3 rotation elements to watch during Suns' first scrimmage

Monty Williams said to expect lineup experimentation against Utah.

Devin Booker is sick of playing ping-pong and “bags” (aka cornhole) with his friends. 

Monty Williams is done watching baseball games played in Asia on television. 

Dario Saric is ready for a “friendly” matchup, a nod to international soccer. 

For the first time in 135 days, the Suns will face an opponent on a basketball floor. Phoenix plays its first scrimmage of the NBA restart Thursday evening against Utah, a 40-minute exhibition inside the Walt Disney World “bubble” in Orlando. 

It probably won’t be the sharpest display of basketball, with players still working on conditioning and chemistry following a four-month layoff. The Suns also did not arrive in Orlando at full strength. Aron Baynes shared Wednesday that he is still back in Phoenix recovering from coronavirus, while Elie Okobo and Jalen Lecque are not with the team due to personal reasons (all three players are expected to join at a later date, the team said). Ricky Rubio also revealed he did not practice with the Suns until Tuesday because he previously tested positive for COVID-19, and was unsure if he would play Thursday. 

Naturally, this should lead to some personnel experimentation for Williams. 

“(I have) the ability to put some lineups on the floor that may look a little different than we normally have out there,” Williams said, “but there’ll be a method and a reason behind it.” 

Here are three rotation elements that will be interesting to monitor:  

Point guard 

Even if Rubio does play Thursday, it’s likely his minutes will be limited. 

That presents a prime opportunity for Ty Jerome, Jevon Carter and newcomer Cameron Payne to get the bulk of the playing time. That experience, along with the practice reps before Rubio arrived, will surely be used as additional data while evaluating those players’ futures with Phoenix. Carter will be an unrestricted free agent this offseason, while Payne is trying to work his way back into the NBA after previously spending this season playing in China and the G League.

You want to see somebody grab ahold of that backup point guard spot and say, ‘It’s mine. Nobody’s taking it, and I should be starting,’” Williams said over the weekend. “ … Up until this point, we haven’t had that.”   

Jerome said he spent the majority of the league’s hiatus in Virginia, where he could train with former college teammate and top-5 draft pick De’Andre Hunter. After an injury-plagued rookie season, Jerome worked on strengthening his ankles, hips and core, as well as his outside shooting. 

Carter, meanwhile, said he spent the break studying point guards such as Chris Paul. And he’s taken “every single day” to get extra shooting work in when the NBA has reopened the gyms outside of team practice sessions.  

And … how much does Booker become the primary ballhandler, an idea first floated by Williams early in the NBA’s hiatus?  

Frontcourt beyond Deandre Ayton 

Deandre Ayton might be the most fascinating Suns player to watch in Orlando, starting with a Thursday matchup against Rudy Gobert. But it’s also worth tracking how the frontcourt spots around and behind the second-year center are filled. 

For now, Phoenix has a void at backup center. 

Baynes said during an interview with Stadium Wednesday that he has not yet recorded the two consecutive negative COVID-19 tests required by the NBA to travel to Orlando. He added he has not touched a basketball in more than 30 days, but recently began working out again. 

“It actually put me on my butt for a good week,” said Baynes, adding his wife and two children also eventually tested positive. “I slept for four days straight.” 

Saric, the projected starter at power forward, should slide to center at times. He has earned praise from Williams and teammates for his body transformation, with assistant coach Darko Rajakovic pushing Saric to improve his nutrition. When other players start to get winded, Williams said, Saric is still knocking down shots.

“When I first saw him when I was able to be around the guys again, you could see his body was different,” Williams said. “Shoulders, back, he looks more defined. … His conditioning is really, really ahead of where I thought he would be.” 

Frank Kaminsky, who will see his first game action since late December after recovering from a knee stress fracture, is an outside shooting threat and “connector” with the ball in Williams’ fast-paced offense. Cheick Diallo could see time while Baynes is unavailable. Both players’ contracts have team options for 2020-21. 

Wings 

Kelly Oubre Jr. is likely out for at least part of the restart following early-March meniscus surgery. Williams said Tuesday that Oubre has done “a little bit” of on-court work during practices, but not enough contact drills to make a return seem imminent.

“It’s a tough situation for him,” Williams said, “because we’re gonna have so many games back-to-back-to-back coming up. And the practice time, as far as 5-on-5 and bumping is concerned, we won’t have enough of that time. So I’m not quite sure where he’s going to get to.”  

Mikal Bridges, who Williams recently called a “glue guy,” is projected to continue starting at small forward, and shift to shooting guard and power forward as needed. Big minutes should be coming for Cam Johnson, the rookie sharpshooter who was recovering from mononucleosis when the season went dark. 

Williams also hinted that he could deploy some lineups with three guards, a stretch 4 and a center. The coach noted he likes Carter as an off-ball “renegade” wing, which allows him to dig in on defense and get open for 3-pointers instead of run the offense.