Phoenix Suns training camp battle: Matt Janning vs. Zabian Dowdell vs. Chucky Atkins


PHOENIX — The Suns have been searching for that third point guard to give Steve Nash a blow in practice and push Goran Dragic. Phoenix now has a decent crop of players to choose from in Matt Janning, Zabian Dowdell and Chucky Atkins.

All three come entered training camp in completely different situations — Janning an undrafted rookie, Dowdell a 26-year-old still searching for a home and Atkins an NBA veteran at the end of his career.

Which one will win the battle and earn that roster spot? Here’s the lowdown on each candidate:

PG/SG — Matt Janning

Unlike most of the Phoenix Suns, when you first see Matt Janning you don’t automatically think NBA ball player. The 6-foot-5 guard resembles the rail-thin, token white boy that’s overlooked — a theme throughout most of his basketball career.

Janning said that he’s been doubted “at every level that I’ve ever played at.”

“People even in high school they say, ‘You’re not going to play varsity.’ I played varsity,” he said. “Coming out they say you’re not going to be able to play at the Division I level, I obviously did that. And then people doubted my professional ability, too, so it’s always just trying to prove to myself that I can do it after hearing everybody else say that I can’t.”

The Northeastern sharpshooter has spent his entire basketball life proving people wrong, and he did it again when he signed a two-year, minimum salary deal with a small guarantee in early August.

Janning was a standout at Northeastern, playing in 129 games, averaging over 30 minutes per game all four years and scoring in double figures ever season, including 15.6 points per game his senior season. But yet, Janning went undrafted.

He played for the Celtics in the Orlando Summer League, but found a home in Phoenix after shining for the Suns in the Vegas Summer League.

Janning originally thought he would have to spend a few seasons overseas, but his summer improvement impressed the Suns enough to bring him on board.

“I elevated my game to a point where I can play at this level now,” Janning said.

Despite his partially guaranteed contract, nothing is set in stone for the Suns. Phoenix could easily shed his contract if head coach Alvin Gentry and his staff see better things from Dowdell or Atkins in camp. But that challenge excites the rookie.

“They obviously brought in these guys and myself to compete for that guard spot that they want,” Janning said. “It’s going to be fun competing with them.”

What he thinks he offers: “I can hit threes, good outside shooter, I can get to the basket, and then also I think one thing that really elevates my game is being able to play the one and the two. Being versatile, things like that are really going to help me long run in the NBA.”

Janning on his chances: . “I feel confident that if I can keep playing the way I have been that they make the decision to keep me around, but it’s all about going to camp and earning that spot for me now.”

What he needs to do to make it: If Janning can prove that he can play the point effectively and continually play at an NBA level, he should walk away with the job. If he shows that he isn’t much more than a shooter with a decent handle, he could be in trouble.

Prediction: Janning is on the opening day roster.

PG/SG — Zabian Dowdell

Janning has the upper hand with a somewhat guaranteed contract, but Zabian Dowdell is a familiar face for Phoenix, and he has all the confidence in the world when it comes to making the Suns.

The 26-year-old, 6-foot-3 combo guard played for the Summer Suns for the past two seasons and was set to join Suns training camp in 2009 before injuring his ankle. But the journeyman is back sporting purple and orange, hoping to land the NBA job he’s been after since he left Virginia Tech in 2007.

“I know I’m a good player,” Dowdell said. “I have all the confidence in the world. It’s just all about going out there and playing hard and doing what you’re capable of doing.”

Dowdell oozes confidence, and despite never logging a minute in an NBA game, has the swagger of a long-time veteran. But his NBA dream has yet to fall into place.

He was a projected first-round pick in 2007, but he never heard his name called. He hopped on the Supersonics’ 2007 summer league squad, but never stuck and opted for Italy.

After the aforementioned ankle injury leading up to 2009 Suns training camp, Dowdell played four games for the Tulsa 66ers. From there he received an offer to play in Spain, which he didn’t pass up.

Needless to say, Dowdell has been around the world and back and has yet to find a comfortable NBA job. But the combo guard doesn’t see his lack of success in the league as a failure.

“I’ve visited a lot of great places, had chances to see a lot of great things,” Dowdell said. “I wouldn’t trade it for the world.”

But there’s no hiding that the NBA is where Dowdell wants to be. Since he left Virginia Tech in 2007 he’s been searching, and feels he deserves a roster spot as much as anybody else.

“When I’m on the court I feel like I’m the best player. I’ve always had that mentality. That’s just the type of guy I am,” he said. “I work hard, I put time into my game, I feel that strongly about my game. I’m a competitive guy, I just feel like I’m the best player when I’m out there.”

What he thinks he offers: “I think I can do a little bit of everything. I’ve led my teams in scoring, I’ve been the best defender on the team, I’ve been the guy to kind of run the team, run the offense. As a player you have to be versatile, you have to be able to do different things and I think that’s one of my biggest strengths, I can do more than one thing.”

Dowdell’s chances: The journeyman has almost as good of a shot as Janning to make this team. He could contribute right away, and the Suns obviously like him after bringing him back for the second consecutive year. Right now the edge goes to Janning, but Dowdell isn’t far behind.

What he needs to do to make it: “I’m just going to go out there and showcase my skills. I’ve been playing the game long enough to know what to do.”

Prediction: Dowdell barely gets beat out by Janning, but if the Suns decide to take 15, he will be the guy.

PG — Chucky Atkins

Unlike Janning and Dowdell, the 36-year-old point guard needs no introduction. Chucky Atkins is the epitome of a backup point guard, and has experience playing on good teams.

If the Suns are focusing solely on this season, Atkins is a no-brainer. He’s played on eight different teams, he’s playoff tested, and he can contribute right away.

The question is, how much does he have left in him? Atkins was able to play 16.1 minutes per game in 40 contests for Detroit last season, but he’s getting up there.

Another question is, are the Suns looking for longevity or a quick fix? They want someone who can give Nash rest in practice and push Goran Dragic, but is Atkins the guy to do that? He seems like the right choice given his background, but depending on what the Suns want, it might not be that easy.

What he offers: Atkins brings experience and leadership.

Atkins’ chances: Considering the fact that not many people even knew he was invited to Suns training camp, I don’t think the Suns expect him to be in purple and orange next season. He certainly ramps up the competition for the third PG spot, but I don’t see him making the team.

What he needs to do to make it: Prove he still has something left in the tank and that he’s willing to push players like Dragic in practice, rather than laying back like a lot of veterans do.

Prediction: Atkins won’t be in Phoenix at the start of the season.