Ex-Cats

What does future hold for Suns with Booker, Bledsoe and Knight?

Phoenix Suns guard Devin Booker (1) in the second half of an NBA basketball game Thursday, Jan. 26, 2017, in Denver. The Nuggets won 127-120.
Phoenix Suns guard Devin Booker (1) in the second half of an NBA basketball game Thursday, Jan. 26, 2017, in Denver. The Nuggets won 127-120. AP

As each NBA team is eliminated from contention for the 2016-17 title, The Washington Post is looking ahead to what they have in store for this offseason. The Phoenix Suns were eliminated from playoff contention last week.

2017 draft picks

First round: Their own.

Second round: Their own, Toronto’s.

2017-18 salary cap space (with projected $102 million cap): $29.5 million (Nine players with $65.4 million in guaranteed contracts, three draft picks worth $7.3 million and one roster charge worth $815,615). Doesn’t include non-guaranteed contracts for Leandro Barbosa and Derrick Jones.

2017 free agents: PG Ronnie Price, SG Jarell Eddie, PF Alan Williams (restricted), C Alex Len (restricted)

Five questions to answer

1. How good can Devin Booker be?

If there were any NBA fans who didn’t know about former University of Kentucky star Devin Booker before last Friday, they certainly know about him after the second-year shooting guard exploded for 70 points in a loss to the Boston Celtics at TD Garden.

Looking at that performance — reaching a point total that had only been done previously by four Hall of Famers and Kobe Bryant, who will be as soon as he’s eligible — it’s easy to look at Booker and say he’s destined for stardom. But looking at his overall statistical profile, it becomes a little harder to determine what his future will look like.

He’s shooting 42.3 percent from the field — exactly the same as his rookie season. He’s shown only modest improvement to 36.4 percent from three-point range and notching the same percentage from the foul line. While shooting the same percentage at a higher volume is obviously a good thing, it still is a little surprising for a player that, when you apply the eye test, has all the makings of an all-star for years to come.

Given that Booker won’t even be 21 until the start of next season, it seems more likely than not that he’ll become that kind of player down the road. But next year could be a critical one for him, to see if he is capable of making the leap forward to become a bona fide number one option on a team that’s more of a contender than this year’s hapless Suns are.

2. Will Eric Bledsoe be a Sun next season?

Bledsoe was shut down for the rest of the season with “left knee soreness” recently, a nod both to Bledsoe’s injury history and Phoenix’s pursuit of a top pick in this year’s loaded NBA Draft (more on that in a bit). Still, when healthy, the former UK standout was excellent for the Suns this season, averaging 21.1 points, 4.8 rebounds and 6.3 assists per game.

Combine those numbers with Bledsoe’s hyper athleticism and his excellent contract (he’s making a combined $29.5 million over the next two seasons), and he could be one of the most attractive trade chips on the market — if Phoenix decides to put him out there.

For all of Bledsoe’s talents, it would seem likely Phoenix will want to see what he’s worth. Booker is 20, and Marquese Chriss and Dragan Bender, the team’s first round picks in the 2016 NBA draft, are both going to turn 20 later this year. The three of them, plus whomever Phoenix takes with their first rounder in this year’s draft, are going to form the core of the Suns moving forward — all on a different time frame than Bledsoe, who will play next season at 28.

If Bledsoe could net the Suns another young asset or two to go with that core, moving on from him now could make sense.

3. What does the future look like for Marquese Chriss and Dragan Bender?

Both Chriss and Bender — top eight picks in the 2016 NBA Draft — are teenage power forwards. And, as to be expected, both have struggled mightily this season.

Chriss, the slightly older prospect and the eighth overall pick out of Washington, has gotten more run under Coach Earl Watson, and has shown some of the ridiculous athletic gifts and the possibility of spacing the floor at a big spot (he’s shooting 33 percent from three-point range) that allowed him to shoot into the top 10 picks last spring after one year in school. But he’s also struggled with rebounding - something that was also an issue at Washington - and has looked lost at times defensively, as most rookies tend to.

Bender, on the other hand, has never really gotten going. The youngest player in last year’s draft, Bender has a tantalizing skill set as a 7-footer who can dribble, pass and shoot, but has only averaged 12 minutes per game in 38 games and has missed the past several weeks with an unfortunate ankle injury that robbed him of what would’ve been a massive increase in playing time down the stretch as Phoenix shifted into tank mode.

As stated earlier, the Suns are hoping to build their team moving forward around these two, Booker and whomever they get at the top of the 2017 draft. That means they need at least one — and preferably both — Chriss and Bender to take steps forward in 2017-18.

4. What has happened to Brandon Knight?

It’s easy to forget now, but it was only two seasons ago that ex-Cat Brandon Knight was playing at a near all-star level for a surprising Milwaukee Bucks team when, as part of an insane trade deadline day in 2015, he was dealt to the Suns in a four-team trade that saw point guards getting traded left and right and the Philadelphia 76ers get a top-three protected first round pick from the Suns as part of that deal.

Boy, would the Suns like that trade back now. Instead of sitting with the possibility of two top-five picks in this year’s draft, the Suns have one and Knight, who, like Bledsoe, is also sitting out for the rest of the season. Unlike Bledsoe, however, Knight has been awful, averaging 11 points and shooting less than 40 percent from the floor and just 32 percent from three-point range.

The question now isn’t what Bledsoe’s future in Phoenix is; at this point, he clearly has no future there. The question is can he be salvaged elsewhere, and at least return to being a productive NBA player again. With $44 million owed to him over the next three seasons, there isn’t likely to be a long line of suitors for someone who was eminently available over the past year. But if Phoenix tries to give him away — which seems very possible, as a result of where his stock has fallen — the guess here is someone takes him off their hands and hopes to turn this situation back around.

5. Will this be the year the Suns finally get the first overall pick?

Remarkably, despite being part of the NBA since 1968, the Suns have never won the top pick in the NBA draft (most famously losing a coin-flip for Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, then Lew Alcindor, in 1969). They’ll head into this year’s lottery with, at worst, the third-best odds of winning the top pick, and will be in a heated battle with the Los Angeles Lakers throughout the remainder of the regular season to see which team can finish with the NBA’s second-most losses this season.

If any team was due for some lottery luck, it would be the Suns — and this would be quite the time to get some. If Phoenix wound up with either of the top two spots in this year’s draft, allowing them to get either Markelle Fultz or Lonzo Ball, it’d be easy to see the beginnings of something fun happening. With one of them playing next to Booker (and with very competent rookie point guard Tyler Ulis backing them up), Phoenix would have its backcourt for the next decade, to go along with young frontcourt talent like T.J. Warren, Chriss and Bender. The Suns could also then move on from Bledsoe without a second thought, and move forward with a young core that could grow together under a young coach in Watson.

Regardless, with the talent at the top of this year’s draft, Phoenix seems likely to get another young piece to go along with what it already has, making for the beginnings of what appears to be a bright future for the Suns.

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