Welcome to the Solar Panel. A gathering of some of the most unique minds discussing topics from around Planet Orange (if that’s still a thing). These media members and super fans will breakdown whether the Phoenix Suns are headed in the right direction for the future. Here’s this edition’s panelists:
Gerald Bourguet , Assistant Editor at HoopsHabit.com
Alex Kennedy, NBA writer for HoopsHype.
Greg Esposito: Suns Columnist for Sports360AZ and co-host Suns Solar Panel
LISTEN TO ERIC BLEDSOE ON THE SUNS SOLAR PANEL PODCAST:
1) Has Devin Booker entered the “super star” discussion with his sophomore season?
Gerald Bourguet: Not yet, but he’s absolutely on the path to superstardom. There was concern about Booker dealing with the dreaded “sophomore slump” when his season got off to a slow start, but he’s been an absolute flamethrower ever since, especially when Eric Bledsoe was still on the court. It might be easy for those on the outside to chalk up his production and bravado as a player putting up big numbers on a bad team, but considering he’s only 20 years old, this kid is going to be something special. From his unforgettable 70-point game to his expanding abilities as a playmaker to stealing the spotlight from Russell Westbrook on a potentially historic night (complete with cries of “This is MY f***ing house!” to the home crowd), Booker has the right blend of talent, upside, work ethic, and yes, the Kobe Bryant-esque confidence of a stone-cold killer.
Alex Kennedy: I definitely think he’s entered the discussion as a “potential superstar.” I’m not ready to say he’s currently a superstar, but he is only 20 years old. He has shown that he’s one of the best up-and-coming players in the NBA and way ahead of the curve when it comes to his development. Nobody expected him to be this good, this quickly. Earlier this season, I made the case for which 25-or-younger I would choose to build a team around, and Booker came up in the conversation as I discussed it with colleagues. And that was before the 70-point game. He’s a franchise cornerstone and someone who teams have to game-plan against, so I’m comfortable putting him in the “up-and-coming superstar” category. I can’t wait to watch him develop over the next decade.
Greg Esposito: To quote Will Smith in about every movie he’s ever been in, “aw, hell no.” Does he have the potential? Sure. Is he a lot closer this year than he was in his rookie year? A resounding yes. But what scoring Superstar do you know that averaged only 22 points and lead his team to the second worst record in the NBA? None, ever. In order for Booker to truly be in the super stardom conversation he has to break the 25 points a game mark and leads the Suns to a winning record. 70-point games are historic no matter what was done to help you get there and taking it personally when Russell Westbrook gets MVP chants in your gym is great, but until then he’s a nice piece with potential that hasn’t done enough to earn his membership card in the NBA’s elite.
2) Is Eric Bledsoe’s future in Phoenix a fate accompli?
GB: It’s starting to look like it. Not only did poor Bledsoe get shut down with 15 games left in the season against his will, but now the Suns are slated for a top-three pick (possibly even top-two). In a guard-heavy draft, it’s starting to feel like only Josh Jackson or trading the pick would prevent Phoenix from drafting either Markelle Fultz or Lonzo Ball. Those players would be potential replacements for Bledsoe and it’d make sense for the Suns to explore the trade market for him coming off a career year while he’s still healthy. Bledsoe’s not on the same timeline as the youngsters and his future in Phoenix is not as certain as it once was.
AK: I honestly don’t know what’s going to happen to Bledsoe going forward. On one hand, he’s under contract for two more years and he has played really well when healthy. On the other hand, this is a franchise that has been very aggressive in trade talks and they’re willing to package assets together to make a splashy move. I could see them trading Bledsoe if the right offer came along, but I don’t think a trade is inevitable at this point. There’s a scenario where I can envision Bledsoe remaining with Phoenix, at least in the near future.
Espo: After talking to Bled on the latest episode of The Solar Panel — how do you like that shameless plug? — it almost felt like he was resigned to the fact that his time in Phoenix may be coming to an end even saying it’s a “difficult situation for both sides.” It all comes down to what the Suns truly feel like their time table for success is. If you believe their stance that they don’t expect to truly contend until 2020, that means Bledsoe would be in his early 30s when his younger teammates hit their prime. While he’s an all-star caliber guard, he may just be too old to be part of the next great… OK, good, Suns team. Bledsoe will go down as the lost great Phoenix guard. If he played in any other Era in Phoenix he would have been a huge fan favorite. Instead, he found himself as part of the worst era in team history.
3) If the Suns don’t land a Top 2 pick at the draft lottery was this season an abject failure?
GB: I don’t know about top-two, but if it falls outside of the top three selections, yes. A top-three pick would still give the Suns their choice between whichever player is remaining in that tantalizing Fultz-Ball-Jackson trio, which would either supply a new franchise point guard or a two-way wing who could help make up for Booker’s shortcomings on the defensive end. Falling outside of the top two would be depressing, but after shutting down so many players, enduring a franchise-record seven-year playoff drought and participating in such blatant tanking, falling outside of the top three would be Jake Tsakalidis levels of unfortunate.
AK: No, I don’t think so. Landing a top-two pick is certainly important – don’t get me wrong – but I don’t think we can judge an entire season as a success or failure based on that. And there are so many other good things that happened this season when you talk about the young guys developing and learning. It would hurt if they don’t land a top-two pick, but I’m not ready to label the season a failure if they miss out.
Espo: The Suns season will have been a bigger failure than people who were all in on Josh Hartnett being the next great leading man. If you’re going to debase your franchise and the athletic process by benching healthy players and losing on purpose you damn well better walk away with one of the NBA’s top prizes. It’s like breaking up with someone you like because you think you have a shot with someone better and winding up with neither.
4) What was the biggest takeaway from the 2016-17 season for the Suns?
GB: Patience is a virtue. Nobody likes waiting for a rebuild, especially a fair weather fan city like Phoenix that’s used to success from the fourth-winningest franchise in NBA history. Suns fans have also been waiting a long time for that first championship as the longest-tenured franchise to never win a title. Entering the Suns’ 50th season and possibly their eighth straight year without the playoffs, it’s not hard to see why fans are getting impatient. But building through the middle has failed time and time again under general manager Ryan McDonough, so why not give this more patient approach a chance? Devin Booker, Tyler Ulis, Marquese Chriss, T.J. Warren, Dragan Bender, Alan Williams and Derrick Jones Jr. all showed signs of potential this year. Continue to feed the young guys minutes, add another top-three pick to the group and move forward on the path of development.
AK: To me, it was realizing just how good Booker can be. Averaging 22.1 points per game is really, really difficult. I’ve talked to veterans about it and they talk about how you have to bring it every single night. That consistency isn’t easy. To do it as a 20-year-old sophomore? And do it efficiently, shooting 42.3 percent from the field and 36.3 percent from three? That’s crazy. I went from thinking, ‘Booker could be a very good player,’ to thinking, ‘Booker is a very good player now, and could be a superstar.’ Having a star to build around is so important in this league, so that’s the biggest takeaway, in my opinion.
Espo: After six seasons in hell — aka not good enough to be in the playoffs and not bad enough for a top pick — the Suns have finally picked a path for their future. They embraced the tank like they were in the film Fury and did everything in their power to land a difference maker in this draft. It’s a bold strategy Cotton. Let’s see if it pays off. If it doesn’t, someone will be looking for a new gig and it won’t be Robert Sarver.
OT) Purple or Orange
GB: Purple. Long live the Purple Palace.
AK: Orange. Fun fact: I grew up a Tampa Bay Buccaneers fan and actually had a red, orange and pewter room as a kid.
Espo: I’ll take purple for $500, Alex.