Associated Press

After awful season, Suns pin their hopes on young talent

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PHOENIX (AP) — There was a time, long ago, that the Phoenix Suns were winners playing the most entertaining style in the NBA.

It’s been seven years, though, since the Suns made the playoffs.

Now they’re the youngest squad in the league and maybe, just maybe, they have the makings of success.

“It’s happening in front of your eyes,” ever-optimistic coach Earl Watson said. “If I would say last summer that Devin Booker was going to Boston or anywhere and score 70, everyone thought it was ludicrous. It’s happening in front of your eyes and it’s great to watch.”

The Suns’ optimism starts with Booker, the 20-year-old guard who had some phenomenal scoring outbursts, leading the league with six 20-point quarters, one more than Stephen Curry and Russell Westbrook.

But this is a team that won only 24 games. To make sure they didn’t win many more than that, thereby enhancing their draft situation, they sat point guard Eric Bledsoe for the final month of the season.

As a result, Phoenix has the second-worst record in the NBA and is assured a top five pick in this season’s draft.

Here are some things to consider in evaluating the Suns’ odd season:

YOUTH: At one point, Phoenix featured the youngest starting lineup in NBA history.

Spectacularly athletic but temperamental forward Marquese Chriss is 19. So is Dragan Bender, the team’s top draft pick whose season was slowed by injury.

Forward Derick Jones Jr. is 20, guard Tyler Ulis, 21, forward T.J. Warren, 23, centers Alex Len and Alan Williams are 24.

Booker didn’t turn 20 until last October.

What’s uncertain is how fast these young players can improve enough to make this a playoff team or more.

“How long does it take? Good question,” GM Ryan McDonough said. “I don’t know. This is a multi-year process. However, if we’re good over the next couple of years I think we’ll be good for 10 years after that.”

BOOKER: The Suns didn’t know the gem they were getting when they drafted the teenage Kentucky guard as the 13th selection overall.

He averaged 22.1 points per game in this, his second, season, but that stat doesn’t reflect how spectacular Booker can be.

Only four other players in NBA history have scored more than the 70 Booker got in Boston. He is the youngest to score that many and it was a franchise record.

Booker had three quarters of at least 27 points. The rest of the NBA had two.

He plays with an edge, shouting “This is my house!” after sinking a late-game 3-pointer last week against Oklahoma City in a game where the Suns deprived Westbrook of a record-setting 42nd triple-double.

He’s as personable off the court as he is brash on it.

“Once you step between those lines, you turn into a different beast,” he said.

Booker is primed to be the face of the franchise for years to come.

“It’s a big statement to say be the face of the franchise,” he said, “but I think I’m built for it.”

DRAFT PICK: McDonough has been in the league since 2003 and calls it one of the best two or three drafts in that time.

The Suns are loaded with young guards and small forwards but that won’t affect the team’s draft decisions.

If Phoenix gets the No. 1 pick, it could well be UCLA point guard Lonzo Ball.

“We have depth at both of those areas, especially at the guard slot,” McDonough said, “but we’ll take the best available player and if that guy’s as good as we think he can be work the rest of the roster right around him.”

BLEDSOE: Which brings us to point guard Eric Bledsoe.

McDonough said Bledsoe was the team’s best player, as evidenced by the team’s dearth of wins after the decision was made to sit him.

Bledsoe was one of only five players to average at least 21.1 points, 6.3 assists and 4.8 rebounds per game.

But if Ball comes on board, would this still be Bledsoe’s team?

“I’m not worried about none of that,” Bledsoe said. “I just want to get better, compete for the playoffs and have that lead to a championship.”

THUNDER & WARRIORS: Watson and McDonough point to the lack of success of the Thunder in the first years of Kevin Durant and Westbrook and the Warriors in the early days of Curry and Klay Thompson.

The Thunder drafted James Harden, Watson recalled, and won 50 games.

That’s the plan in Phoenix.

Victor Oladipo’s practice dunk better than anything he – or maybe anyone – did in dunk contest (video)

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Victor Oladipo has grown into far more than just a dunker.

In fact, in Saturday’s dunk contest, he didn’t look like a dunker at all.

The Pacers star missed all three attempts of his first dunk, and a Black Panther mask was by far the biggest draw of his second. Oladipo was eliminated after the first round.

Maybe Dennis Smith Jr. wasn’t the only eliminated dunker who left something in his bag. This Oladipo dunk – 180 degrees, throwing ball off the backboard with his left hand while in mid-air, dunking with his right hand – while preparing in Los Angeles was awesome.

Larry Nance Jr. had the contest’s best dunk. This would have rivaled it.

Pelicans owner Tom Benson hospitalized with flu symptoms

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METAIRIE, La. (AP) — New Orleans Saints and Pelicans Owner Tom Benson has been hospitalized with flu symptoms.

A statement released Wednesday by the NFL and NBA clubs says their 90-year-old owner is resting comfortably at Ochsner Medical Center, a hospital which also serves as a major sponsor and which owns naming rights to the teams’ training headquarters.

Benson has owned the New Orleans Saints since 1985 and bought the New Orleans Pelicans in 2012.

In recent years, Benson has overhauled his estate plan so that his third wife, Gayle, would be first in line to inherit control of the two major professional franchises.

 

Report: Seattle hosting Kings-Warriors preseason game

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Kevin Durant spent his rookie season in Seattle, before the SuperSonics moved to Oklahoma City and became the Thunder. He has said Seattle fans deserved to see him grow up in the NBA after supporting his promising start.

They’ll get their chance.

Ailene Voisin of The Sacramento Bee:

The Kings and Golden State Warriors have scheduled a preseason game next season in Seattle, according to multiple league sources.

The Oct. 6 meeting between Northern California teams will be the first NBA game in the Key Arena since the Sonics moved to Oklahoma City after the 2007-08 season and became the Thunder.

This game will be loaded with storylines. Not only Durant, but the Kings considered moving to Seattle a few years ago. And of course, the return of NBA basketball to Seattle.

At some point, Seattle will get its own team again. For now, this preseason game creates intrigue there.

Report: Kawhi Leonard cleared medically, seeking second opinion

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Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said he’d be surprised if Kawhi Leonard played again this season, a stark reversal from just a month ago. Back then, even while announcing Leonard was out indefinitely with a quad injury, the San Antonio coach said Leonard wouldn’t miss the rest of the season.

What’s going on?

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

After spending 10 days before the All-Star break in New York consulting with a specialist to gather a second opinion on his right quad injury, All-NBA forward Kawhi Leonard bears the burden of determining when he’s prepared to play again, sources told ESPN.

Leonard has been medically cleared to return from the right quad tendinopathy injury, but since shutting down a nine-game return to the Spurs that ended Jan. 13, he has elected against returning to the active roster, sources said.

The uncertainty surrounding this season — and Leonard’s future which could include free agency in the summer of 2019 — has inspired a palpable stress around the organization, league sources said.

At first glance, this sounds like Derrick Rose five years ago. Even after he was cleared to play following a torn ACL, the then-Bulls star remained mysterious about when he’d suit up. His confidence in his physical abilities seemed to be a major issue, and he was never the same player since (suffering more leg injuries).

But the Spurs famously favor resting players to preserve long-term health. They seem unlikely to rush back Leonard. They might even sit players who want to play more often. And Leonard isn’t Rose.

Still, it’s clear something is amiss in San Antonio. Maybe not amiss enough to end Leonard’s tenure there, but the longer this lingers, the more time for tension to percolate.