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“Don’t get too used to the fit, Kelly.”
“It’s the Inaugural LeBron James Western First-Round Exit Invitational. Brought to you by Pepperidge Farm. Like Kelly Oubre, Jr., Pepperidge Farm Remembers!”
I recall watching the back end of 2015’s NBA Draft from an out-of-town restaurant, watching the ticker, feverishly checking the phone, and coming away clueless as to just who my Atlanta Hawks came away with. Oh, we just took Kelly Oubre? Cool. Oh, hold up, we made some kinda trade for… Jerian Grant? M’kay. What’s this? Junior Hardaway from the Knicks? Did we get one, or all, or…?
By the time the smoke cleared, Timmy was the Last Hawk Standing. While the time Atlanta spent developing Hardaway was short-lived, the relief from many fans that we didn’t wind up holding the bag with Grant, or Oubre, was long-lasting.
Rest assured, Kelly Oubre remembers. “Atlanta Hawks” is forever tethered to his name, the team he faces again tonight (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, Fox Sports Arizona) that drafted him for someone else, with somebody else in mind.
Three-and-a-half seasons wasting away mostly on the bench by a veteran-laden Wizards team that, once they got the 19-year-old swingman, didn’t seem to know what they wanted out of him. Inefficient shooting, lost on defense, Shaqtin-quality missteps. By the time of Atlanta’s last postseason, in Game 1 of 2017’s first rounder with the Wizards, Hawks fans exclaimed, “OMG, we’re about to lose a playoff game to Kelly Oubre. How far have we fallen?”
Kelly also remembers being perceived as the throw-in from an Austin Rivers-Trevor Ariza deal in December 2018, after being part of Washington’s infamously failed “Brooks Was Here” three-way deal that had him bound for Memphis. Five days later, Oubre nailed several late threes for the Suns as he nearly upended the team that washed its hands of him in a three-OT thriller.
The GMs involved in 2018’s treacherous tryst have all gone from their respective locales, but the Suns’ newest GM, James Jones, showed his commitment to develop Oubre. First, Jones hired a coach Oubre and his teammates could connect with in Monty Williams. Then, he granted Oubre a two-year, $30 million extension in the summer, one that allows him to enjoy 2021’s free agent period whether things work out or not in The Valley.
By the time the Hawks came to visit the Suns in Phoenix in mid-November, Oubre was prepared to confirm that his new team’s invested trust was worth the risk, that he could be a reliable second-banana scorer for Devin Booker. One who could also help on defense, too.
Oubre fell just short of his career-high with a season-best 30 points on November 14 as the Suns blistered the Hawks, 128-114, outpointing Booker’s 27. In Phoenix’s past eight contests, he’s scored 23.1 PPG, burying threes (3.3 treys per game in past 8, 48.1 3FG%) so shooting guard Devin (24.1 3FG% in last 12 games) won’t always have to be the dude.
Kelly is also becoming proficient with his help defense and rebounding (career-highs of 1.5 SPG and 6.4 RPG), essential for the Suns to compete as they worked Deandre Ayton back into the fold. He tied his career-high with 15 boards a couple weeks ago, in a win at Sacramento that ended an 8-game freefall to the outside of the Western Conference playoff party. He matched that rebounding tally on Sunday against the Hornets, adding 25 points, 4 steals and a pair of blocks. Tsunami Papi’s recent play helped the Suns (16-23) turn the tide with wins over Orlando and Charlotte, after a pair of deflating home losses. Now Phoenix aims to enjoy its first three-game winning streak since early November on the road, at Atlanta’s expense.
Atlanta (8-four times 8 ) is likely to have Trae Young, who missed the Hawks’ 108-86 breakdown in Brooklyn, back after sitting with a sore hammy. Young (21 points, 13 assists but 5 TOs @ PHX in November) would appreciate not having to be hounded by Ricky Rubio, who is expecting childbirth and is unlikely to play, Mikal Bridges and Oubre all night. He’ll get his wish if Cam Reddish can produce at a similar level as he did against Kyrie Irving and the Nets.
