Phoenix Suns: The best reason to expect a bright future

The Phoenix Suns finished a remarkable season certain of their legitimacy among the NBA playoff contenders.

With back-to-back victories in San Antonio, the Suns completed a 51-21 regular season — unreal considering the depths from which they have risen in two short years.

Regardless of what happens in a first-round series against either Golden State or the Los Angeles Lakers, the Suns have their fans eager for the present as well as the future.

The Phoenix Suns are built for the long haul, with evidence for optimism up and down the roster.

The obvious weapon is youth. The Suns’ core players — with the exception of Chris Paul — are in the process of proving they’re not done exceeding expectations.

Even as the team readies for its first playoff appearance since 2010 — and carries plenty of firepower and momentum — the future is even brighter.

Phoenix Suns weapon No. 3: Deandre Ayton.

Deandre Ayton is 22. The big man may never be the first-team All NBA center perhaps befitting a No. 1 overall pick, but he’s made major strides in 2021.

Ayton missed his first game all season on Thursday night, a key point since — as coaches like to say — the most important ability is availability.

Ayton cut down on his turnovers this season (from 2.1 to 1.5, quite an improvement) and his ability to produce in traffic — including corralling tough passes and trick rebounds — has seen positive steps forward.

Ayton is a quick study, and there have been plenty of voices in his ear this season. He’s improved his field-goal percentage from 54.6 to 62.6 and his Net Rating has ballooned to 6.3 from 4.0 last season.

Phoenix Suns weapon No. 2: Mikal Bridges.

Mikal Bridges is 24. The versatile forward has dramatically improved his scoring, defense and all-around decision making.

Bridges is putting up 13.6 points per game while improving his 3-point percentage from .361 last season to .424 in 2020-21.

Bridges has become the most reliable fast-break finisher, too, drawing comparisons to the way James Worthy of the Showtime Lakers capped the Magic Johnson-led fast breaks back in the day.

Bridges has bettered his rebounding and assists while reducing his turnovers.

Nothing but upside here.

Phoenix Suns weapon No. 1: Devin Booker

Devin Booker is 24. The All-Star scorer is the heart of this team and also flexed upside in 2020-21.

Booker is a bucket. Every contending team needs to know it has a dependable source for points. Booker leaves no doubt.

Booker has ascended to elite levels with his midrange shooting. He and teammate Chris Paul are 1-2 in 2-point field-goal shooting outside the paint.

Booker went from a 1.9 plus/minus last season to 4.9 this season and has been busy, ranking ninth in the NBA among Usage Percentage leaders.

Booker has reduced his turnovers and saw his Offensive Rating rise to No. 12 in the NBA, with his Net Rating moving from 4.9 last season to 7.2 in 2020-21.

Again, the stat trend is only moving up.

Other Suns youngsters on the rise include Cameron Payne, 26; Cam Johnson, 25; Jevon Carter, 25.

And, if they all return, 27-year-old Dario Saric, along with 30+ guys Torrey Craig, Jae Crowder and the ageless Chris Paul figure to give the Suns a great chance to defend their Pacific Division title.