The leadership provided by Nash and Hill is already paying dividends.
(Ned Dishman/NBAE/Getty Images)
This weekend, most people will be enjoying the last few moments of summer. Whether they sail off to their favorite get-away destination, or decide to remain in town for a “staycation,” one constant exists, the offseason is finally over.
That rule applies to most people, but not the Phoenix Suns. Ten of the 13 Suns decided to start their work before Labor Day, a rarity in the NBA.
Most players don’t join their teams until mid-September. Training camp doesn’t begin until September 29 for Phoenix.
“I think last season we had three players back at this time at this stage,” Senior Vice President of Basketball Operations David Griffin said. “This season, we have all but three players back. Two of them are playing for their national teams and Jason (Richardson) will be here on Tuesday.”
Leandro Barbosa has been busy qualifying his team for the 2010 World Championships by leading his country of Brazil in scoring at the FIBA Americas Championship in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Thus far, Brazil (along with Puerto Rico) is one of only two nations with a perfect record (5-0).
Meanwhile over in Europe, Suns backup playmaker Goran Dragic has been preparing with his Slovenian National Team for the upcoming European Championships from September 7-21. Officials with the Slovenian National Team have told members of the Suns’ front office that Dragic is “the future” their team.
Currently, Dragic is in the midst of playing roughly 14 exhibition games before actual match play begins. As for the rest of the Suns, they’ve been working out together for the last two weeks.
“I don’t know how many teams have this many players in town at this stage,” forward Louis Amundson said. “This is the most I’ve seen at this point of time in the preseason during my career.”
Griffin credits the early arrivals to a couple of different factors. The first being Suns Managing Partner Robert Sarver’s ability to extend and re-sign his two co-captains.
Contractually securing Steve Nash and Grant Hill for the near future was crucial in keeping the team’s primary leadership intact.
“Steve Nash always sets the tone for these things,” Griffin said about the workouts beginning sooner than expected. “Also, Grant Hill coming back so soon was responsible for bringing Jared (Dudley) back earlier than he had planned.”
In addition to the veterans, the young players on the roster have also been hard at work this offseason. Robin Lopez has been all over the country developing his body and game, while rookies Earl Clark and Taylor
Griffin have been spending their summer training with the Suns’ strength and conditioning coaches.
Other players such as Dudley, Amundson and Alando Tucker have also spent a bulk of their offseason preparing for this upcoming season. All three are already in terrific physical condition.
Amundson’s work with a shooting coach is already apparent, while Dudley appears to be leaner and meaner than when the season concluded. Amar’e Stoudemire, who has been rehabbing with Suns head athletic trainer Aaron Nelson, was also drawn in by his teammates’ presence at the practice facility.
“Amar’e could easily have chosen to go somewhere else for this period of time,” Griffin noted. “But he’s watching all of this going on and saying, ‘I want to be a part of that.’ The competitive nature of this roster is making the veterans excited.”
One veteran that has already shown his commitment to the Suns in his short stint here has been Channing Frye, who signed with the team in July. The forward/center, who was recently married, only took a week-long honeymoon before joining his teammates on the court.
“We have a totally different vibe this summer,” Griffin said. “Our guys know that there’s a good opportunity to surprise people I think that they’re excited about that. I think they’re motivated by the fact that the would-be experts – much like they did in ’04 – don’t see it.
“That motivates Nash and Grant. It’s much more difficult to play with expectations. And let’s not kid ourselves; we didn’t make the playoffs last season.
“So we’ve had a long offseason, and guys are ready to play again. That left a really bitter taste in some people’s mouths.”
With veterans displaying necessary leadership and the young players trying to prove that they belong in the NBA, competitiveness in the workouts has been more intense than in the past. What’s making the chemistry so special is that players like Amundson and Dudley, who have been in the league for just a few years and are solid contributors off the bench, are two of the team’s most devoted members.
“They’re versatile and they’re going to guard multiple positions and they do it with passion,” Griffin said of Amundson and Dudley. “They come in every day with passion and that’s a very contagious emotion.”
The one common denominator for all of the players will be fitness benchmarks that Suns Head Coach Alvin Gentry and assistant coach Dan Majerle have created. Due to the fast-paced style that the Suns play, Phoenix’s coaching staff felt that its players needed to be in optimal condition once training camp started.
Once the players have concluded their work in the weight room and finished squaring off in pick-up games, they run up-and-downs. The key is to run the length of the court 10 times in one minute.
The test will be when they have to repeat that task five times after a two-minute break. Currently, the man to catch is Tucker, who routinely comes in first during the sprints.
If the Suns keep this up, like Tucker, they may be the team in the Western Conference everyone else is chasing.