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2016-17 Season Preview: Suns begin building process with youth

From left to right, Phoenix Suns second-round draft pick Tyler Ulis and first-round draft picks Dragan Bender and Marquese Chriss are introduced to the media as head coach Earl Watson smiles, Friday, June 24, 2016, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Matt York)
(AP Photo/Matt York)

PHOENIX — About an hour into the NBA draft last June, the Suns’ draft room erupted in cheers.

Either the nosh was that good, or the something big happened.

Something big — 6-foot-10 Marquese Chriss — happened.

When Sacramento OK’d a trade that enabled the Suns to get second pick in the top eight of the draft, they were able to add Chriss to young haul that included Croatian forward Dragan Bender at No. 4.

The Suns were cheering their future.

Neither Chriss nor Bender is expected to start this season, certainly not early, but the Suns believe that in the long term they will be able to take move forward behind those two, two of the youngest four players in the NBA, and a guard mix that includes 20-point scorer Eric Bledsoe and last year’s No. 1 draftee, Devin Booker.

Although the Suns are optimistic, this may be a season of deferred gratification.

Not everyone sees immediate improvement from the 23-59 season in 2015-16 that included injuries, insubordination, a coaching change and the breakout of star Booker, who shone when given opportunity.

Some predictions have the Suns winning 26 games this season, which does not skew with the return of Bledsoe and third guard Brandon Knight, whose injuries that cost them a full season combined.

The Suns are not really paying attention.

“We don’t want to limit our guys at all,” said general manager Ryan McDonough, who joined the team in 2013-14.

“Our first year here we were projected to win fewer games, and our players believed they could make it (playoffs) and they almost did. We want them to have that same mind-set and that same mentality, but we also don’t want to put the pressure on what would be one of the younger rotations in recent NBA history. Not many teams play three teenagers.

“We don’t want to put too much pressure on these guys, that it is playoffs or bust. With our good contracts, we have most of the guys under control for awhile to build this over time.”

Free agent signee Jared Dudley will start at power forward and returnees T.J Warren and P.J. Tucker will play the small forward once Tucker recovers from offseason back surgery, so Bender and Chriss will be used in smaller doses as they acclimate themselves to the NBA game.

Chriss is young to the sport, having spent his early high school years playing football, and Bender, 7-foot-1, will need to bulk up to be effective against the stronger, more physical big men he will face on the way to the basket while showing poise beyond his years.

With Bledsoe, Booker and Knight, the Suns will score. Bledsoe can take the ball to the basket and score from the perimeter, Knight does the same things not quite as well, and Booker showed he can score from just about anywhere on the floor.

Utah Jazz guard Raul Neto (25) guards Phoenix Suns guard Eric Bledsoe (2) during the second half of an NBA basketball game Monday, Dec. 21, 2015, in Salt Lake City. The Jazz won 110-89. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

(AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

New coach Earl Watson made Booker the go-to guy after taking over from coach Jeff Hornacek, now with the Knicks, comparing Booker’s potential career trajectory to that of Kobe Bryant. Both entered the league at 19.

Expect Bledsoe and Booker to carry the offensive load, with Dudley and Tucker spotting up from the outside, Warren taking the ball to the basket and centers Tyson Chandler and Alex Len doing the dirty work inside. Len showed a nice touch from 12-15 feet in extended duty when injuries forced he and Chandler to play together in a twin towers front line, but the two are expected to share the center spot this year.

The Suns committed the most turnovers in the league last year and were second-highest in turnover percentage, mainly because they played one-third of the season without a true point guard. That should change, and a new offense that will concentrate on moving the ball from side-to-side and will be initiated from different spots on the floor — the top of the key, the wing, the elbow — also could contribute to a smoother flow.

Defense was an emphasis in training camp, and Watson believes the Suns need to finish in the top 10 in field goal percentage to make the playoffs. They were 28th in points allowed a year ago, but their peripheral numbers improved when Watson was elevated to interim coach and put in some new schemes.

“We all know defense gets you through the playoffs,” Watson said. “We have great unique players who can guard more than one position. Now, the positive is, we didn’t have a full roster (last year). When you think about the guys who are healthy, and staying healthy is a key, there is no reason we can’t make those leaps. We have to make those leaps defensively before we can talk about offense.”

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