Growth of Suns’ youngsters more important than Western Conference Finals appearance


PHOENIX — There are two distinct types of teams in the NBA: those putting all of their effort into chasing a championship and those developing young talent in preparation for a hopefully bright future.

But like GM Steve Kerr hoped would happen, the Phoenix Suns were able to merge the two this season and get to the Western Conference Finals while developing youngsters like Goran Dragic, Robin Lopez and Jared Dudley.

“It’s a great sign for the future of our organization because we’ve got a lot of young talented fighters and some vets who have mentored those young guys, and I think it’s a really good situation,” Kerr said.

“The young guys were phenomenal,” Steve Nash added. “It was really important for the success of our team that they develop this year. Goran, Robin, Jared, all of those guys.”

Remember the days when the Suns were scrambling desperately for Steve Nash’s backup? Remember when they yearned for that defensive-minded center with some size? Yes, it was only a year ago.

Dragic and Lopez were written off after last season, but thanks to Alvin Gentry’s bench love and the hard work of the second-year players, they saved the future of the Suns and made it OK that they don’t hold a 2010 first-round draft pick.

They made it OK that the Suns weren’t able to win a championship in what may be the last year of the Nash-Amare duo. They made it slightly OK that they might lose Amare Stoudemire for nothing this offseason.

Not only did Dragic become a suitable backup point guard for Nash, he proved that he is indeed the successor of the two-time MVP and holds the keys to the future of the team. Backup point guards don’t score 23 points in the fourth quarter of a second-round playoff game, point guards of the future do and Suns players and coaches alike have nothing but good things to say about the once-timid Dragic.

“He just proved himself,” Kerr said. “We just felt like he could do that all along, but just the fact that he did it on the biggest stage. The guy’s fearless, and he’s really talented and he can get a lot better.”

“I think he’s gotten better the more confident the more comfortable he feels he plays at a real high level,” added head coach Alvin Gentry. “I think the other thing you can see is he’s an unbelievable competitior. He’s an aggressive player and I think he feels like he belongs now, and that’s a huge key for us.”

While Dragic took over offensively at times, Lopez proved he’s much more than just a serviceable big man who can take up space and provide minutes. He showed he has some offensive upside when he scored 20 points in Game 3 of the Western Conference Finals in only his third career playoff game. The seven-footer made his presence felt defensively changing games from the minute he was inserted into the starting lineup during the regular season.

And people tend to forget about Jared Dudley, who only has one more year of experience than the 2008 draftees. He was considered a throw-in to the Jason Richardson deal, but he proved to be every bit as valuable as J-Rich this season, and he’s only improving.

Remember that this was a guy who did a lot of his damage in the post when he earned ACC Player of the Year honors at Boston College, but he adjusted his game to the Phoenix Suns’ style of basketball, led the bench unit and finished the regular season fourth in the NBA in three-point percentage (45.8 percent).

Needless to say, the ability of these youngsters to develop gave the Suns a future after Nash and Amare.

Kerr can sleep well at night just thinking about the 23 fourth-quarter points Dragic scored against the Spurs, or the way he took over and gave the Suns a chance after taking a blow to the chin from Sasha Vujacic.

He can live with the heat that he took for some trades he made knowing that Dudley is becoming a Shane Battier type defensively while lingering around the top of the NBA in three-point shooting. He can now live with the fact that he took a raw defensive-minded center 15th overall in 2008.

The Phoenix Suns now have a future, starting with the two most important positions on the court — point guard and center. Add in their potential cap room if Amare doesn’t re-sign and after J-Rich comes off the books after next season and the Suns will surely avoid the post-Nash hangover seasons many have predicted for them.

The most important thing is that the Suns are developing their talent from within. The nucleus of this team will most likely be Dragic-Dudley-Earl Clark-Lopez, who are all on rookie contracts and three of whom were drafted by the Suns.

By building talent from within, money is then available to tweak the roster and add important pieces that fit needs. The progress of these youngsters is undoubtedly the silver lining of the season in which the Suns were two wins shy of reaching the NBA Finals for the first time since 1993.

When people look back at the Phoenix Suns’ 2009-10 campaign, they will think about their playoff run and eventual loss to the Lakers in the Western Conference Finals. But the important thing isn’t that they got to the West Finals, rather that they were able to build a future for themselves along the way.

“I think this year showed that the future’s bright, there’s a lot to look forward to, and things can be turned around, so we’re all proud of that,” Grant Hill said.