Even as the Phoenix Suns put themselves in the middle of seemingly every offseason transaction, even after acquiring a slew of new players, there was still emphasis placed on those who remained.
Internal progress was needed as much as external, especially with the latter coming short in the category of "go-to guy."
No one on Phoenix's roster spoke of becoming that guy, nor did anyone expect them to. The Suns are a group of somewhat-talented, somewhat-promising and ultimately limited players. It's what made those who have yet to hit their respective limits, or ceiling, so important to the team's success. Those still young enough to improve needed to, or any and all hope of an overachieving season would be lost.
It's too early to say Phoenix still can't exceed expectations, but concern exists because factors for such overachievement are missing, namely from some of the Suns' younger, significant role players.
Chief among them is Jared Dudley, the only team captain who plays significant minutes (Jermaine O'Neal is the other captain). The former Boston College standout has seen his stats rise every year since 2008-09, culminating in 12.7 points on 48.5 percent shooting and 4.7 rebounds per game last year.
Dudley was particularly effective after the All-Star break last year, and with Steve Nash and Vince Carter gone he became a leading candidate for raised productivity this season. Team captaincy and familiarity were yet more reasons to expect much more. Indeed, Dudley himself embraced such expectations.
Of everyone on the Suns' roster, who most needs to step up?
"I feel like I've always been a natural leader," Dudley was quoted to say by ValleyoftheSuns.com.
“I’ve been to the Western Conference finals and know what it takes to get to that level,” was another confident proclamation from Dudley, this one made to the Arizona Republic.
Seven games into the season, Dudley is averaging a paltry 8.3 points and 2.6 rebounds per game while shooting just 31 percent from 3-point range. He has also seen some of his minutes go to reserve swingman P.J. Tucker for reasons for more concerning: hustle. Once Dudley's trademark before developing offensive ability, energy and effort are now sought elsewhere when Phoenix needs an in-game jolt.
Dudley had his best game of the early season in Saturday's blowout loss to Utah, posting 16 points on 7-of-10 shooting to go along with two blocks and two steals. It's the kind of line Phoenix needs (albeit in a winning effort) on a consistent basis to stay afloat in the standings despite enduring a period of transition.
Dudley is not the only underachieving performer thus far. Second-year big man Markieff Morris was likewise expected to provide a bigger punch down low after posting 7.4 points and 4.4 rebounds per game in his rookie campaign.
Instead Morris' production has dropped in every statistical category, most glaringly from the field (30.5 percent).
As the first and only significant big man of the bench, Morris' lack of impact is troublesome given Phoenix's desire to keep Luis Scola's minutes manageable and to provide support for center Marcin Gortat.
There are still 74 games remaining in the regular season. If Dudley and Morris do not step up, however, Phoenix won't need nearly that many contests to play themselves out of playoff contention.