PHOENIX — Unlike most, the Phoenix Suns have found their recent visits to Las Vegas to be quite profitable.
Once again, they were among the last teams standing in the NBA Summer League, falling just short of reaching the championship game for a third straight year.
“We were really proud of the effort,” GM Ryan McDonough said, recently. “The guys continued to battle right down to the end of the semifinals, even when we were undermanned.”
The Suns won four of their six games, losing their finale by 10 to Minnesota with a lineup absent three-fifths of its original starting five that began the desert run.
More importantly than the record was the performance, specifically the team’s three 2016 draft picks: Dragan Bender, Marquese Chriss and Tyler Ulis.
Bender averaged 8.6 points, 5.6 rebounds and 1.0 blocks in five games. He missed the semifinal matchup with an ankle sprain.
Though Bender didn’t shoot well — 14-of-51, including nine-of-34 on 3-pointers — he showed why the Suns made him the fourth overall selection.
“He moves his feet very well on the perimeter. He contains ball handlers well. In the last game he played in the quarterfinals against Denver he had four blocks, so the length is unique,” McDonough said. “Obviously, he was the youngest player in the draft and also the youngest player in Summer League, so he’s got a little ways to go physically. But, I think, looking at guys like Alex Len and Archie Goodwin, how Mike Elliott and our strength and conditioning staff has been able to kind of transform their bodies since they’ve been here, we know it’ll take a little time with Dragan and Marquese to fill out.”
It was a shorter sample size for Chriss, who was sent home to Sacramento after getting sick.
In his three-game stint, Chriss nearly averaged a double-double with 10.0 points and 9.0 rebounds; the latter ranked tied for fifth in the league.
“That was one of the knocks on him coming out of college was that he didn’t rebound well enough,” McDonough said, adding about the No. 8 pick, “He’s obviously explosive laterally. You saw any time he got left or there was a miscommunication when he was open under the basket, I think Devin (Booker) had one, Tyler might’ve had one, there were a few lobs to him and if you just throw it in the vicinity of the rim, he’s going to go catch it and dunk it. His athleticism is ridiculous.
“I thought he played really hard, too. He and Dragan — there was one game where Marquese hit the floor four or five times. We were worried he wasn’t going to get up one of the times just with the constant body blows he was taking, but he popped right up. He was really disheartened about getting sick and wanted to play, but we had seen enough from him. We didn’t want to put him at further risk to keep playing.”
Like Bender, Chriss’ shooting was subpar — 11-of-33, including 0-of-7 on 3-pointers — but that can be improved with repetition in the gym.
“Their defense is ahead of their offense,” McDonough said. “Just how they move their feet defensively and laterally. I know those two guys didn’t shoot the ball as well as they would’ve liked, and I think they will shoot it better in time as they get more experience, but it’s pretty rare to have two guys who are 6-10 plus who can slide their feet like that and just when they get switched on to guards just contain their guards.”
Ulis had the best Summer League among the trio.
Playing all six games, Ulis averaged 14.5 points, 6.3 assists and 2.8 steals while shooting 41.2 percent in 32.2 minutes. He finished with 38 total assists — second-most in the league — to only 11 turnovers.
The numbers earned him second team all-league honors.
“What he was able to do certainly translated,” McDonough said. “He speeds the game up when he wants to get it going in transition. He slows it down when he wants to run some clock and pick a team apart late in the game, especially when we have a lead. And then defensively, he’s just a menace. He gets his hand on a ton of balls. He’s always in the right spot. Being that size, he understands angles and getting up into guys or when to trap, when not to trap.
“For a 20-year-old guy who only played two years in college, he has a very high level of understanding of the game.”
With a roster not short on guards, the Suns likely planned to have Ulis spend much of his rookie season in Prescott, learning and honing his game in the NBA Development League.
That may need to be re-thought.
“Tyler certainly helped himself,” McDonough said. “I don’t think it really surprised us what he was able to do there. It might’ve surprised some people around the league. As I mentioned on draft night, we had him rated a lot higher than where he got picked (34th overall) in the second round.”
Bender, Chriss and Ulis certainly answered a lot of questions about their NBA ability. They now face another question: how well, and perhaps how quickly, will their summer success translate to fall success, when they join the veterans for informal pickup games and training camp.
If nothing else, the Suns three draft picks laid a solid foundation from which to build upon.
“(Summer League) was a learning experience for them, but to me those guys looked like they belonged out there,” McDonough said.