Reddish (20 points, 4-for-8 3FGs, 5 steals, 4-for-4 on ATL’s measly 11 FTAs @ BRK) and DeAndre’ Bembry (2-for-4 3FGs, 3 assists, 4 steals in 22 bench minutes) carried the water for the Hawks on Sunday, but had precious little help, especially from an overwhelmed starting frontline of De’Andre Hunter and John Collins. With no bailout tonight from bench mate Alex Len (out, back soreness), Hawks coach Lloyd Pierce has little choice but to continue thawing out Damian Jones, as the Hawks hope to match the physicality Ayton, back as a starter after two games as a reserve, and Aron Baynes bring to the floor.
If Reddish and Bembry can spend the balance of their defensive energies thwarting Booker’s drives inside, coaxing him to settle for contested hero-ball jumpers, then Kevin Huerter can work to shield passing options to Oubre while Hunter (available, sprained finger) helps Collins with boxing out Ayton (15.4 PPG, 11.2 RPG) when shots go up.
Rubio’s likely absence should slow the league’s #1 transition offense (NBA-high 1.21 points-per-possession and 63.2 eFG%). But even with Elie Okobo in Ricky’s stead for Williams’ freer-wheeling attack, Young and the Hawks have to get back in defensive position to cut off driving and passing lanes for Booker (5.8 transition PPG, 4th in NBA, ahead of Trae’s 5.6) and Oubre (5.3 transition PPG, 10th in NBA). Neutralizing Phoenix’s backcourt buckets and trips to the line (80.4 team FT%, 4th in NBA) can help offset whatever advantages the Suns will have on the inside versus the Hawks’ short-staffed bunch.
Atlanta’s rebuilding phase is bumpy at this stage, but Hawks fans must remember not to get to envious of the Suns’ Rebuild version 6.0. The last time Phoenix made a playoff run, Grant Hill was checking Kobe, and team president Steve Kerr had yet to depart for the Bay Area. It’s been season after season of trial-and-error-and-error-and-more-error ever since.
Jones and Williams have sought to fix the chemistry issues that have long plagued this franchise, and Oubre has been surprisingly instrumental in that regard, adding a touch of showmanship to his upward-trending production along the way.
Merely 1.5 games behind upstart Memphis, the Suns are happy to be in the mix with seven other Western Conference clubs, all within 3.5 games of each other for that last remaining 8-seed. But the Suns won’t want to get this three-game road swing off on a bad foot with a stumble at State Farm Arena.
After a decade of lottery-bound results, Phoenix fans aren’t parched for an NBA title, just some postseason water to dip their toes into. Coming off last season’s 19-63 nadir, a couple April dates for the Suns with LeBron in town sounds awfully good. They’re willing to ride the wave with Oubre if it can guide them there.
Hardaway is already a faded memory around these parts, and the Hawks also departed with Kent Bazemore and Taurean Prince in the offseason, taking two players in 2019’s Lottery in hopes they’ll be future long-term answers at the wing. Oubre will again be on a mission tonight to make the Hawks remember that, with just a little commitment, they might have already had an answer by now.
Let’s Go Hawks!
“Wet, Like I’m Book!”
You ever dance to Mambo No. 8? Me neither.
It’s Season No. 5 for Phoenix Suns star Devin Booker. When it comes to breaking through, as an All-Star, as a playoff-caliber standout, Booker hopes his Season No. 5 will be a huge, international hit. And rightfully so.
NBA fans get in our feelings whenever our highly touted draft picks aren’t ready-made stars, or at least reliable contributors, fresh out of the box after five games, five weeks, five months.
Our teams popped the champagne over the summer that whatever woes they’ve suffered over the past few years are firmly behind us, because The Commish shook your hand and handed you some (other) team’s baseball cap. No matter whether you’ve reached legal drinking age, the hangover effect for us fans arrives quickly. I like to pretend I’m more of a teetotaling, sober, patient fan.
