Suns need Bridges, Jackson, Bender to help Ayton

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LAS VEGAS — A lot of attention has been devoted to Deandre Ayton this summer, and for good reason. The number one overall pick for the Phoenix Suns has flashed franchise-changing talent, but the Suns fielded a Las Vegas Summer League squad that features three other lottery picks from the last three seasons: Dragan Bender (fourth pick, 2016), Josh Jackson (fourth pick, 2017) and Mikal Bridges (tenth pick, 2018).

The Suns were eliminated from the tournament in an 88-86 loss to the Philadelphia 76ers on Thursday, so Friday’s 90-55 win over the San Antonio Spurs marked the end of their time in Vegas.

Bridges, acquired in a draft day trade with Philadelphia, is clearly the rawest of the three non-Ayton lottery players. On Friday, Bridges took four 3s during his 12 minutes of action before being shut down with a sore knee, making one. The trey is the key offensive skill that Bridges needed to show and work on in Vegas. On one set in the second quarter, Phoenix guard Shaquille Harrison set Bridges up for a wide-open spot up 3 from the elbow, and while Bridges’ shot was in the air one of my colleagues muttered, “This is the shot he has to be able to make.”

Over the whole summer league, 16 of Bridges’ 22 shot attempts came from downtown. His best game was the opener, when he knocked down 4-of-5 3s, but Bridges managed to make only 3-of-11 3s for the rest of the event. That shot will be Bridges’ ticket to playing time for the Suns this year.

Bender started on Friday as well, but played only eight minutes before the team shut him down. He scored five points with five rebounds on the day, but as always in Summer League, the visual impressions are much more informative than the box scores. The first time I saw Bender in Vegas back in 2016, I said that he looked more like a 7-foot shooting guard than a big man. He was extremely slim, handling the ball out top and attacking defenses off the face-up instead of the post.

Fast forward to today, and Bender has noticeably bulked up like a traditional pivot player. Bender told ESPN after the game Friday that getting stronger was one of his main goals of the summer, along with getting acclimated to his new teammates.

On the court, Bender still has the strong perimeter-oriented game, but now with more of a stretch-four feel. He typically set up in most offensive sets at the the 3-point line. Of the 35 shots he took in the summer league, 21 of them were 3-pointers. He only made 2-of-12 behind the arc in the first two games, but warmed up to hit 6-of-14 in his last three. Bender told ESPN that he’ll be playing both the four and five this year during the season, depending on matchup, and clearly his primary offensive role will be to stretch the defense so that Ayton will have more room to work inside.

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Dragan Bender swats a shot over the Mavericks bench and into the crowd. Dikembe Mutombo approves of the play.

What popped for Jackson in last year’s summer league was his extreme athletic ability and defensive potential. Jackson flashed that defensive potential in his three games this year as well, with four steals and two blocked shots in only 70 total minutes.

But in this summer league, Jackson was clearly working more on his offense. Jackson said that his main focuses in Vegas were leadership, getting stronger and picking his spots to attack. That was obvious in watching him play, as he handled the ball a lot and was particularly aggressive in looking for his shot. Jackson’s shot was off, as he made only 10 of his 41 field goal attempts, including 1-of-11 from downtown. But Jackson’s attacking style got him to the line consistently, where he made 10-of-14 in three games despite playing only 23.3 minutes per game.

While Jackson looked for his shot often, one of his most memorable plays of the event was a pass. In his first game against the Dallas Mavericks, Jackson was running the pick-and-roll set as the ball-handler and threw a beautiful alley-oop to Ayton that was only foiled because the defender fouled Jackson pre-pass.

All told, each of Bender, Jackson and Bridges spent Vegas working on skills that they’ll use this season for the Suns. Bender will be a stretch big, Bridges a three-and-D wing, and Jackson a forward that clearly expects to be more aggressive as a scorer. Jackson is the only one likely to start, but each should spend some time in the rotation.



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