The Rising Suns and the Rising Star

Breaking down the two biggest surprises of the bubble: The biggest key to the Suns' future, and some thoughts on a breakout star.

The Rising Suns

I’ll admit it: I didn’t understand why the Suns were included in the NBA’s bubble. It seemed like it would add more risk, and for what? The Suns didn’t have a chance to make the playoffs, let alone the play-in, right?

My bad. The 6-0 Suns are the surprise of the bubble, sitting a game out of the 8th seed and just half a game out of qualifying for that play-in for the playoffs. They’ve done that with only one player in the rotation over the age of 26 (Ricky Rubio), without the services of two regular season rotation players, Kelly Oubre and Aron Baynes, and against some of the NBA’s best teams (plus the Bubble Wizards). The future suddenly feels a whole lot brighter in the Valley of the Sun.

But should six games really change our outlook that much? That’s quite a small sample, especially in such a unique environment. As I’ve written before, we can learn some things from a handful of games like this, but we really have to be careful how far we extrapolate.

The Suns have the 7th ranked offense in the bubble so far, finishing quite well at the rim and maintaining a low turnover rate, both of which tend to be a little more stable statistically. Their #2 overall defensive rank, though, seems to be driven more by some factors that might not be replicable, including opponents shooting just 31% from three (and 20% in the corners) against them over these six games. They’ve allowed a very high rate of shots at the rim, though they have defended them well there and they have done a good job limiting opponent threes.

The defensive end, then, is where we need to look to truly see how lasting this play is. It’s also where the most question marks exist about the long-run potential of this roster. The Suns are built around Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton, both of whom have had major deficiencies on defense through their young careers. Ayton, in particular, is important to watch carefully given the fact that he plays the most important position on defense. It’s not hard to make the case that Ayton’s growth on that end of the floor is the single biggest factor to see just how high these Suns will rise.

When I evaluated Ayton as a college prospect, I had major concerns about his defensive play. I flagged a number of clips where he showed a poor help instinct and feel for how to affect shots at the rim.

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I even noted a few times when he seemed to space out, standing rooted to the spot and just watching what was going on, like he wasn’t even on the court:

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I concluded:

We know Ayton will get better at some of this — that’s what happens with experience and professional coaching. But what if basketball instinct is harder to learn than we think? What if Ayton is so far behind the curve that it will take a while for him to catch up?

That’s the downside for Ayton: a player who has all the physical tools but lacks the feel to put it all together in a way that drives winning. That doesn’t mean he’d end up a bad player. Ayton could be a beast on the glass, a threat as a roller, someone who puts up numbers and maybe even makes an All-Star team — but not someone who is a true difference maker, who carries a team, who feels like a great pick at #1 overall.

Nothing that happened over his first two seasons changed that assessment. But perhaps he took a leap in the bubble? Maybe that’s part of the reason for the Suns’ improvement?

Not to my eye. Ayton remains a player with prodigious potential and a frustrating lack of feel. He has improved, as expected, from early in his rookie year — his frequency of mistakes looks a little lower, his timing a bit better — but he still has a long way to go to provide the kind of rim protection the Suns will need from their starting center.

Many of the bad habits remain. He still stares at the ball, staying rooted to his spot when he should be moving toward the basket to prepare to help:

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He still misses times when he should help, or reacts late (or never) to drives:

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He still often doesn’t impact shots at the rim even when he is there:

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It is very difficult to build a strong defense around a center who protects the rim like this. Ayton is still quite young, and is talented in many other areas. One can easily imagine him stretching his range behind the three point line and mixing that spacing in with strong rolls and post ups, all while continuing to gobble up rebounds. That’s the path to becoming a truly valuable offensive center. But if the Suns are to reach the potential everyone sees in them after this bubble run, it will take Ayton making a huge improvement in his ability to protect the rim.

The Rising Star

A former Sun, TJ Warren, has also been a great surprise in the bubble, scoring efficiently on high volume. But Warren’s improvement seems to be one of degrees rather than an enormous leap. He’s shooting lights out (51% from three, 51% from midrange, 71% at the rim) with higher usage, but he remains a poor passer relative to how much he has the ball. He’s a scorer, not a creator, and so this seems to be mostly a bucket-getter getting a particularly high rate of buckets in what already has been a strong scoring season rather than the sudden emergence of a future All-Star at the age of 27.

Michael Porter Jr., on the other hand, has also turned heads—and as a 22 year old finishing up his rookie year, his breakout seems more likely to be heralding the arrival of a future star. In Porter’s case, his numbers don’t seem quite as fluky as Warren’s. They aren’t so different from what he did during the regular season—he’s just done it in almost three times the minutes per game and against better competition. That makes it seem both more lasting and more impressive.

