Monty Williams: Orlando restart 'monumental' opportunity for Suns

Mandatory individual workouts began Wednesday at Veterans Memorial Coliseum.

Monty Williams did not confirm nor deny if he typically enjoys roller-coaster intergalactic adventures. But the Suns coach emphasized that he will not be partaking in any during his team’s stay in Orlando beginning next week. 

“We’re not going to ride on Space Mountain and do the Disney thing,” Williams said Wednesday during a videoconference call with local reporters. “This is freakin’ ‘Braveheart’ and ‘Gladiator’ stuff that we are trying to will onto other teams, and that’s the mindset.” 

Williams views the NBA restart at Walt Disney World as a “monumental” opportunity for Phoenix. Sure, the 26-39 Suns barely snuck into the 22-team field, and are a longshot to challenge for the Western Conference’s final playoff spot. But for a young roster in its first season under Williams’ tutelage, reconvening for a second training camp and eight more “seeding” games is certainly better than waiting until (at least) December to take the floor again. 

“It’s almost like a summer league as far as what we’re doing now,” Williams said, “and then that mindset will transfer into trying to make the playoffs. … Because of the guys’ ability to commit to the program and work their butts off, we’re in the bubble, and that’s an accomplishment. 

“It’s not the one we want, but it’s an accomplishment and a step.” 

Wednesday marked the first day of mandatory individual workouts at Veterans Memorial Coliseum, before the Suns depart July 7 for Orlando. And Williams is finally involved again, after NBA rules initially prohibited head coaches from attending voluntary player workouts that began when states’ stay-at-home orders were lifted in May. 

Here are some highlights from Williams’ session: 

Who’s healthy?

Williams declined to comment on the health of his roster, after The Arizona Republic first reported last week that two Suns players had tested positive for coronavirus when mandatory team testing began. Williams also did not confirm that Kelly Oubre Jr. will sit out the games in Orlando following meniscus surgery in early March, which was first reported by Shams Charania of The Athletic and Stadium. 

Yet the coach suggested nobody else has chosen to opt out of the restart for personal or health reasons.

“They want to hoop,” Williams said. “ … I don’t think I’ve heard one guy hesitate as it relates to playing.”  

Even without Oubre, this could potentially be the healthiest the Suns have been in quite some time. Big man Frank Kaminsky has recovered from a knee stress fracture that had sidelined him since early January. Williams said he is “blown away” by the muscle gained during the hiatus by rookie wing Cam Johnson, who was recovering from mononucleosis when the league shut down in mid-March. 

Any additional depth will be welcomed. Out of an abundance of caution, Williams said he wants to play starting guards Devin Booker and Ricky Rubio less than their normal minute allotment. 

What’s next?

This hiatus has nearly lasted as long as a typical offseason for non-playoff teams. That’s why Williams is approaching this restart like a new season. 

The coaching staff recently began sending materials to refresh players on terminology, style of play and areas to improve. Now, coaches can monitor individual player film sessions at the facility. 

“Just getting back into the gym has been cathartic for a lot of us who just love the gym and love being around each other,” Williams said. “It’s really helped me a ton. When you’ve been quarantined so long and (have been) in somewhat of a limited routine, it’s good to have the gym to get back with your guys. 

“I miss being around our guys. I’ve shared that with them a number of times.” 

Only individual workouts are permitted until July 13, when 5-on-5 practices can begin in Orlando. And though players have been performing intense exercises to help them run plays at full speed, Williams cautioned there’s only so much they can do now to build a conditioning base because “nothing mimics playing basketball.” 

Williams also revealed on the call that the Suns will play three exhibition games before beginning “seeding” play against Washington on July 31. That will present a time to experiment with lineup combinations and wrinkles that the coaching staff and front office have mulled over during the extended break. Back in April, for instance, Williams said he’d like to try playing Booker at point guard between 10 and 12 minutes per game. 

