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Earl Watson wants young Suns to trust process through growing pains

Phoenix Suns coach Earl Watson makes a point during the second half of the team's NBA preseason basketball game against the Utah Jazz on Wednesday, Oct. 12, 2016, in Salt Lake City. The Suns won 111-110. (AP Photo/Kim Raff)
AP Photo/Kim Raff

PHOENIX — Earl Watson spent some time at home on Wednesday afternoon, chasing around his one-year-old son. When the Phoenix Suns head coach arrived at Talking Stick Resort Arena for his team’s season opener, he spent time with one of his older kids, a player on his team that’s not too much older — 19-year-old rookie forward Derrick Jones Jr.

Watson wants his players to know his process is about more than just the 2016-17 season. It’s about more than just the season-opening game against the Sacramento Kings — which ended in a 113-94 Suns loss.

“We spent the entire summer getting these guys to get a mindset of being a champion, not just the first game of the season,” said Watson, who coached 33 games with an interim tag last season. “To win a championship, plural, as many times as possible within decades, sustained success. It’s not just Game One. …

“They understand that this is a journey. No one wins or loses the season in one game. But our goal is just to be the best we can be.”

Six of the 13 players on the Suns’ roster have two or fewer years of professional experience. That includes a league-record four teenagers — second-year guard Devin Booker, Jones and fellow rookie forwards Marquese Chriss and Dragan Bender, who were selected at Nos. 4 and 8 in the draft this past June.

Watson wanted to meet with Jones — an undrafted free agent out of UNLV who earned the last spot on Phoenix’s roster — to begin instilling his future-first goals. While the 19-year-old was inactive on Wednesday and likely will see some time in the D-League, Watson sees the forward as a key part of the Suns’ forward-thinking philosophy.

“I think he has the opportunity to be really special,” Watson said. “When you get players in the NBA, or probably any level, you have three years to make an impact on their life. After that third year, they are who they are if you haven’t impacted their life yet.”

All of the young players will have a learning curve, for sure. When the Suns went to an all-reserve lineup late in the first quarter on Wednesday, a group that included Chriss playing the first minutes of his NBA career, the Kings closed the period on a 16-1 run that pulled them ahead by 11 points.

There’s also great potential. A lineup featuring three of the four rookies — Chriss, Bender and guard Tyler Ulis — went on an 11-0 run to end the third quarter, which featured the first five points of Bender’s career, and excelled in the fourth.

Watson praised the group for bringing energy in the second half, including Ulis’ high-octane defense.

“Even though we’re down 20, I play like it’s zero-zero,” Ulis said. “That’s something Devin talked to me about, we had a conversation at dinner about that. So I just come in and try to do what I can.”

Phoenix became the first team to play three teenagers in a season — and it did it in one night. In their NBA debuts, Chriss scored seven points in 22 minutes, Bender scored 10 points on 4-for-5 shooting in 11 minutes and Ulis scored two points in 13 minutes.

Last year, Phoenix went 23-59, including 9-24 when Watson took over. It may not get better quickly. In fact, it likely won’t.

But Watson just wants his young players to trust the process for now.

“We’re young guys and the only thing we need to do is put energy on the floor,” Bender said. “We came out, we started putting energy in and we started changing things on the court.”

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