The Nuggets have done a great job of developing Porter. Before the draft I broke down his high school tape and concluded:

On the one hand, it’s entirely possible he’ll end up as an inefficient, iso scorer who doesn’t play defense: Jabari Parker if you’re lucky; Michael Beasley if you’re not.

On the other hand, Porter has the height, athleticism, handle, and touch that thinking he’ll make multiple All-Star teams is not crazy. And we don’t even have to go far back to find a highly touted high school scorer who played a one-on-one, midrange game but exceeded expectations in the NBA. Jayson Tatum’s career is just beginning, but despite those inefficient tendencies prior to his arrival in Boston, he’s off to a pretty good start.

If Porter’s shot develops like Tatum’s did (and Porter has a similarly good free throw stroke according to available statistics), and is coached properly, he has the length and athleticism to do what Tatum did so well this year: play off of others and in transition, attack closeouts, and eventually develop his own efficient offensive creation with height, fluidity and handle.

Denver has, at least to this point, followed that Tatum blueprint. Porter has worked his way onto the court not by being featured as a hub of the offense but by figuring out how to fit into a team that already has one of the biggest and best hubs in the game in Nikola Jokic.

He spots up, cuts very well, crashes the glass and attacks in transition. His finishing has been great. He’s much improved defensively since high school, although he still has plenty of room to get better on that end.

The Nuggets have played Porter at small forward for around 75% of his possessions, which gives him a massive height advantage on most of his matchups. Then they have him crash the glass from the perimeter as often as any small forward in the league, taking advantage of that height mismatch. It’s no wonder the Nuggets are an elite rebounding team with him on the floor.

His passing, though, remains a problem. He’s not the ball stopping, selfish player that I feared he might become in the wrong situation. Seeing him make this extra pass in crunch time of the Nuggets’ overtime win against the Thunder was a small but important play, in my mind:

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Porter had just made three straight jumpers a few minutes prior. He had every right to take that three in transition. (And maybe he should have!) But instead he tried to find the open teammate in the corner. That’s not a play that a selfish player makes.

On the other hand, he needs to really improve his vision. His assist rate relative to his usage rate is very poor for his position. As he gets more touches and opportunities, he’ll need to learn to make this pass rather than try and force it himself:

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That’s how you grow from an efficient secondary player into a star.

That the Nuggets were able to snag him in the draft after a 46-36 season is a credit to Denver’s front office—and a failure by the rest of the league. Drafts are always far easier to peg in retrospect. It’s always confusing at the time and seems obvious after.

But #14 was too low for Porter. This was knowable at the time. Teams were too risk averse, whether because of the injury or not being able to see him play in college or both. As I wrote after the draft:

If we examine the careers of the 45 players picked with the 10th through 12th picks from 1998 through 2012, we find 12 of them (27%) played fewer than 250 career games. If the contention is that Porter’s injury will keep him from playing more than three full seasons, the average player picked in this range has a one in four chance of not playing three full seasons anyway. Only one of those players’ careers was shortened because of injury. The rest, players like Acie Law, Xavier Henry, Jimmer Fredette, and Trajan Langdon, simply weren’t good enough.

That’s just looking at the downside risk. As I wrote about before the draft, specifically about Porter , we also have to look at the upside risk, at the chance that a player could radically outperform what we’d expect from the average pick in this range. So what’s an average pick? Consider that the median outcome for players picked between 10 and 12 is a high-end backup or low-end starter in his prime: Gerald Henderson, Jeremy Lamb, Etan Thomas, or Jared Jeffries. Going the conventional route will, about half the time, yield a player like that or worse.

To swing and miss on Porter in that range, then, doesn’t seem particularly costly if the basketball evaluation suggests he has a much higher chance of on-court success than the other options available. What if there’s a 25% chance the injury keeps him from being able to play, a 25% chance he can play but is a limited version of his potential, a 25% chance he ends up as Rudy Gay and a 25% chance he ends up as much better than that? That risk profile looks pretty much like the average pick in the 10-to-12 range (if not better).

Porter was a risky pick, no doubt. But so are most picks. Porter slipped because he represented a different kind of risk. He fell into a unique blind spot in the NBA draft process, where teams have trouble assessing and comparing different types of risk between players.

We’ll see if Porter can stay healthy in the long run, but it’s already clear he was exactly the kind of player to take a swing on, to bet on his upside and embrace the risk. The Nuggets deserve credit for doing so, and are now poised to reap the rewards of that decision.

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