But I’m also of the strident opinion that by Season No. 5, if you, hyped Lottery pick, haven’t emerged as a legitimate NBA star and a franchise face (for good reasons) for your team, if you are not playing in lockstep with a stable management and coaching regime by then, well, I’m sorry, that plan’s just not going to work out for you. A career of journeyman travels across the states and provinces of North America, hardball negotiations for trade-bait contracts, and fans annually heralding some future draftee as your replacement awaits.
The 13th pick from the 2015 Draft, Booker (25.3 PPG; 51.0 3FG%, 10th in NBA, say NOTHING to him about Evansville) has poured in the second-most points of his Draft class, and the second-most assists. He ought to be a rockstar in 28 NBA cities and several nations by now. Instead, he’s been more of a very good, one-note local lounge singer.
Partially, that’s because of being cursed with competing in the wrong Conference for upstart young stars. More significant, it’s due to having already cycled through four coaching headmasters (Jeff Hornacek, Earl Watson, Jay Triano, Igor Kokoskov) during his first half-decade in the pros. Plus, a pair of 30-ish executives who didn’t quite know what they were doing. (“Hold the phone. Are we getting Dillon, MarShon, or Mel Brooks?”)
Fortunately, the book hasn’t closed shut on D-Book yet, because his second Suns GM, James Jones, has begun to get the gist of his duties. Beginning with the offseason ouster of Igor, his prior’s hire, and subsequent offer to Monty Williams to become head honcho.
“I said to (Devin) that, ‘I want to help you become a household name. Right now, you aren’t because of all the organizational stuff,” said Williams, who offers his Full Monty critique tastefully but without sugarcoating. “But you have the talent.” Williams knows a thing or two about coaching talent.
At post-Katrina New Orleans, Coach Monty bridged Chris Paul’s search for the exits and the arrival of #1 pick Anthony Davis. His Season No. 5 as head coach of the Hornicans began with a caveat by a desperate, aging owner. Make the postseason, or else.
Mission accomplished – 45 wins in 2014-15, despite Davis and a slew of starters missing between a dozen and 40 games, despite plugging Omer Asik at center to appease AD’s wish not to shoulder the burdens of a starting five – and a competitive sweep at the hands of the 67-win eventual NBA champs. Job secured. Or, so he thought.
The retired nine-year NBA vet, having gained extra recognition around the league as a player’s coach after he and his wife went above-and-beyond to counsel a grieving Ryan Anderson, was on the outs, as New Orleans chased after the eventual champs’ lead assistant to take over. Fate dealt a more severe blow to Williams mere months after taking an associate head coach job with Russ-and-KD’s Thunder, when his wife was killed in OKC, and several kids injured, by a lane-crossing driver causing a head-on accident.
Monty took time off, then accepted a front-office gig with the Spurs. But he knew his late wife would want him to continue pursuing his passion to be an NBA head coach again. After one season lead-assisting coach Brett Brown and Ben-and-Joel’s Sixers, he accepted the open gig in Phoenix. It was offered to him by Jones, who played in Portland when Williams was an assistant there.
Having had to endure the CP3-to-LA saga(s), the knowledge that Booker has been devoted to see things through in Arizona has made it easier for Williams to accept auto-sigged checks from beleaguered owner Robert Sarver. Toward him and his teammates, Devin feels the devotion in return.
“The culture around, you can feel it. You can feel it in the air. It started with Monty,” Booker told The Undefeated about his newest head coach. “His voice travels. I’ve been in situations where things coaches say is kind of discussed amongst players. But with Monty, it’s not like that. We all believe in him. He believes in us all the same. It’s really contagious.”
Jones’ predecessor, Ryan McDonough, gambled when he sought out Jazz assistant Kokoskov, way-too-coincidentally, Lu Know Who’s Slovenian national coach, to take the reins a mere month before the 2018 Draft. But to the extent that it’s possible to get cold feet in the PHX, the Suns weren’t convinced that Doncic’s threats to stay at Real Madrid if he didn’t wind up with a team to his liking was mere bluffing.
