Other than drafting rookies Josh Jackson, Davon Reed, and Alec Peter’s in the 2017 NBA Draft, the Phoenix Suns are turning over a roster that is, for the most part, the same as last seasons. The biggest question heading into opening night, is who will coach Earl Watson start at small forward, TJ Warren or Josh Jackson?
Point Guard — Eric Bledsoe
A no-brainer, Eric Bledsoe will once again handle the reigns of point guard for this young Suns team. After coming off a career year last season where he averaged 21.1 points, 6.3 assists, 4.8 rebounds and 1.4 steals in 66 games, Bledsoe heads into his eighth season — fifth with the Suns — looking not only to build on his stats but win games for the franchise that took a chance on him. Health has always been a concern for Bledsoe, never appearing in a full 82-game season. This campaign, his greatest personal challenge will be just that, staying healthy of the course of a full season. Expect Bledsoe to build upon his numbers from last season, and find his way into All-Star consideration.
Shooting Guard — Devin Booker
The franchise cornerstone will no doubt start the season at the two-guard, looking to quiet the naysayers who questioned his legitimacy as a “great player” this summer on NBA Twitter. Booker, 20, did not display any real symptoms of the dreaded sophomore slump last season, after averaging 22.1 points, 3.4 assists, and 3.2 rebounds in 78 games. Booker exhibited growth that would not show up in a typical box score. Look for him to build upon the foundations he has already set in stone in the desert and prove that he’s not only an All-Star caliber player this season, but a more complete player.
Small Forward — T.J. Warren/Josh Jackson
The three spot is the toughest to predict for the Suns heading into this season. After landing the No. 4 overall pick in the 2017 NBA Draft, the Suns selected Josh Jackson despite having T.J. Warren already on the roster. Having options as a rebuilding team in The Association is certainly a welcomed problem, just ask the Philadelphia 76ers. There are two ways head coach Earl Watson can go at small forward:
Option No. 1 — T.J. Warren
T.J. Warren, 24, has improved upon his numbers every year he has been in the league since he was drafted with the No. 14 pick in the 2014 NBA Draft. In fact, before his month-long absence in mid-November last season after sustaining a head injury, Warren opened the season averaging 19 points, 4.7 rebounds, and 2.1 steals on nearly 17 shot attempts a game. In the 53 games he played after returning from the injury, Warren’s numbers dropped to 13.6 points, 5.3 rebounds, and one steal on 12 shot attempts per contest. Opening the season as a top option in an offense and then missing a month in between can undoubtedly disrupt a player’s rhythm. No, this isn't about nitpicking a small sample size with positive results; instead, it's about what Warren brings to the Suns. He offers the Suns an offensive weapon at the three, something their recent draft pick lacks right now. Slotting Warren into the starting lineup not only gives you an option on offense but an insurance policy if Josh Jackson takes more time to develop at the NBA level.
Option No. 2 — Josh Jackson
After spending a top pick in the draft, many expect Earl Watson to hand over the starting small forward nod to rookie Josh Jackson. After playing one season at Kansas, Jackson, 20, is a wing player who has the potential to develop into a two-way star. The case for starting Jackson right away is that he will bring a defensive presence to a team that found themselves at the bottom of numerous defensive columns last season. Allowing him to start over Warren enables Jackson to earn valuable minutes early on in his young career. Although there is no "best" way to develop as a player, time on the court is certainly a must.
Preseason will determine the route that Coach Watson will take regarding the small forward position. Watson does have the option of deploying a small-ball lineup with Marquese Chriss at center, T.J. Warren at power forward, and Josh Jackson at small forward, in an effort to fit both forwards into one lineup. The smaller lineup depends on the team the Suns will be playing that night, as well as how effective it is defensively these first few weeks of the season. However, it's more likely that T.J. Warren will be the Suns' starter at the three to open the season.
Power Forward — Marquese Chriss
After averaging nearly nine points and four rebounds in 21 minutes a contest last season, Marquese Chriss should return to his role as the team’s starting power forward. Chriss, 20, will need to improve on fouling less and keeping his anger in check, after picking up 11 technical fouls last season — tied for ninth in the league. He has put on weight during this offseason in an attempt to not “be fragile,” something he said he struggled with last season. Don’t expect him to take a leap in the offensive department, as he looks to do the things the team needs him to do: play defense, rebound, block, and run the floor. Chriss is still a raw prospect, but after playing all 82 games last season, he's got a grasp on what the league can throw at him. Add in another year of Coach Watson's system, and Chriss should be able to build upon his rookie year.
Center — Tyson Chandler
Entering his seventeenth season in the NBA, 35-year-old Tyson Chandler will see much of the same action as he did last year. Expect Chandler to start most of the Suns’ games at center up until the All-Star break. He will get some nights off, and Alex Len would slot into the starting lineup with Alan Williams expected to be out most of the season, as he recovers from a torn meniscus in his right knee. Chandler serves as a veteran presence for this young Suns team and is not projected to shoulder a heavy load this season once again. Defense and rebounding are his specialties and it's what we'll expect here.
Sixth Man — Tyler Ulis
After the Suns shut down both Brandon Knight and Eric Bledsoe down the stretch of last season, Tyler Ulis proved he can handle a more prominent role for the team. Ulis, 21, averaged 16.1 points, 8.5 assists, and 1.2 steals over a 15-game stretch to close last season while playing nearly 40 minutes a night. After undergoing a minor ankle surgery in May, Ulis hasn’t missed a beat in the preseason. Ulis provides the Suns with a spark off the bench, who can not only score when needed but facilitate as well. He has all the makings of a dark-horse candidate for Sixth Man of the Year.