Revamped roster has Suns taking crash course in chemistry

PHOENIX (AP) — Chris Paul played just 18 minutes in his preseason debut Monday night and the Suns’ new point guard made the most of his time, with the camera often catching him teaching, discussing and debating with teammates.

The 10-time All-Star knows he’s got to have a vocal role if Phoenix is going to make it back to the playoffs for the first time since 2010.

He also knows he’s going to do a lot of listening as well.

“That’s the game,” Paul said. “It’s not just me talking. Booker’s talking, Crowder’s talking, coach is talking, that’s the way you become a team. You don’t just put it on paper and say it’s going be this or going to be that. You’ve got to build.”

In a very short NBA offseason, the Suns were one of the league’s most intriguing teams. They pulled off the trade with Oklahoma City that brought Paul to the desert, they signed veteran forward Jae Crowder and bulked up their bench by adding veteran guards like Langston Galloway and E’Twaun Moore.

All those players join a talented young nucleus that includes guard Devin Booker and forward Deandre Ayton. The 6-foot-5 Booker made his first All-Star game last year after averaging 26.6 points per game. The 6-foot-11 Ayton averaged 18.2 points and 11.5 rebounds.

Both of them have said they’re enjoying learning from Paul, who averaged 17.6 points and 6.7 assists last year for the Thunder.

“Chris is going to have his opinion and his advice,” Booker said. “He’s another set of eyes out there and one of the best basketball minds to play.”

Second-year Phoenix coach Monty Williams likes to say teams can’t skip steps in building chemistry and cohesion, but he also admits the coronavirus-crunched schedule makes it difficult to be patient.

“We’ve changed a lot of moving parts,” Williams said. “And I don’t want that to be an excuse.”

SMITH’S ROLE

The Suns made a surprise pick in the NBA draft when they took forward Jalen Smith with the No. 10 overall pick.

Though some pundits thought the pick was a reach, the Suns are intrigued by his combination of shot blocking and 3-point shooting. He averaged 15.5 points, 10.5 rebounds and more than two blocks per game last year at Maryland. He also made 32 3-pointers in 31 games.

Williams said Smith’s role will depend on how quickly he adapts to the speed of the NBA game.

“There are moments where he doesn’t have the force that he needs to play with because he’s thinking,” Williams said. “It’s not because he doesn’t want to do it, he’s thinking about what he should do instead of letting it naturally happen. That’s OK, because that’s what all young players go through.”

FORWARD SHUFFLE

One of the intriguing position battles for the Suns is at the 3 and 4 spots. The team brings back Mikal Bridges, Cameron Johnson and Dario Saric, who all have shown promise in their young careers. Bridges averaged 9.1 points per game last season and can guard several positions on the court with his long arms.

Johnson averaged 8.8 points in his rookie season and shot nearly 40% from 3-point range. Saric averaged 10.7 points per game as another floor spacer.

Added to the mix is Crowder, a 30-year-old who is entering his ninth season and played an important role last season with the Miami Heat, who lost to the Lakers in the NBA Finals. At 6-foot-6 and 235 pounds, Crowder brings a physical presence that will be useful in many matchups.

AYTON’S YEAR 3

It’s another big year for Ayton, who was the No. 1 overall pick in 2018.

The big man has been very productive in stretches and has worked to improve his interior defense and outside shooting. But he’s also been the source of frustration: he was suspended 25 games early last season for violating the league’s anti-drug policy by testing positive for a diuretic.

BUILDING ON THE BUBBLE

Phoenix started its momentum in Florida last season, when the team went 8-0 in the restart bubble and almost made the playoffs despite nearly impossible odds. Booker, Bridges and Johnson played particularly well in Florida, and it gave the Suns confidence to invest some money, add Paul and Crowder, and try to push for more success.

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