The Phoenix Suns acted just like my dad. Coupons and checklist in tow, executed with ruthless efficiency. In and out within 15 minutes. No questions were asked in the direction of a store employee. He already knows what he wants and needs. If anything needs to be vocalized, it’s mumbling to oneself about how slow the checkout line is.
Phoenix’s two-hour version of the same efficiency at the start of free agency filled six roster spots and nearly the entire roster. It agreed to terms with Keita Bates-Diop, Drew Eubanks, Damion Lee, Chimezie Metu, Josh Okogie and Yuta Watanabe, all on veteran minimum contracts that the Suns could only afford to offer.
Their intent was clear. Get more athletic, younger and find more positional versatility on defense for new head coach Frank Vogel. Don’t forget to shoot either. Also that.
Players like Bates-Diop, Metu, Okogie, Watanabe, Toumani Camara, Jordan Goodwin, Isaiah Todd and Ish Wainright can all play multiple spots because of their length and speed. That’s over half the list! Before you get to Bradley Beal, Devin Booker and Kevin Durant!
If Camara is on a two-way contract, which is possible for a guy who was the 52nd pick in this year’s draft, Phoenix has one spot left. If the Suns use a traditional spot on him, they cleared the shelves. All 15 seats, donezo.
Let’s break down all six signatures before returning to the big picture. Take a few deep breaths. We have some ground to cover.
Okogie, one of two returnees for the roundup, was the biggest surprise of the day. A ton of absences since December gave him the opportunity for legitimate playing time, and he ran with it from there. After the trade deadline, Okogie was third in total minutes for the Suns, and for good reason.
In the last 26 games in a big role, he averaged 11.0 points, 4.3 rebounds, 1.9 assists and 1.2 steals per game. game while shooting 37.3% from 3 on 4.5 attempts on the night. Okogie provided great defense, especially at the point of attack, and helped Phoenix tremendously in filling the Mikal Bridges-sized hole on that end. He showed good feel for 0.5 situations as a cutter and passer while also serving as the resident maniac on the offensive glass.
However, Okogie’s shortcomings came to the surface in the postseason. Denver started the second-round games with Nikola Jokic guarding Okogie and would go to it in splits, throwing a wrench in the ways Phoenix wanted to attack. Okogie’s improvements in shooting and decision-making didn’t translate well, leading to him falling out of the rotation entirely.
Still, this is a guy who was legitimately good on a great team every time he got the chance to be in the regular season and just about took the minimum last season. There had to be some teams out there willing to pay him more, but Okogie ultimately chose a safe landing spot where he will compete for a significant role.
It’s easy to forget that he turns 25 later this summer and can still grow more as a player for Phoenix.
Lee was the lone vet who returned immediately, and he always made sense. The 30-year-old finished third in 3-point percentage (44.5%) among players with at least 200 attempts and made timely shots in the fourth quarter all year.
In the playoffs, he proved (through a strangely inconsistent role) that he can impact games beyond knocking down shots. Lee plays extremely hard and is smart, both of which go a long way for a shooter who has his own gravity.
3 plays with Damion Lee showing his worth.
— Baseline to corner, Okogie screens and Mann has to stay. DA lob.
— Could have pulled up as the “shooter” who needed 1, but makes the right basketball play to keep it going. Booker 3.
– Hyland gets back to the corner. CP3 middy. pic.twitter.com/pmsOAzTi05
— Kellan Olson (@KellanOlson) 23 April 2023
Lee shot 0-for-5 in a Game 2 loss to the Nuggets, but was still a net positive thanks in large part to his hustle, which included six rebounds and a pair of assists.
What he will do is give Vogel some wiggle room in the aforementioned vision of what the Suns’ supporting cast will be. If the offensive spacing just isn’t good enough from the athletic defenders, Lee will come in and punish any defense that helps him. He already proved last year that spotty looks won’t phase the approach or change his effectiveness. Again, it feels like he could have taken more money elsewhere, so credit to the Suns’ ecosystem on that front.
All four newcomers are coming off their best NBA seasons, something to consider when you somehow factor in the Suns signing all of them to the minimum. They all could have waited for the paydays to show up, but decided to take the best basketball option.
The guy out of those six has the best chance to be a big factor starting in April is Bates-Diop.
Bates-Diop was the Big Ten Player of the Year his junior year at Ohio State, and given his physical profile as a forward (6-foot-8, 7-foot-3 wingspan), he received his fair share of hype as a potential pick in the first round. However, Bates-Diop slipped in the draft to 48th overall, which kind of indicated the direction his NBA career was headed before it even started.
He spent a year and a half with the Minnesota Timberwolves before a brief stint in Denver before playing for the San Antonio Spurs the past three seasons. It never really clicked for the 27-year-old until last year.
Head coach Gregg Popovich was asked about Bates-Diop towards the end of the season.
“He’s carving out an NBA career,” Popovich said. “From the beginning it didn’t look like that, but he’s worked on his skills, his confidence, his aggressiveness, everything. Really proud of him.”
Bates-Diop didn’t set the world on fire by any means, but 9.7 points, 3.7 rebounds and 1.5 assists per game with good defense was a breakthrough.
The guy is simply gigantic with the long arms given how well he moves his feet.
