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Preview: NAZ Suns trying to find their identity in 2018-19
NBA G League

A group of coaches and front-office personnel meet on the court after practice Thursday, Nov. 1, 2018, at the Prescott Valley Event Center. New Suns head coach Bret Burchard and interim General Manager Dylan DeBusk will lead Northern Arizona into 2018-19. (Brian M. Bergner Jr./Courier)

A group of coaches and front-office personnel meet on the court after practice Thursday, Nov. 1, 2018, at the Prescott Valley Event Center. New Suns head coach Bret Burchard and interim General Manager Dylan DeBusk will lead Northern Arizona into 2018-19. (Brian M. Bergner Jr./Courier)

Transition defense, togetherness two big keys for Suns’ third season in Prescott Valley

PRESCOTT VALLEY — Forty five and zero.

That first number? The Northern Arizona Suns’ win total from their first two seasons in Prescott Valley.

And zero? That would be playoff appearances during the same time frame.

Life in the NBA G League can be rough, but the Suns seem to compete every night, despite their overall record, and hope to continue doing so this season.

The inaugural season in 2016-17 brought us head coach Ty Ellis and group of players held over from the Bakersfield Jam days.

Receiving all the support they would need from the NBA parent-club Phoenix Suns, Northern Arizona finished 22-28. Not a bad mark for a first-year club in a new town with a new brand and an entirely different organizational direction.

Year two? A Cody Toppert led group finished one win better: 23-27. Toppert was hired after Ellis was promoted to the NBA when Earl Watson was fired in Phoenix.

Under Toppert, the run-and-gun Suns were second in league scoring at 119.3 points per game. First on that list? Rio Grande Valley (120.1 per game), where Toppert was an assistant coach before joining the Suns just days before 2017-18 regular season began.

Now we enter year three. The Suns have their third coach in as many seasons, with Bret Burchard taking the reins in July. And we also have a new general manager, as Dylan DeBusk works under interim status until the parent club decides different.

DeBusk worked under former general manager Louis Lehman, who was fired in October the same day Phoenix fired Ryan McDonough.

On Saturday, the Suns opened the 2018-19 season with a 118-108 loss. But for Burchard, who preached “togetherness” throughout training camp, there are plenty of positives to go around starting year three in Prescott Valley.

“What’s going to have to be our biggest strength is our togetherness, our team play, our unselfishness on both sides of the court. … We don’t have the one star player that everyone has to double team, but collectively, we can space the floor with shooters, and bigs that can screen and put pressure on the rim,” Burchard said. “It should create open shots in the team system.”

Two players that should fit into Burchard’s system well include Eric Stuteville and Peter Jok, who are two of three returning players on the roster this season. Derek Cooke Jr. is the third, but he spent last season overseas.

Stuteville said transition defense is going to be a big key to the Suns’ success season.

“We definitely need to work on our transition defense, on-ball coverages, and different things on offense. We have a good amount of work cut out for us,” Stuteville said, adding later, “We’re out there playing basketball, but we need to crisp it up a bit more.”

Stuteville, a 6-foot-11, 250-pound forward out of Sacramento State, was drafted with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2017 NBA G League Draft by the Suns.

As for the offense, Stuteville said it’s not the break-neck pace Toppert preached, but it still calls for the Suns to get up and down the floor quickly.

“It’s a different system, it’s not so much getting it up the floor and shooting threes right away. It’s still getting it up the floor, and getting it in transition offense, getting it into the flow of the blender, drive, kick, pass, extra pass and shot,” Stuteville said. “So much of the game, anywhere you go, is pick and roll, hitting threes. Most offenses go to that.”

Jok, who spent much of 2017-18 battling injuries, is healthy this season. His 19 points, 10 rebounds and two assists Saturday against the Warriors prove that.

“We are a brand new team, so we have to find our identity. A lot of the young guys have some growing to do,” Jok said when asked about training camp. “It’s going to be a learning experience as we go through the season, but I feel we have the talent to compete, to win games and possibly make the playoffs. And that’s our goal, make the playoffs and win the whole thing.”

ROSTER MOVE

The Suns claimed guard Jawun Evans off waivers Sunday. The 6-foot, 190-pound guard played 48 games for the Los Angeles Clippers a season ago, averaging 4.8 points, 1.8 rebounds and 2.1 assists per game. He was drafted 39th overall by the Philadelphia 76ers in the 2017 NBA Draft out of Oklahoma State.

In a corresponding move, Northern Arizona waived Tyrell Corbin.

On Monday, the Phoenix Suns assigned De’Anthony Melton to Northern Arizona. He had 16 points, eight rebounds and five assists in the Suns’ opener this past weekend against the Santa Cruz Warriors.

Melton will likely spend much of the season going back and forth between Phoenix and Prescott Valley.

UP NEXT

Northern Arizona (0-1) is scheduled to begin a three-game road trip tonight at Iowa. Tipoff is scheduled for 6 p.m.

The Suns will play at Sioux Falls (Nov. 7) and Austin (Nov. 9) before returning to the Prescott Valley Event Center to host Santa Cruz at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 13.

Brian M. Bergner Jr. is news/sports editor for The Daily Courier of Prescott News Network. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and SoundCloud at @TheEditorDesk. Email bbergner@prescottaz.com or call 928-445-3333, ext. 1106.

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