Opening night for the Northern Arizona Suns provided exactly what the powers that be in Prescott Valley were hoping for: A night of entertainment featuring athletes chasing NBA dreams.
The NBA D-League opened its 16th season Friday, and the Suns followed suit with a 122-107 win over the Iowa Energy on Saturday night.
An estimated respectable crowd of 2,500 were on hand to experience the inaugural opener at the Prescott Valley Event Center, with the majority comprised of walkup ticket holders and court-side fans having their fill of a buffet-like spread fit for a king.
But what will Suns players have to achieve on the court to retain the loyalty of local fans for an entire season and beyond, something the Arizona Sundogs of the CHL were unable to accomplish? Or garner interest from an untapped market of NBA fans in north Phoenix, just 75 miles from our small-town D-League team?
Let’s take a look:
KEEP NBA TALENT COMING
Other than David Schlemko, or Kyle Chipchura, the Sundogs had very few, if any player make an NHL roster, much less play for the parent-club Arizona Coyotes. Low-level minor league hockey isn’t exactly popular, or broadcasted on ESPN and Facebook Live for that matter.
For Northern Arizona, Derrick Jones Jr. has already spent time in training camp, and started Saturday night after being assigned by the Phoenix Suns.
Elijah Millsap is no stranger to the NBA, playing two seasons for the Utah Jazz recently, and recently acquired Johnny O’Bryant played for the Milwaukee Bucks last year.
Having those players, or others that currently makeup the Phoenix Suns roster taking regular trips up and down I-17 will help.
7-SECONDS OR LESS?
Former Phoenix Suns coach Mike D’Antoni coined the phrase “7-Seconds or Less” for his Steve Nash-led, high-octane offense that broke NBA records on a nightly basis.
Northern Arizona scored 61 points in the first half Saturday night, shooting over 55 percent from the field and turning Iowa miscues (six turnovers) into points.
That will do.
One thing not commonly seen with D’Antoni’s Suns teams was effort defensively, but Northern Arizona head coach Tyrone Ellis, who was selected in the first D-League draft back in 2001, has preached defense to his players from day one.
The first sight of selfish play, a regular appearance from D-League players looking to “make it,” could set off a chain reaction of unwanted and unentertaining basketball.
It will be up to Ellis and the rest of his coaching staff to keep preaching "team," because it’s easy to fall into “every man for himself" mode in arenas across the D-League.
Finally, as the season moves along, it will behoove Suns coaches, players and staff to make appearances at local community events, or even high school basketball games. It would be fun to see Suns players make an appearance at a Prescott Badgers basketball game, wouldn’t it?
Although the Suns have a long way to go, I’m encouraged by the level of talent on the floor for Northern Arizona, which they’ll need if they want to make a run at the playoffs out of the Western Conference, not to mention how well they seem to play together just 12 days into the season.
I’m not too keen on a few pet-peeves of mine in an NBA-like atmosphere, like music constantly playing in the background while the game is going on, or fans sitting between the benches and a scorers table.
If that’s all that bothers me with this club, it should be a fairly successful 2016-2017 season for the Suns.
Brian M. Bergner Jr. is a sports writer and columnist for The Daily Courier. Follow him on Twitter, Instagram, Periscope and SoundCloud at @SportsWriter52, or on Facebook at @SportsAboveTheFold. Reach him by phone at 928-445-3333, ext. 1106.
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