“Everything we’re going to do and will do will be based on winning games,” Williams said. “If I put Mikal (Bridges) or Cam or any one of our guys in a situation that is not as familiar to our fan base or to you guys (the media), it’s not to just experiment for experimenting’s sake. It’s for the win.

“You may see some things that are a bit different. But it’s not to just do it because we don’t have anything else to do and we just want to see what it looks like.” 

Williams added he has already watched this season’s first Suns-Wizards matchup “more times than I should,” and has also done initial film work on Dallas and the Clippers. 

Booker’s All-NBA push?  

The Suns’ content team has been producing a docuseries called “Don’t Sleep on Basketball,” which has chronicled how the team has handled the hiatus and return to workouts at the Coliseum.

Booker has not appeared in any of the videos. That’s because he has been working out in his own “bubble” with his father and brother, Williams said. 

“I’m sure he struggled (during the break), because he’s a gym guy,” Williams said of Booker. 

Booker became a first-time All-Star this season, and was averaging 26.1 points, 6.6 assists and 4.2 rebounds per game while shooting 48.7 percent from the floor when the league shut down. Williams envisions Booker aiming to make another push for league-wide respect during this restart.  

“He wants to go to Orlando and cement himself as one of the better players in the league in a different way,” Williams said. “He made the All-Star team. Now he’s probably got his eyes set on All-NBA, and he’s more than capable.”  

Some other guard contenders for the All-NBA teams: James Harden, Luka Doncic (also classified as a forward), Damian Lillard, Chris Paul, Ben Simmons (also classified as a forward), Jayson Tatum (also classified as a forward), Donovan Mitchell, Russell Westbrook, Kemba Walker, Trae Young and Kyle Lowry.

Why Cameron Payne? 

The Suns filled a vacant full-time roster spot Tuesday night, signing Cameron Payne to a two-year deal (per Charania). That spot had been open since Tyler Johnson was released in February, other than when Jonah Bolden was signed to a 10-day contract.

Payne has not played in an NBA game since January 2019, when he was on two 10-day contracts with Cleveland after being released by Chicago. But he was a G League standout this season, averaging 23.2 points on 48.3 percent shooting, 8.1 assists, 4.9 rebounds and 2.3 steals over 15 games for the Texas Legends. 

Williams coached Payne as a rookie when both men were with Oklahoma City during the 2015-16 season. Watching recent film, Williams said he was impressed with Payne’s burst, more mature body, feel for the game and passing, a key skill in the Suns’ “0.5” offense predicated on quick decision-making.  

“We’ll see,” Williams said. “He’s not in a position where he’s earned anything with us. But he’s got an opportunity to earn a spot in the rotation, and we’ll see if that works out for him. There’s gonna be high competition when we get to Orlando, and that’s something that we like.”  

Is this safe?

Williams candidly expressed how he feels about spending weeks inside a campus environment, away from his family and his home, while the pandemic continues to harm the United States. 

“I don’t think there’s anyone going down there that’s not concerned, you know what I’m saying?” Williams said. “… I have a lot of people that depend on me, so I’m trying to do everything that I can so that I can stay healthy for my family. I think everyone in the NBA feels that way. A lot of us, we’re the lighthouse for our families, so you don’t want to do anything that’s gonna jeopardize that.

“The league has, based on what I‘ve heard and seen, they’ve done a number of things to give us a chance, and that’s all you can ask for. There’s going to be things that come up, and you have to expect that, plan for it and you have to embrace the unknown. 

“We’re like everybody else. There’s concern, but we also know that we’re getting a chance to play in an environment that gives us the best chance to be safe and come back to our families whole.” 

Williams said the Suns’ medical team has given players and staff a safety “blueprint,” but noted the organization cannot regulate how any individual behaves in their personal lives. 

The coach did set an example Wednesday, though, by first appearing on camera wearing a mask (while within less than six feet of another staffer) and then putting it back on before the session ended.   

“We’re all trying to stay as safe as we can — washing your hands, wearing a mask, staying out of crowds,” Williams said. “That is what our medical team has recommended for a while for all of us. … There’s certain sacrifices we’ve all had to make.”