The 2017 offseason was the wildest in NBA history. LeBron James and Kyrie Irving are now Eastern Conference rivals. Out West, Chris Paul joined James Harden, while Paul George and Carmelo Anthony united with Russell Westbrook. Ten recent All–Stars changed uniforms, and we haven’t even gotten to Kevin Durant’s strange summer, so let’s get to previewing. The 2017-18 NBA season is finally upon us.
2016-17 finish: 24-58, last in the West
• Offensive rating: 103.9 (22nd)
• Defensive rating: 109.3 (28th)
Did the summer help at all?
Yes, though probably more for the future than the present. A Suns team that finished last season 27th or worse in 3-pointers made and attempted, and in team 3-point shooting percentage, could get a boost from imported-from-Memphis designated hitter Daniels (40.6 percent from deep in his four-year pro career) and rookie 3-and-D hopeful Reed. For the most part, though, all eyes will be on Jackson.
The No. 4 pick in June’s 2017 NBA draft, Jackson is a 6-foot-8 swingman reputed to have lockdown-defender upside to go with gifts as an athletic slasher and supplementary distributor. He gives Phoenix another blue-chip wing prospect to slot in alongside rising-star scorer Devin Booker in what the Suns hope will soon become one of the league’s premier perimeter tandems.
The NBA is an unforgiving place for 20-year-olds asked to check elite scorers. But if Jackson gets up to speed quickly, his length, instincts and disruptive tendencies could help improve a Suns defense that has ranked among the NBA’s five worst in each of the last two seasons. (If Dunk Contest notable Derrick Jones Jr. can build on a post-All-Star turn as a defense-first rotation player, so much the better.)
The rook could pay dividends on the other end, too. According to lineup data from NBAwowy.com, the Suns scored a scorching 111.9 points per 100 possessions with both Booker and point guard Eric Bledsoe on the floor, but just 100.6 points-per-100 when Booker played without Bledsoe, and only 97 points-per-100 when Bledsoe ran without Booker. If Jackson’s nose for the rim and playmaking touch — he averaged 16.3 points and three assists per game at Kansas — translate against NBA competition, he’ll offer head coach Earl Watson another option to help stabilize a Phoenix offense that struggled mightily whenever one of its top two options hit the bench.
It’s always wise to err on the side of brake-pumping when it comes to expecting big things from rookies. That’s especially true for freshmen likely to begin the season coming off the bench. With the Bledsoe-Booker backcourt intact, throwback bucket-getter T.J. Warren having just received a $50 million contract extension to play small forward, 2016 lottery pick Marquese Chriss coming off 75 starts at power forward, and the tandem of Tyson Chandler and Alex Len in line to split time at the five spot, Jackson might find himself having to wait his turn.
But with Watson seeming interested in experimenting with pace-pushing small-ball lineups and Jackson earning early praise for his drive — veteran forward Jared Dudley has compared the Jayhawk’s work ethic to what he saw from meta-human Giannis Antetokounmpo during his stint in Milwaukee — it looks like he’ll get plenty of opportunities to make a difference from the season’s opening tip. If he looks like the real deal in his maiden voyage around the NBA, it’ll help bolster Suns fans’ faith in “The Timeline,” offering hope that a mostly dour half-decade of post-Steve-Nash basketball really will result in better things.
Best-case scenario: Bledsoe stays healthy and kicks ass, teaming with an ascendant Booker in a backcourt explosive enough to force national observers to take notice. (And maybe to entice a prospective contender in need of a midseason jolt to give up some future-pick goodies for Bledsoe, although given how many youngsters Phoenix already has, it might not be the worst thing in the world for the Suns to just keep a productive under-30 lead guard who’s only owed $15 million next season.) Jackson pushes for minutes immediately, and the smooth-scoring Warren responds by raising his game, giving Watson a dynamic tandem capable of slotting in effectively at either forward spot.
Chriss and fellow 2016 lottery choice Dragan Bender show the sort of growth — the former in staying engaged enough to make a consistent two-way difference, the latter in displaying the aggressiveness to deploy his diverse skill-set — that suggests general manager Ryan McDonough had the right idea in tabbing them as a potentially interchangeable four-five combo of the future. Nobody (besides the evidently born-under-a-bad-sign Brandon Knight) gets hurt, the defense nudges north toward respectability, and the Suns exit the season closer to being a viable NBA team than they entered it.
If everything falls apart: Booker’s development as a playmaker slows, lowering his ceiling as a potential top option. Jackson’s jumper remains a work in progress, and he’s not as ready to contribute as hoped. Injuries prevent the Suns from getting either productive play on the court or significant trade return from vets Bledsoe, Dudley and Tyson Chandler. Neither Chriss nor Bender make the leap toward looking foundational, and Suns fans head into another summer wondering when this long walk through the desert will reach an oasis of relevance.
Best guess at a record: 25-57
Read all of Ball Don’t Lie’s 2017-18 NBA Season Previews:
Atlanta Hawks • Boston Celtics • Brooklyn Nets • Charlotte Hornets • Chicago Bulls • Cleveland Cavaliers • Detroit Pistons • Indiana Pacers • Miami Heat • Milwaukee Bucks • New York Knicks • Orlando Magic • Philadelphia 76ers • Toronto Raptors • Washington Wizards
Dallas Mavericks • Denver Nuggets • Golden State Warriors • Houston Rockets • Los Angeles Clippers • Los Angeles Lakers • Memphis Grizzlies • Minnesota Timberwolves • New Orleans Pelicans • Oklahoma City Thunder • Phoenix Suns • Portland Trail Blazers • Sacramento Kings • San Antonio Spurs • Utah Jazz