Column: Grading the Northern Arizona Suns
'On The Ball'
Just over a year ago, the Phoenix Suns announced the purchase of the NBA D-League’s Bakersfield Jam, moving the team to Prescott Valley and rebranding it the Northern Arizona Suns.
With the inaugural season in the books, it’s time to hand out grades for each aspect of the franchise and announce a few awards.
For as much grief as Phoenix Suns owner Robert Sarver takes from Valley media, its fans and random polls poorly ranking his prowess over an NBA franchise, it’s hard to argue the Tucson native didn’t strike gold in Prescott Valley.
Not only did Sarver put up the cash to purchase and move the Bakersfield club 90 miles from his office in Phoenix, but he injected life into a lackluster Prescott Valley Event Center by bringing it one of the more entertaining products in sports: Professional basketball.
The parent-club Suns threw a boat-load of money behind its D-League team in Prescott Valley and offered it all the support of a regular NBA franchise.
I wasn’t here when the Arizona Sundogs of the now defunct Central Hockey League existed, but I doubt the Arizona Coyotes put as much support into their minor-league team as the Suns did their D-League counterpart.
Brad Fain of the Fain Signature Group was key in bringing professional basketball to Prescott Valley and with likely more than 1,000 fans attending each of the 24 home games this past season, hopefully the Fain’s and arena management see the inaugural season as a big win.
With general manager Bubba Burrage, assistant general manager Louis Lehman and director of basketball operations Dylan DeBusk running the show, Northern Arizona quickly became a destination D-League franchise.
All three play a major role with the Phoenix Suns and mostly worked out of Talking Stick Resort Arena in the Valley, but it was easy to see their fingerprints all over the club from the initial signing of Johnny O’Bryant, to drafting Michael Bryson and bringing others in later like Alex Davis and Joe Jackson.
Head coach Tyrone Ellis exceeded expectations from Suns brass in his first year on the job, and his dedicated staff of Bret Burchard, Brandon Rosenthal and Tyler Gatlin were just as solid.
Ellis developed the talent he was given, which is surely the first bullet point in a list of expectations on his contract.
Despite what fans may consider an unsuccessful season (finishing 22-28 and missing the playoffs), I assure you Ellis is not judged by the powers that be on the Suns’ ability to win championships.
O’Bryant received two 10-day contracts with the Denver Nuggets before eventually being signed by the Charlotte Hornets. Derrick Jones Jr. took his game to new heights, literally. Earning the nickname “Airplane Mode” for his high-flying dunks, Jones eventually found a permanent place on the parent-club Suns’ roster and was the first D-League player to ever participate in the NBA Slam Dunk Contest.
Let’s not forget Elijah Millsap, who was an extension of Ellis on the floor this season and earned a multi-year deal with Phoenix after finishing in the Top 15 in D-League scoring.
It’s not easy to lead a minor league club when your best players are plucked from the roster and new players are injected for “development” purposes almost on a weekly basis.
From Millsap, to O’Bryant, to Jones and a handful of others, Northern Arizona produced a dedicated group of individuals that grew before our eyes.
Could they have done better in the win column? Probably. But it’s hard to argue with the results, especially after a 10-1 start that had everyone in the D-League buzzing.
Entering year two, assuming the Suns and arena management agree to continue their relationship, it will be important to focus on strengthening their resolve and not worry so much about mistakes.
Player of the Year: Despite playing in just 25 games this season for Northern Arizona, O’Bryant was easily one of the biggest reasons for the Suns’ early success.
O’Bryant averaged 18.4 points and 8.8 rebounds per game and led the club in double-doubles before leaving for the NBA.
Rookie of the Year: Drafted eighth overall in the 2016 NBA D-League Draft, Bryson played in 46 games this season and showed glimpses of how good a player he can become.
Most Improved: From beginning to end, center Gracin Bakumanya improved so much that if he returns to Prescott Valley for the 2016-2017 season, it will be hard for Ellis not to play him.
At 6-foot-11 and 220 pounds, the Democratic Republic of the Congo native will need to hit the weights this offseason, but his agility in the paint and knack for blocking shots and grabbing rebounds gives this 19-year-old center a bright future.
Brian M. Bergner Jr. is associate sports editor for The Daily Courier. Follow him on Twitter, Instagram, Periscope and SoundCloud at @SportsWriter52, or on Facebook at @SportsAboveTheFold. Reach him at email@example.com or 928-445-3333, ext. 1106.