They instead went big with Deandre Ayton, who was thrilled just to get people’s minds off whatever cash Arizona’s Sean Miller was offering him under the table, at #1. McDon’tneedapointguard’s failings to secure a reliable ballhandler in the 2018 Draft, or via free agency, made Sarver’s urge to replace the GM with his handpicked successor in Jones, right as last season was to begin, a justifiable one. The Suns having drafted anyone other than Luka in the Lottery sealed Igor’s fate before it could really get started.
Igor’s communication challenges with players, to say nothing of the media, made the quest to finish anything better than 19-63 a tall order. The upgrade to Williams has Phoenix (6-4) well on their way to leaving last season’s win total in the dust.
Here at Talking Stick Resort Arena on Tuesday, Monty’s young guns stayed neck-and-neck with the vaunted Lakers until the closing minutes, when a trio of consecutive three-bombs by LeBron and Kyle Kuzma blotted out the Suns.
They started the season with a bang, a 29-point home blowout of Sacramento, leaving many to wonder what had gotten into Ayton (18-and-11 plus 4 blocks). Ayton figured people would wonder, too, but his gamble to obscure whatever that was with a diuretic blew up on him (don’t laugh, John Collins; you got suspended for 25 games, too). Fortunately for Deandre, Jones and the Suns planned ahead.
A top-7-protected first rounder from Phoenix pried former Al Horford backup Aron Baynes, plus developmental guard Ty Jerome (out, sprained ankle), from the Celtics during the summer. Eager to show he picked up a few tricks from his time with Boston (21-for-61 on threes last year with the Cs), Baynes has already passed his 3FG volume from last season, sinking half of his 44 attempts in just ten games.
Aron has gone 10-for-18 from downtown during the first four contests in Phoenix’s six-game homestand, which continues tonight against the Atlanta Hawks (9 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, Fox Sports Arizona), and concludes next Monday with Boston in town.
This past Sunday, the host Suns sunk a barrage of triples (19-for-42 3FGs) to beat the brakes off Brooklyn, 138-112. A team that finished last season (32.9 3FG% in 2018-19), and the 21-61 season before that (33.4 3FG% in 2017-18), dead-last in the league in three-point accuracy is flipping the script under Williams’ direction (38.8 team 3FG%, 3rd in NBA).
2018’s Draft saw the Suns trade back up into the Lottery to grab Mikal Bridges, a scrappy defensive wing who didn’t add much to the equation from the perimeter. This season, Jones and the Suns traded out of the Lottery altogether, passing up the opportunity to draft one Cameron to take the less-heralded, sweeter-shooting Cameron Johnson (3-for-8 3FGs vs. LAL on Tuesday; 40.0 3FG%) instead, getting Dario Saric (37.5 3FG%) from Minnesota as a throw-in.
Aside from Ayton, who can’t do so yet, everybody’s gotten into the floor-spreading craze. Ricky Rubio (8.8 APG, highest average by any Sun since Steve Nash in 2011-12; 21-and-10 vs. LAL) was brought in by Jones to alleviate Booker and the Suns’ longstanding play-setting and defensive issues, not as much for his outside shooting prowess. But even his 1.3 triples per game, at a 40 percent clip, are currently career highs.
Of the eight most active Suns in Williams’ rotations, all but Bridges are lofting three 3FG attempts per game, and all beside Bridges and Frank Kaminsky are hitting at a 35 percent clip or better. The availability of shooting threats across the floor at all times, and the reduced need to dribble the ball into oblivion, allows Booker to diversify his offensive approach.
The reliability of perimeter shooters allows the Suns’ frontcourt to get back in defensive sets (PHX 6th in D-Reb%; 27th in O-Reb%) instead of crashing the offensive glass and risking exposure in transition (1.07 opp. points per transition possession, 9th-best in NBA; 24th last season).
Stifling would-be shooters around the three-point arc, or at least knowing which personnel to leave open (quit hacking people, Nik the Slick), has been one of the fortes on the young season for Atlanta (4-6). Only foes of Miami (NBA-best 28.9 opp. 3FG%) and the Hawks (32.8 opp. 3FG%, 7th-best in NBA) have made less than a third of their long-distance attempts while taking 35 or more of them per game.
