BLOCK…I wonder if McD plans to trade for him. If so this would be a good deal:
    plus one 1st rounder and 2 2nd rounders

  • Melon Man

    I bet coach Hornacek did win that contest. I remember as a kid at Bill Frieder’s basketball camp Hornacek came and talked to us youngsters. It didn’t take long for someone to challenge him to shoot a half court shot and I believe he made it on either his first or second try. What an amazing shooter.

  • Jeffrey Sanders

    Yes, EBJM

    Hornacek wins most of the shooting contests that he participates in.

  • Danc133

    We don’t need Lou shoot the goof that says it!

  • Danc133

    Sanders you don’t know jack about practices or who wins what

  • EBJM

    I hope Hornacek gives Len maximum burn against Hibbert.

    Thanks Jeff, I figured as much. I always attributed Dan Majerle’s emergence as a three-point shooter to Hornacek.

    Green should watch Majerle game film and Frye film of Tom Chambers. If Green and Frye would drive to the hoop like those two, well……they would be a whole lot better players.

  • Luka

    There is a strong possibility that Ainge will move Jeff Green at the trade deadline. Suns could cash in. I think Jeff Green would give the Suns a solid floor spacer, and someone who can also attack the rim at the same time. Get it done McDonough!

  • Rich Atchley

    How about a discussion on naming the Suns bench mob? My vote is for “MOBZILLA”…. a cross between the Suns bench mob and the Sun’s mascott the Gorilla.

  • Rich Atchley

    Re: Phoenix Suns bench nickname
    I previously sent an email recommending the nickname “mobzilla”. However, apparently there is a video game with that name already. Therefore, my revised vote would be for “mobzillaz”… A cross between the bench mob, phoenix suns mascott The Gorilla, and Arizona (AZ).

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