June 22, 2021

Suns' Talented Young Core Have Leveled Up in Phoenix's Playoff Run

After beating the Los Angeles Clippers on Sunday, the Phoenix Suns are three wins from the franchise’s first NBA Finals appearance since 1993. It’s been a long, winding road of misery since the Steve Nash and Amar’e Stoudemire era ended in 2010, but this new chapter in Suns basketball is better than ever thanks to their emerging young core.

That young core filled with exciting talents such as Devin Booker, Deandre Ayton, Mikal Bridges and Cam Johnson wasn't easy to attain, though. 

Phoenix's prickly path to contention has been filled with plenty of unexpected turns. Failed rebuilds, coaching hires and free-agent signings had doomed the Suns to bottom-dwellers in the Western Conference, but thanks to NBA Executive of the Year James Jones' strong drafting, signings and trades, the Suns have emerged as the brightest and most entertaining squad left in the postseason. 

And while Chris Paul has rightfully been praised for Phoenix's success, the Suns wouldn't be currently up a game in the Western Conference Finals without their young stars. 

Booker Means Business

Booker's been the tip of the iceberg for the Suns so far. Since entering the league and averaging 13 points in his rookie season, Booker has averaged more than 22 points per game in every season. He’s always sported a silky-smooth jump shot and a near-automatic midrange jumper.

But Booker's still improved immensely this season thanks to dedicating himself to the defensive side of the ball. The Suns' shooting guard with a 6-foot-8 wingspan is strong enough to guard bigger players while being agile enough to track smaller ones. 

This postseason, Booker has gone from bad to straight-up good on defense. Opponents are shooting just 38% when Booker is the primary defender, which is over six percentage points worse than their postseason averages, per 

The Suns sport a 105 defensive rating with Booker on the floor, which would rank first in the league this season. And while that number is also representative of the players around Booker, it’s a huge step up from where it used to be. Booker has also drastically improved in ESPN’s Defensive Real Plus-Minus statistic. He never ranked above 90th among shooting guards the past four years until he ranked 11th this season.

Ascending Ayton

At just 22, Deandre Ayton has already matured from his rookie season where he looked like he was running around with his head cut off on defense. His second year wasn’t much better, thanks to a 25-game suspension for violating the league’s performance-enhancing drug policy.

Ayton had to overcome very real concerns that he would get played off the court in key moments because of his defense and inability to punish opponents for going small. But this season, Ayton has washed those concerns away by dedicating himself on both ends of the floor and becoming a versatile monster.

At 6-foot-11 and 250 lbs, Ayton has the size and length to disrupt opponents around the rim with ease. The Suns have the best defense in the league when he’s on the court this postseason.

Ayton’s transformation into a competent big man has been a delight to watch. He’s averaging 15.6 points and 10.5 rebounds per game this postseason, but those numbers don’t do him justice. 

Ayton is producing 1.5 points per possession as the roll man in pick-and-roll situations, good for the 91st percentile in the playoffs. Players are shooting over nine percentage points worse than their averages with Ayton as their primary defender this postseason. He’s truly become a two-way big man.

Ayton's survived Anthony Davis and Nikola Jokic, two of the best bigs in the league (although Davis was clearly hobbled). He’s earned the trust of Williams and Paul. He’s ready for this moment, and he’s showing it.

The Young Wings Are Taking Flight

Phoenix quietly boasts perhaps the league’s best wing rotation, featuring Jae Crowder, Torrey Craig, Mikal Bridges and Cam Johnson.

Bridges, who landed in Phoenix via a draft-day trade with the Philadelphia 76ers, has slowly turned into one of the best three-and-D players in the NBA. 

It’s rare to find players who are so fundamentally sound on both ends of the court. Check out this play from Sunday’s game:

He’s also an excellent, smart cutter, too:

Other than a primary on-ball creator, a reliable wing who can guard multiple positions and space the floor is the most sought-after role in the NBA.

Both Johnson and Bridges are on very affordable rookie scale deals that allowed the Suns to go after Paul and sign Crowder in free agency. Their ability to make an impact on both ends of the floor has had a butterfly effect on the rest of the roster, and along with Booker and Ayton, they're the reason Phoenix has made it this far.

Photo: Getty Images