Summer League: Game One – Suns vs. Blazers

Credit: Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports
Credit: Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports /

There isn’t usually a buzz surrounding NBA Summer League games. I’ve never seen such a collective interest in a summer league game amongst Suns fans. I guess it makes sense, since this isn’t your typical Suns’ Summer League team.

For starters, one of the leagues’ best sophomores is playing for Phoenix in Devin Booker (who did not disappoint). The other reason NBA fans are paying attention to the Suns is because they are filled with young talent. Specifically the recently signed trio of rookies: Dragan Bender, Tyler Ulis, and Maquese Chriss. Even the Suns veteran players had their curiosity peaked enough to show up in Las Vegas and get a closer look at their new, young co-stars.  Suns owner Robert Sarver was spotted by Paul Coro with Jared Dudley and TJ Warren. Then Coro realized he underestimated just how large the Suns contingent at the game was.

Summer league is filled with players who are either rookies, sophomores, or guys who haven’t been able to break into the league. Generally, Summer League rosters don’t have any already established players, which makes the presence of Devin Booker strange. He is still one of the youngest players in basketball, and needs the practice, but Summer League also brings the additional risk of injury.  At 19-years-old, Booker is young, but clearly a cut above the rest. Today Booker and former Kentucky teammate and best friend Tyler Ulis were in complete control as a backcourt throughout the game. Ulis showed off excellent decision making and elite level efficiency in his time on the court. If Ulis wasn’t listed at 5’10, he would be generating a lot more buzz of his own.

One thing proved clear, Devin Booker is too good for summer league.

Booker was aggressive in the post, from outside, and, well, everywhere. When his man would slack off, he’d pull up for three. If his defender was pressing him, he’d beat them off the dribble and create a passing lane or easy bucket. Booker couldn’t even miss the shots he was shooting for fun, banking in a 27-foot three after a stop in play. Booker isn’t expected to play the full set of Summer League games, and for good reason, he’s a step above the competition.

Bender impressed with his ability to impact both ends of the floor with his height and hustle. Bender’s length stands out on the court, whether it’s passing/shooting over smaller defenders, or protecting the rim, he’s got elite size. His length and lateral quickness are his main assets on defense and  Bender showed good defensive instincts, and is always looking to make sure he is in defensive position. On one play, Booker was beat off the dribble and Bender helped to contest the shot (a fraction late) and forced a miss. Bender ended up getting called for a foul, but it shows he is at least paying attention to rim protection.

Bender’s greatest asset may be his motor. He’s non-stop. Whether he is defending the in-bound, to grabbing a defensive rebound and running the floor, Bender never stops moving. Dragan showed off a diverse skill set on offense. He looked good in catch-and-shoot possessions, transition and the low post. His post game needs work, but there is already a solid foundation. Bender drew an offensive foul by being too aggressive in sealing off a smaller defender in the post, a foul the Suns coaching staff should be fine with. European-born players have always had the stigma of being “soft”, despite the evidence to the contrary for years. Bender is a skinny guy, so intensity and aggression are going to be important on both ends of the floor.

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Bender stood out on offense because of his incredible length and fluidity of his game at his size. Bender uses his court vision to space the floor and hit the open man nearly every time he’s available. There were multiple plays where Bender was in control of the offense at the top of the key, beat his man off the dribble and made the smart decision. One area of promise, yet improvement for Bender is his shooting. Bender didn’t make any of his five three-point attempts in the first half, but the key stat there isn’t the zero, it’s the five. Bender shows off confidence in his shot, and there is nothing about the way he shoots it that would signify he can’t improve. His shot both in catch-and-shoot, and spot up 3-pt situations looked effortless, despite the misses.

Marquese Chriss didn’t have quite the same debut, but showed the fans in attendance exactly why the Suns drafted him. Chriss’ athleticism was on display on both ends of the floor. He used his quickness to beat his man off the dribble and then drew the foul. Although Chriss got dunked on in an attempted block at the rim, and needs to improve his strength, he showed an instinct for contesting shots at the rim. Chriss had four points and four rebounds in the first half, and showed off both the athleticism that Suns’ fans are so enticed by, and room for improvement in his understanding of the Suns’ schemes. Chriss was not a factor in the second half and disappeared front the game at times. However, he overall showed that with time, his promise is unlimited.

It was only one summer league game, but Devin Booker, Dragan Bender and Tyler Ulis gave the Suns a lot to look forward to in the upcoming season. Bender in particular inspired confidence of the NBA experts watching. For live tweets of the action check out my twitter @sunsdebate.

It may take a lot fewer than five years to realize the Suns have special talent in Bender. One fact is clear, Suns’ fans should be excited about the team they will be watching this season.

Tune into Summer League for a look at the future that has everyone in the Valley of the Suns so excited.