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NBA D-League — Northern Arizona 101, Salt Lake City 86 NAZ Suns drop Stars, begin season 3-0

Northern Arizona’s Michael Bryson (33) looks to pass as the Suns take on the Salt Lake City Stars on Saturday at the Prescott Valley Event Center. The NAZ Suns beat the Stars 101-86. See full photo gallery online at dCourier.com.
Photo by Les Stukenberg.

Northern Arizona’s Michael Bryson (33) looks to pass as the Suns take on the Salt Lake City Stars on Saturday at the Prescott Valley Event Center. The NAZ Suns beat the Stars 101-86. See full photo gallery online at dCourier.com.

PRESCOTT VALLEY – Minus starting forward Derrick Jones Jr., whom the Phoenix Suns recalled on Saturday, Nov. 19, Northern Arizona still didn’t have much trouble dispatching the Salt Lake City Stars.

In an NBA Development League Western Conference Pacific Division clash Saturday night, Nov. 19, at Prescott Valley Event Center, unbeaten NAZ was paced by guards Eli Millsap with a team-high 31 points and 13 rebounds in a 101-86 victory over the expansion Stars.

Millsap converted 10-of-10 free throws and made three steals. Three other Suns scored in double figures, including point guard Askia Booker (17 points, three steals, five assists), Gracin Bakumanya (13 points, five rebounds) and Josh Gray (10 points, six assists, four steals.

Both Gray and Bakumanya came off the bench to lift the Suns, a fact not lost on coach Ty Ellis. Two of the Suns’ roster players, Shaquille Harrison (personal reasons) and Xavier Silas (not with team), did not play.

“I’m not surprised [that we did well without Jones Jr.]. We are a deep team,” Ellis said. “Derrick Jones Jr. is a really good player, but I also have 10 other guys that are really good players. We’ve got guys that can play and guys that believe.”

With the win in the home-and-home series on consecutive nights, NAZ remained unbeaten at 3-0, while the Stars stayed winless at 0-4.

“It’s great – our team is playing real well,” Millsap said of the Suns’ start. “We’re connected and we’re moving the ball, scoring it, and we’re playing good together.”

Jones Jr., assigned to NAZ for the first time of the 2016-17 season on Nov. 3, averaged 14.5 points and six rebounds in the Suns’ D-League affiliate’s first two games. The 6-foot-7, 190-pounder from UNLV scored a high of 19 points versus Iowa in the season opener Nov. 12 in Prescott Valley.

“We shared the ball [on Saturday],” Booker said of adjusting without Jones Jr. “Derrick Jones is an athletic freak that has a lot of game and can score from many different positions. But our guys on the bench were ready tonight.”

Leading 73-62 at the end of the third period, the Suns pulled away behind Gray, starter Millsap and center Bakumanya. Gray converted two free throws, Millsap hit a fade-away jumper and Bakumanya dunked off a miss to hand NAZ an 88-73 lead with 5:45 left.

That’s when Gray made the play of the night, going coast-to-coast and weaving through traffic for a bucket. After he converted the 3-point play, the Suns went up 90-73 to put the game on ice.

“That kid is tough as nails,” Booker said of Gray, whose four steals led the Suns. “If he’s not the best defender out here, he’s one of them. He handles the ball like crazy, and he just speeds up the game.”

NAZ has now scored more than 100 points in two of its first three contests.

The Suns led 53-39 at halftime, as Millsap had 14 points, converting 6-of-6 free throws in 18 minutes. Booker chimed in with 11 points in the half, going 3-for-3 from beyond the 3-point arc.

Millsap extended the NAZ lead to 30-15 on a steal and lay-in with 9:48 until intermission. Salt Lake would pull as close as 10 points of the lead with 6:15 in the second period before Booker drained back-to-back 3-pointers at 5:10 and 3:45 to make it 46-28. Booker later knocked down his third 3 of the period for a 51-31 Suns edge. The Stars would end the half on an 8-2 run, however, to trail 53-39 at the break.

In the first quarter, the Suns were tied at 6-6 with the Stars prior to piecing together a 13-2 run from the 7:35 mark to the 3:05 juncture for a 19-8 lead.

Bakumanya’s monster jam on a helper in the lane by Gray put an exclamation point on the spurt. Michael Bryson followed with a 3-pointer with 2:30 left, and the Suns would carry a 22-13 lead into the second period.

Next up, NAZ will visit the defending D-League champion L.A. D-Fenders at 8:30 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 23, at Toyota Sports Center in El Segundo, California. The Suns will then play back-to-back home games at 7 p.m. Friday, Nov. 25, versus the Reno (Nevada) Bighorns and at 3 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 27 vs. the Sioux Falls (South Dakota) Skyforce.

Click to view photo gallery by Les Stukenberg

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