Before the regular season began, you might have been hard-pressed to find an expert willing to bet that the Suns would be above .500 one month into the season.
And yet, here we are.
The Phoenix Suns are 8-7, surprising every fan that expected them to tank. Despite an exceptionally competitive Western Conference, and the fact that the highly anticipated backcourt duo of Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe have played just two games together, the Suns are exceeding expectations. Young prospects and veterans alike are stepping up at every position to help this team win.
And now, it is time to grade some of those key players.
These evaluations will be based on both performance and expectation. Keep in mind that expectation plays a huge role in determining a player's grade. If a starter and a role player are putting up similar statistics, they will receive much different grades.
Here are the report cards for 10 key Phoenix Suns players (arranged in order of minuted played per game).
Given that Archie Goodwin is shooting 39 percent from the field and has a PER of 7.8, it might be easy to point out his faults and criticize his game so early into his NBA career.
But instead, let's defend the 19-year-old rookie.
If there's one thing that's encouraging about Goodwin's game, it is his aggressiveness.
Goodwin is not a player who takes many mid-range jump shots. He is always either shooting from the outside or driving to the basket. In fact, 19 of his 23 career field goals have come on layups or dunks right at the rim. That's also where he's at his best, as he converts 53 percent of his shots from underneath the rim.
However, his outside shooting is a problem. Goodwin is now just 2-of-17 from downtown this season, which is equivalent to a conversion rate of 12 percent. He's also taking those shots with a fairly high frequency, launching 3.6 threes per 36 minutes.
Even so, Goodwin is having a solid rookie season and must be praised for his strengths. He's certainly shown the capability to force turnovers on the defensive end, run the fast break effectively and fight through contact when attacking the rim.
For that much, the 30th overall pick gets a grade of a B-.
Once Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe are both healthy, Ish Smith may see his playing time cut. For now, he's receiving about 13 minutes per game off the bench.
And as long as Bledsoe is out, the Suns really don't have much of a choice to play anyone else. Archie Goodwin and Dionte Christmas aren't point guards, making Smith the best option to run the offense when Dragic is fatigued.
However, that doesn't mean that Smith has been a completely sufficient backup guard.
Right now, Smith is averaging 7.9 points, 6.1 assists and 2.8 turnovers per 36 minutes. Additionally, he is somehow shooting 31 percent from the field and 11 percent from deep.
Smith's lack of a shooting touch is actually quite astounding. Suns commentators Steve Albert and Eddie Johnson enjoy using the phrase "Ish with the Swish," yet he hasn't really had many swishes this year.
In fact, he has gone just 4-of-30 on shot attempts taken from eight feet or further from the basket. That is 13 percent, to be exact.
Factor in Smith's ordinary defense and passing, plus his lack of athleticism, and you have a player who doesn't seem to have any great strengths to his game.
At the end of last season, Suns fans had more or less given up on 2012 rookie Kendall Marshall, and they seemed perfectly fine with him being traded to the Washington Wizards in October.
But Smith, who is now Marshall's replacement, doesn't seem to be much of an improvement.
When Marcus Morris arrived in Phoenix last season, he really struggled. Despite some early success with the Houston Rockets, the 6'9" forward shot just 41 percent from the field in 23 games with the Suns. And by the end of the season, head coach Lindsey Hunter barely played Marcus at all.
But this season, the 14th overall pick of the 2011 draft has been a pleasant surprise. In 23.1 minutes per game off the bench, Morris is averaging 10.2 points, 4.9 rebounds and 0.9 steals per game.
Perhaps most encouraging is that his shooting stroke appears to be back. Marcus is one of the team's best sharpshooters, and he has already connected on 21-of-54 three-point attempts this year (38.9 percent).
Additionally, he is rebounding at a rate we have never seen from him before, grabbing 7.7 rebounds per 36 minutes and posting a total rebound rate of 12.4 percent. Though not amazing, both are career-high numbers for Marcus Morris.
As a tweener, Marcus may never be a starter as long as he is with Phoenix. One of the biggest disadvantages he faces is the fact that he is still too small to guard many power forwards but too slow to defend small forwards.
Even so, he is proving that he can be a very capable sixth man. Although a lot of credit must be given to players such as Dragic and Bledsoe for this team's success, role players like Marcus Morris are a huge reason the Suns have been able to win so many games.
If, several weeks ago, you were told that one Suns player would win the Western Conference Player of the Week award, would you really have thought that player would be Markieff Morris?
The truth is, many Suns fans seemed ready to give up on the Kansas alum before the season started. Despite a good stretch of games to end the 2012-13 season, Markieff's production remained fairly stagnant over his rookie and sophomore seasons.
But this year, he appears a changed man. Markieff is averaging 12.4 points, 5.9 rebounds and 1.2 steals per game while shooting a career-high 49 percent from the field.
What about his game can we attribute most to Markieff's sudden success?
He's attacking the basket.
In his rookie season, 28 percent of Markieff's shot attempts were from behind the three-point line. And despite such a high frequency, he shot 35 percent from downtown, which is certainly solid for a big man but not spectacular.
The next season we saw much of the same, though Markieff's three-point attempt rate went down to 21 percent.
This year, only 10 percent of his shots have come from deep. Rather than settling for those long, outside shots, Markieff is taking the ball inside. When he can get to the rim, he converts 60 percent of his attempts. And even his long two-point attempts are more accurate than his threes.
Does this mean Markieff is a future star? Hardly.
But as Channing Frye continues to age, and Markieff's versatility develops, we could expect to see him slide into the starting power forward spot. At the very least, he could be a very good future role player or sixth man.
Channing Frye had a very rough start to the season, and for a while it seemed as if he might never return to form after recovering from an enlarged heart. Through his first eight games, he averaged 6.1 points and 4.8 rebounds while shooting 32 percent from the field.
