Three weeks ago I became a father to a beautiful — yes, I’m extremely bias — little girl. As a first time father I didn’t realize at the time how much it would impact every decision I’d make for the rest of my life. From the little things to the major life choices each fork in the road I have to navigate between will forever impact my little girl, how she grows up and what she’ll become.
As I sat in my living room chair one night with my daughter nuzzled gently into my chest, her rhythmic breathing relaxing my mind as we watched the Phoenix Suns, I realized coach Earl Watson is in a similar position. While Dragan Bender, Marquese Chriss and Tyler Ulis aren’t Watson’s flesh and blood, he’s preached love and family enough that they might as well be. With each of them just recently beginning their NBA lives, Watson’s decisions will directly impact the path their career will take. As a first time coach, you have to wonder whether it’ll be a positive or negative impact or somewhere in between on the future of the Suns’ roster. What kind of guardian of the team’s future will he be?
If the first month of the season is any indication, tough love is the tactic Watson is taking with the youth on the roster. In a season where most fans are resigned and even accepting of the fact that their beloved Purple Gang from Phoenix will miss the postseason for a franchise record seventh consecutive year, the rookie head coach is managing the roster as if fighting for a playoff spot is the end all be all. Veterans like Jared Dudley, P.J. Tucker and Leandro Barbosa are playing 25% of the available minutes per game, 59.1 minutes combined, compared to Bender, Chriss and Ulis playing only 14% of the available minutes, 33.7 minutes a game on average combined. Shouldn’t those numbers be reversed?
That’s not a knock on Barbosa, Dudley or Tucker. They’re good basketball players, great locker room influences and even better guys to interact with as someone around the team. It is more of an indication of what the Suns are doing as opposed to where they are.
The reality is, this season is all about growth. It’s all about preparing a young roster to be ready to take their next big step in two or three seasons. It’s about putting them in real game situations that prepare them to succeed on a much larger stage when the Suns finally punch their ticket back to the playoffs. None of that can happen if that future is riding more pine than a kid on a wooden rocking horse.
Barbosa, Dudley and Tucker are most valuable to the Suns when they’re mentoring Bender, Chriss and Ulis rather than blocking their path to getting on the court.
Don’t hit the panic button quite yet though. There is plenty of time left for it to turn around. The rookies don’t have to look any further than sophomore Devin Booker. The Kentucky standout only averaged a whopping 12.2 minutes in his first month of his rookie campaign before finishing the season averaging 27.7 minutes a game.
Just like me with my daughter and any parent with their children, Watson is bound to screw up his youngsters one way or another. The key is minimizing how much and how extensive the damage. Not playing them major minutes in the first dozen games of their career won’t stunt their growth. If the pattern continues all season? Well, then it might be time for some parenting classes because every decision from here on out will have an impact on where the Suns wind up moving forward.