Point guard Goran Dragic (left) with interim head coach Lindsey Hunter.
Going into the upcoming offseason, the Phoenix Suns will have a lot of issues to address.
To truly "fix" the state of the roster, the Suns will have no choice other than to add talent. This can come in a number of ways, either through free agency, the draft or in a trade.
However, there are no superstar free agents for the Suns to target this summer. They may have two lottery picks, and they do have the cap space to sign or trade for an above-average player, but for the most part, the roster will not see so many drastic changes. The wisest move for the Suns right now would be to continue to collect young talent and assets and rebuild, all while looking for that future franchise player.
But with that being said, the Suns do want to improve and avoid dropping to last place in the Western Conference for the second consecutive season.
So how do the Suns avoid that fate?
By putting an emphasis on player development. This has already been happening under interim head coach Lindsey Hunter, and the Suns are already seeing the effects. Now, next season, the Suns need to continue to develop their young talent if they want to avoid another disastrous season.
Part of the reason Lindsey Hunter took over as coach in January was to start a "youth movement." And while you may be able to criticize the Suns for their lack of wins in recent months, you certainly can't say that Hunter hasn't brought out the best in some of the young talent on the roster.
Let's start with Goran Dragic, the 26-year-old Slovenian point guard and indisputable MVP of the Suns this season. This is already Dragic's fifth season, so at first glance you might think that he has reached his ceiling and has no more growing to do.
However, Dragic has been taking his game to new heights in recent months, and hopefully he will be able to continue this All-Star level of play in future years.
Dragic is averaging 14.6 points, 7.1 assists and 1.5 steals per game this season, and those numbers are far from being eye-popping.
However, Dragic has been on a roll since the All-Star break. In March, Dragic averaged 16.1 points, 3.8 rebounds and 8.5 assists while shooting 47 percent from the field and 31 percent from three-point range. That stat line is about equal to other great point guards such as Brandon Jennings, Ty Lawson and Jrue Holiday.
Dragic also had six double-doubles for the month and has topped 20 points five times since the All-Star break. He has taken over as not only the team's go-to scorer, but as the Suns' main facilitator. Dragic is doing it all right now, and Suns fans could not be more pleased.
One of his greatest games came just a few days ago against the Golden State Warriors. Dragic tied a career-high 32 points on 11-of-13 shooting, and although the Suns ultimately lost, he absolutely took control of the offense all night long.
The video below shows Dragic's highlights of the game, and he was able to do it all. He has enough quickness and explosiveness to get past his defender and drive to the rim, but he also has a great mid-range and three-point shot that he uses regularly. He controlled the pace on offense, and despite the fact that he had just three assists in that game, he has been able to set up teammates with some beautiful passes in recent games.
Many people may not realize this, but Dragic is a solid all-around player who can contribute on both ends of the floor. Dragic is actually one of just four NBA players this season to average at least 14.5 points, three rebounds, seven assists and 1.5 steals. The others are LeBron James, Jrue Holiday and Russell Westbrook—some elite company in which to be grouped.
Dragic has been magnificent since the All-Star break, and hopefully this is the level we will see him playing at consistently in the future. If Dragic continues to grow as a player and consistently dominates all aspects of the game like he has in recent months, he could even potentially be an All-Star soon enough.
But the growth doesn't just stop with Dragic. Wesley Johnson is another prospect who has flourished since Hunter took over, and he is starting to prove that perhaps he wasn't a bust in the 2010 NBA draft.
Johnson started receiving a large amount of minutes in March, and he simply hasn't looked back. In his last 10 games, Johnson is averaging 14.5 points, 3.1 rebounds and 1.1 steals while shooting 40 percent from the field and 37 percent from downtown. He is able to shoot, defend and hustle, and he's been rewarded for his play by being inserted into the starting lineup for the past 16 games.
Under Alvin Gentry, Johnson looked like a bust, and the possibility of him being re-signed at season's end seemed very small. But now, a lucrative, multi-year contract offer from the Suns could be awaiting Johnson this summer.
Just look at how he has progressed game by game this season. This graph takes Johnson's 45 games played and splits up his statistics into stretches of nine games each. In the first 18 games, Wes barely managed to shoot 30 percent from the field. Now under Hunter, that number has skyrocketed to above 40 percent, and he is now confident enough with his game that he won't hesitate to shoot and try to play a major role on offense.
In upcoming years, we can only hope that Johnson will continue to improve. Last offseason, Suns fans were happy to get rid of Hakim Warrick and Robin Lopez in a trade. However, none of them expected Wesley Johnson to ever develop into a player who could be a major contributor to the team's success in the future.
Kendall Marshall is one more example of a player who is finally starting to get comfortable in the NBA. Marshall was originally the third-string point guard behind Sebastian Telfair, but now that he has the opportunity to play, he doesn't look like as much of a bust anymore.
Marshall is still averaging just 4.3 points and 4.7 assists in the last 10 games. But if nothing else, we know that he can efficiently and effectively run the offense and set up teammates to score. We didn't see any of that under Gentry because he was never even given a chance to play.
Even so, other aspects of Marshall's game are concerning. He is shooting 38 percent from the field this season and just 32 percent from the three-point line. That may not sound so bad, but most of Marshall's three-point attempts are uncontested, partially because he is hesitant to shoot unless he's wide open and partially because the defense allows him to take that shot. And to only connect on about 30 percent of uncontested threes is disappointing.
Right now, Marshall is one-dimensional, and his only great skill is his passing. But that can always change. Jason Kidd shot 32 percent from three in his first seven seasons in the league, but he is now considered one of the greatest three-point shooters in NBA history.
This is what player development is all about. Focus a lot of attention on Marshall and have him practice his shooting over the summer with the coaches. If Marshall becomes somewhat of an outside threat and opposing defenses are forced to guard him, it will create more space around the floor and only serve to make his passes more dangerous.
Finally, the last prospect the Suns need to spend time with is Marcus Morris. Marcus Morris is a promising young power forward, and the Suns were able to trade for him at the deadline while only giving up a second-round pick in return.
But now, you have to question what the Marcus Morris trade was for. Because, in reality, Lindsey Hunter is not giving Morris the chance to play.
Morris is a career 36 percent shooter from three-point range, something that Phoenix, the 29th overall team in three-point percentage, could desperately use. And yet, Morris has played fewer than 10 minutes in five of his past seven games, and that's when he even sees floor time at all. Marcus is being benched by Hunter, even though Michael Beasley is still receiving plenty of playing time and almost always failing to produce.
In Tuesday night's game against Houston, Michael Beasley was not with the team, as he had just become a father and was absent for personal reasons (per Paul Coro of The Arizona Republic). Morris was able to play, and in 23 minutes he shot 5-of-8 from the floor while putting up 11 points and five rebounds.
Morris has the ability to succeed, but he isn't being given the chance to do so. Give him playing time, encourage him and his confidence will come back as he develops into an even better player. But if we do nothing other than leave him to sit on the bench, then that February trade will really be a head-scratcher.
The Morris twins still have plenty of potential, and they could be key contributors to the Phoenix Suns in the future. Markieff Morris has shown flashes of greatness in his two years with the Suns as well, but he has not been able to consistently play at a high level.
In the end, that's all it really comes down to. Many of these prospects have shown that they can be great in the past, but they are inconsistent. It is Lindsey Hunter's job to bring out the best in each of those guys every single night and try to keep their confidence and morale high, even during the miserable losing streaks that come with a rebuilding team.
If the Suns do that much, then we will continue to see these players grow. And when everyone is at their best, perhaps the Suns can start winning games without any high-end free agents after all.