But right now, Frye is on a hot streak. That first stretch of games may have been dreadful, but he is also averaging 15.0 points, 6.0 rebounds, 1.1 steals and 1.3 blocks per game over his last seven appearances. Plus, he's shooting 54 percent from the field and 48 percent from deep during this current stretch.
When we combine the cold streak and the hot streak, we get the same average production that Frye has always given this team. He's nothing special, but he does space the floor very well and will occasionally score 20 or more points in a game.
Furthermore, he's a veteran, and he'll be counted on to teach and mentor the younger prospects on this team. For that much, he receives a decent grade.
After shooting 37 percent from the field in 60 games with the Indiana Pacers last season, Gerald Green didn't inspire high expectations among the Phoenix faithful.
However, with both Dragic and Bledsoe facing injuries so far this season, Green has stepped up immensely for this team.
Right now, Green is putting up a career-high 14.7 points per game while shooting 46 percent from the field and 38 percent from downtown.
He is a cannon on offense, hoisting up 6.6 threes per 36 minutes. And of course, with that comes great inconsistency. Green has already had some dismal shooting nights, such as a game against the Charlotte Bobcats where he shot 0-for-8 from three-point range.
But on the other hand, he has also had plenty of fantastic shooting performances already and is one of this team's most reliable sharpshooters.
One of these days Green's luck may run out, and he'll have to put more thought into his shot selection. But for now, enjoy the endless bombardment of three-pointers and emphatic dunks that this guy can provide.
Miles Plumlee, just like Gerald Green, didn't produce much with Indiana last year.
And, also just like Green, Plumlee has suddenly solidified himself as one of the better players on this Phoenix Suns team.
Through 15 games, Plumlee is averaging 9.9 points, 8.5 rebounds and 1.9 blocks in about 29 minutes per game.
Offensively, he is using an array of post moves, bank shots and dunks to score all of his points.
And on the other end of the court, he has been able to block and alter shots while remaining out of foul trouble. In fact, Plumlee may be considered the most intimidating post defender on the Suns right now.
Unfortunately, the second-year big man's production is beginning to decline after a great start to the season. His first two career starts both produced double-doubles, but now he has averaged just 8.6 points and 7.6 rebounds over his last five games.
Additionally, when veteran center Emeka Okafor comes back, expect to see Plumlee's playing time cut even more.
Even so, the Suns do appear to have found a diamond in the rough. Plumlee is not necessarily a future star, but he is a seasoned prospect who does have the potential to be a starter in this league for many years.
P.J. Tucker is the one Sun still making all of the hustle plays. He is still the one going after the 50-50 balls, grabbing offensive rebounds and playing lockdown defense. Nothing new here.
However, this season Tucker has added another dimension to his game that we hadn't seen before.
He has quickly become one of the better corner-three specialists in the league.
Last season, Tucker didn't take too many jump shots at all. In fact, he shot just 70 three-pointers in 79 games and made only 22 such shots (31 percent). Also, only 16 percent of his total field-goal attempts were three-pointers.
This season? The corner three has become Tucker's favorite spot. He has shot 18-for-34 from the corners in only 15 games played. That's an astounding 53 percent conversion rate. Last season, he attempted only 48 corner threes in the entire season.
And suddenly, three-pointers in general account for 35 percent of Tucker's field-goal attempts.
Tucker may never score 30 or 40 points in a game. However, he adds value in so many other ways. Between his abilities to intimidate opposing wing players on defense and spot up for open threes, he has become one of the most valuable players on the Phoenix Suns.
In the second half of the 2012-13 regular season, Suns fans witnessed the emergence of Goran Dragic as a team leader and fantastic player. He averaged 16.1 points and 9.5 assists in 26 games after the All-Star break, a level of production he had never before enjoyed.
This season, Dragic is picking up where he left off.
Through 12 games, Dragic is averaging 17.4 points and 6.9 assists. Already he has four games with at least 20 points and two games with at least 30.
Dragic is an very versatile player when it comes to offense. In terms of scoring, he can attack the basket, hit the mid-range jumper or spot up from behind the three-point line. He can also create easy opportunities for teammates, especially by driving the lane and then dishing out to the open shooter on the perimeter.
And although Eric Bledsoe may be quick, Goran Dragic is the reason the Suns are running and maintaining such an uptempo pace. When he runs the point, he makes sure the whole team is running with him.
For example, in the nine games in which Bledsoe started at point guard, the Suns averaged 98.7 points. They still kept a quick pace, but unlike Bledsoe, Dragic makes sure to push the ball up the floor on every single play, even after made baskets.
And his commitment to such a tempo has produced noticeable results; the Suns averaged 105.1 points in seven games with Dragic as the starting point guard.
Overall, Dragic is proving that the arrival of Eric Bledsoe has not made him obsolete. He is still a very valuable player, one who should be able to thrive by sharing backcourt duties with the another rising star.
Eric Bledsoe has been even better than advertised for the Phoenix Suns.
That was the title of an article of mine almost two weeks ago now, but the point still stands.
Bledsoe is still the team's leading scorer, averaging over 20 points per game and making more than 50 percent of his field-goal attempts. He's perhaps the team's most trusted clutch scorer as well, especially after his 17-point fourth quarter and game-winning shot against the Utah Jazz earlier this season.
Ball control still appears to be a bit of a problem, and his three-point shooting is below average for a point guard. But even so, Bledsoe is quickly establishing himself as one of the best young point guards in the NBA.
Unfortunately, his current numbers may not be enough to get him to the All-Star game. The Western Conference is simply stacked with star talent at every position.
However, right now, Bledsoe is helping this team get wins and achieve more success than anyone thought capable. That should be enough.