The biggest development was Bates-Diop increasing his 3-point attempts from a total of 72 in his first two Spurs seasons to 142, converting on 39.4% of them.
It is a year and not a high volume, but a positive step forward. His shooting motion has some build up. He will have time for that because of who he will be sharing the floor with.
He shot 43% from the corners specifically, 69% at the rim and is a solid passer.
If the overall 3P% stays at double the number of attempts and Bates-Diop’s defense translates into a winner, the Suns will somehow have found an effective 3-and-D wing at minimum, a feat previously thought to be impossible. Even if it isn’t quite, the size of the defense will help regardless.
Watanabe is a similar player to Lee, just a bit bigger on the wing at 6-foot-9. He was one of the best shooters in basketball last year, shooting 44% on 3s and a ridiculous 52% in the corners with the Brooklyn Nets.
Sporting News’ Steph Noh picked up about changes in Watanabe’s mechanics, the 28-year-old found in Brooklyn compared to his NBA start in 2018. No more bouncing or losing the ball. Cash.
Both of these Yuta Watanabe videos are slowed down 50%. Compare the first shot he ever took with last night. The release is so much faster.
This man put in the WORK to go from a 12% shooter to 57%. pic.twitter.com/8eZDJcUyzR
— Steph Noh (@StephNoh) 21 November 2022
Kevin Durant played with Watanabe last year and praised him on his podcast, The ETCs via the boardroom. Durant praised how hard Watanabe plays and works on his shot, joking, but not really joking, that he feels the need to tell Watanabe to slow down so he doesn’t get hurt flying around the floor.
“His jump shot looks solid right now because his fundamentals look perfect in that stretch,” Durant said in November.
Durant would be mad at Watanabe when he wasn’t shooting. He will be in Phoenix as well. There’s a bit of trepidation since he hasn’t stuck anywhere yet and his playing time disappeared with the Nets, but having someone like Watanabe in the forward rotation is a no-brainer.
The center position for Phoenix will be all about the dirty work, so that explains Eubanks already fitting. While that’s a lot of what Jock Landale did, the interpretation could be that Phoenix is better off with how Eubanks does it.
Like Landale, his engine never stops and he beats everyone. Some goodies from Athletics Jason Quick:
“He’s got some grit in him that I love,” coach Chauncey Billups said. “He gets in a dustup almost every game with somebody. He’s one of those guys that people probably hate playing against, and that’s only because he competes very hard.”
“Once I got better at basketball, I just always had that nasty, ‘don’t-touch-me attitude,’” said Eubanks, 26. “I didn’t like being pushed around back then. I didn’t like being pushed around in college. And I don’t like being pushed around here.”
That energy on the rim runs is combined with Eubanks’ really good screening and his efficiency makes him an effective offensive piece. Eubanks shot 75% at the rim and 54% in the short midrange, per Cleaning the glass. The latter is where it comes down to floaters and hook shots, an area starting center Deandre Ayton is also very good at.
Defensively, Eubanks will hang in there more than expected and is a solid rim protector, but longer stints are where Eubanks’ foot speed may start to suffer a bit. As a backup center, that’s more than fine, and he can still get better. Another get that is fantastic value at minimum.
Metu, 26, is a player who has tried to become more dynamic than that by adding a 3-point shot, ultimately not making it stick. It’s a shame because he’s a pretty big athlete who also suffers from some tweener stuff, as he lacks too much agility to be a 4 and doesn’t have enough size (6-foot-9) to be a 5.
He’s definitely explosive.
Metu was a fantastic 76% finisher at the rim, per Cleaning the glass. He has some progress left to make before becoming an effective defender, and that’s where you hope Vogel can work his magic.
Alright! These are the new basketball players! A depth chart check-in, you say, for final evaluations? Of course!
PG: Booker, Payne
SG: Beal, Goodwin, Lee
SF: Okogie, Bates-Diop, Wainright, Todd
PF: Durant, Watanabe, Camara
C: Ayton, Eubanks, Metu
From a depth perspective with the spot the Sun was in, they couldn’t have done much better.
The only other ball handler outside of the Big 3 is Cam Payne, so he’ll be a key part of this even if he doesn’t crack the starting rotation. That’s honestly fine because it all hinges on that trio staying healthy anyway, and Vogel wants to make sure at least two of them are on the field at all times in big games.
The fifth starter didn’t become a surefire guy, but it was always a dream. Bates-Diop, Goodwin, Okogie, Wainright and Watanabe could all theoretically win that job during the season. Maybe even Camara if his shooting is consistent and his defense has immediate impact.
Eubanks and Metu fill the big rotation spots against some small-ball lineups in the future, at least far more than we saw for the Suns under Monty Williams. Pretty much everyone just mentioned as a fifth starting option could also scale down a position or two. Get ready for Durant at 5.
To that end, it’s a lot of defensive skills that Vogel’s specialties need to fine-tune. Bates-Diop, Goodwin and Okogie are a good move outside of his stars before even getting to Camara and Wainright.
The ultimate question suggested in late July was whether that would be enough of a supporting cast, knowing the shortcomings of the roster construction up front for the Suns.
We didn’t even have to wait until the end of June to say yes.