After a year away from the court, Suns’ Channing Frye beginning to look like the player of old


PHOENIX — Two years ago, he was a focal point of the offense. Two months ago, his status for the season was unknown. Two weeks ago, he was a liability — slowly trying to work his way back after missing the entire 2012-13 season due to an enlarged heart.

But that was then, and this is now.

After two of his most impressive halves of basketball on the young season, Phoenix Suns power forward Channing Frye is back.

Back in the sense that questions about his conditioning, his shot, his medical history are becoming fainter and fainter to the point of being mistaken for mere whispers.

Wednesday night’s performance — scored a season-high 25 points in 41 minutes of action — was just the latest evidence that the former Arizona standout is inching closer and closer to becoming the player he was before his year-long hiatus from the court.

That charismatic hometown kid, who with the flick of a wrist ignited an entire fan base on several occasions from 2009-12, is still very much inside of him.

“I think his conditioning is getting better,” Suns head coach Jeff Hornacek said. “You know, when he was running down the court to start the season — I don’t know how to explain it– he was just kind of plodding down the court. Now he’s running a little bit. I still don’t think he’s probably in the best shape of his career, but he’s getting there.

“That’s always the case, when you’re in shape and you’re running up and down the court, if your legs aren’t tired it’s a lot easier to shoot shots. I think that’s what’s happening now when he’s shooting those shots, and he’s making him.”

When Frye began the season as the team’s starting four it made for a rather feel-good story. But that heartwarming tale of redemption quickly took on a rather negative theme, as the seven-year pro looked like a shell of his former self.

Oct. 31 vs. Blazers Seven points on 3-of-7 shooting

Nov. 1 vs. Jazz – Four points on 2-of-7 shooting

Nov. 5 at Pelicans – Four points on 2-of-6 shooting

Nov. 6 at Spurs – Three points on 1-of-4 shooting

Nov. 8 vs. Nuggets – Seven points on 2-of-10 shooting

Nov. 10 vs. Pelicans – Three points on 1-of-6 hooting

Nov. 13 at Blazers – Two points on 1-of-6 shooting

Nov. 20 vs. Kings – Zero points on 0-of-3 shooting

Yet even as Frye struggled to work his way back into playing shape, Hornacek didn’t sit him. He didn’t reduce him to bench minutes or replace him with Markieff Morris, who was named Western Conference Player of the Week on Nov. 11.

The way Hornacek saw it, it was only a matter of time.

And while the poor performances continued to mount, Frye admitted that he didn’t get discouraged. Instead, he spent extra time working on becoming more aggressive with assistant coaches Mark West, Kenny Gatison and Irving Roland, even picking their brains on how teams might game plan to defend him.

The work has begun to pay off.

For the first time since April 2011, Frye has strung together four consecutive games of double-digit scoring. And during the Suns’ second-quarter comeback effort in a 120-106 victory over the Portland Trail Blazers Wednesday night, Frye’s 11 points proved instrumental.

“It’s huge,” Frye said of his conditioning. “I mean today, I was like, ‘Coach I’m not tired.’  I was frustrated with how we were playing [in the first half]. We weren’t running. We weren’t getting stops. So Coach [Hornacek] trusted me and put me back in for the remainder of the first half. I couldn’t have done that about two weeks ago.

“Defensively as well, being physical with LaMarcus [Aldridge] like that. He’s a load down there, so playing him, having to guard Robin [Lopez], then guarding Thomas Robinson, then guarding [Joel] Freeland. You have to be in really good condition. I finally feel like I’m getting my strength. It’s something I have to continue to progress on and keep working on. Mike Elliott has done a great job challenging me and making sure things are working and firing. I’m just out there playing basketball. That’s what every NBA player wants, to go out there and not have to worry about anything.”

No one is more excited that Frye is starting to play freely again than Goran Dragic, who along with the 6-foot-11 forward carried Phoenix’s bench during the team’s magic run to the Western Conference Finals just four years ago.

Wednesday, the duo was at it again, recording 23 of their combined 56 points in the contest’s pivotal second frame.

“It was great [to see him play like he did Wednesday],” Dragic said. “He spreads the floor. He gives us open lanes to drive the ball in. And when they help, he’s always open. He knocks down those shots. That’s something great for us, to have a positional four who can stretch the floor like that.

“He’s really a great player, and I am happy for him that he’s come back. He brings a lot to this team.”