The Nuggets were 11-for-41 on Tuesday night, and any defensive performance approaching this one while minimizing second-chance opportunities would allow Atlanta a chance to steal a second-straight road game.
The iron is unkind to almost anyone on the Hawks not named Trae Young (8-for-13 3FGs @ DEN) or Kevin Huerter (3-for-3 3FGs, out for at least today with a shoulder injury). It’s a lot easier fighting for first-time backcourt All-Star fan votes when your surname begins with, say, a ‘B’, as opposed to a ‘Y’. Up-and-coming stars like Young have to make discerning fans want to scroll all the way down to check the box next to their names, and that means branding brains with a string of virtuoso performances like he had a couple days ago (42 points, 8-for-13 3FGs, 8-for-11 FTs, 11 assists @ DEN).
But Young’s and Huerter’s Hawkmates could connect on just 4 of 18 attempts (half of those by rookie De’Andre Hunter) during Tuesday’s rousing 125-121 win in the Rocky Mountain air. The Suns know of Trae’s teammates’ desire to get open inside to compensate, particularly the rim-stapling Jabari Parker (67.7 2FG%, 2nd in NBA; 20 points, 9 rebounds, 4 assists @ DEN), a guy who never got to see Season No. 5 in Milwaukee, or even No. 2 in Chicago.
Lacking a shotblocker with Ayton waitin’, Phoenix will scrap and claw for steals but commit a lot of fouls (24.8 personals per-48, second-most in NBA). So Atlanta (22-for-34 FTs @ DEN) will have to avoid giving certain Squawkers heartburn troubles tonight by sinking the free throws they’re handed. I’ll skip the chimichangas, thanks. It’s notable that the second-leading free throw shooter (4-for-8 FTs) during the Hawks’ win over Denver is faintly familiar around Phoenix.
“I wish I would have left after that third year,” with the Suns, said Alex Len, Pick No. 5 in 2013’s Draft, to Amico Hoops this past summer. By Season No. 5 of forlorn under-development with the club that made him their highest pick since 1987’s Armen Gilliam, Len was already perceived around Phoenix and the league as a lost cause. Deserted in the desert, the 2018 free agent approached this season, as an incumbent starter in Atlanta, as “The happiest I’ve been in a while.”
Len suffered under the same instability that Booker had to deal with in Phoenix. But, at least for the time being, Len has benefited from a stable combo of coaching, conditioning and management that won’t be so easy to give up on him. Atlanta coach Lloyd Pierce pointed at himself, not Len, for the latter’s brutal offensive struggles with the starting unit, finding him better suited as a reserve. Len rewarded LP and the Hawks with 17 vital points (6-for-8 FGs), 7 rebounds and a +18 plus-minus in 22 bench minutes on Tuesday.
Bench scoring comes at a premium with Parker starting, in place of Collins, and several veterans under load oops did I say that aloud I mean injury management. But for four missed freebies, Alex would have been Atlanta’s third 20-point scorer on that night. Sarver’s old Suns regime could not have foreseen a performance like that from him, not in the NBA, and certainly not beyond Season No. 5.
A couple years behind the Hawks’ organization, due to citywide skepticism, Sarver eventually finagled a $230 million arena renovation deal out of the city of Phoenix. Yesterday, he, Williams and Jones were on hand to break ground on a $45 million intown training complex for the team.
Sarver hopes that, with the Jones-Williams pairing and Booker, armed with the max contract extension he signed in 2018, locked in, his Suns can get Ayton back soon and, with the improved supporting cast, surprise many with a charge toward the Suns’ first Western Conference playoff appearance in a decade.
As for Devin, this is a make-or-break season to confirm his long-term worth in The Association. Phoenix’s prime All-Star prospect and All-NBA hopeful, Booker can make his owner, the GM, the new coach, the facility deals, and everyone around them smell much better to his team’s faithful fanbase. Time, for Booker, is of the essence.
Why? Ever heard of Chanel No. 6? Exactly. Ladies and gentlemen, this is Season No. 5!
Let’s Go Hawks!