From Bob Young
Maybe training camp and a preseason game aren’t enough evidence to build a case that the culture on Planet Orange has changed yet.
But at least one thing is evident: The Suns have players in their locker room who are expected to provide veteran leadership who really want to be there.
And it doesn’t hurt that they can actually play.
Point guard Ricky Rubio called joining the Suns a “great opportunity” when he signed as a free agent.
Center Aron Baynes, who came in a trade with Boston, discovered a feeling different than he had anticipated when he got to Phoenix, “a good feeling, there’s an excited feeling,” he said.
But maybe none of the newcomers is happier to be here than big man Frank Kaminsky, who was buried at the end of the bench for much of last season in Charlotte.
“I can’t tell you how much different I feel just being here,” he said. “I’m just so happy. It’s been a great transition, something I was kind of prepared for, something I really wanted to do, just to get a new opportunity, get a fresh start.”
They bring a whole different vibe to the Suns than a year ago when veteran center Tyson Chandler and offseason acquisitions Trevor Ariza and Ryan Anderson didn’t even last a full season with the club. At least Anderson tried to contribute in the locker room, but his game was gone on the floor.
Guard Jamal Crawford was an exception. Crawford was a positive influence in the locker room and a contributor on the court, despite being pressed into a playmaking role on a team bereft of point guards.
But unlike last year’s veterans, Rubio, Baynes and Kaminsky still have a lot of basketball ahead of them.
Rubio has been playing professionally for 14 years, but he’s still only 28 years old. Baynes is 32, just beginning his eighth NBA season. And Kaminsky, who spent his first four seasons with the Hornets, is only 26.
Of the three, Kaminsky might be the biggest X-factor, and he definitely has the most to prove.
It wasn’t that long ago that Kaminsky was the consensus national player of the year at Wisconsin and a noted Arizona Wildcats killer. Twice he and Wisconsin denied the Wildcats a berth in the Final Four, beating them in back-to-back Elite Eight games.
And in his senior season, he helped the Badgers avenge a Final Four loss to the Kentucky Wildcats in 2014 by knocking off a 38-0 Kentucky team in the 2015 Final Four. The Badgers eventually lost to Duke for the NCAA title.
By the time the Suns held their annual media day, Kaminsky said he already had heard about the two Arizona games “about 20 times.”
“Sorry but, like, I’m not that sorry,” he cracked.
At least he can joke around these days. Last season was mostly drudgery for Kaminsky, who had three solid if not spectacular seasons in Charlotte before James Borrego , a former assistant of Suns coach Monty Williams when Williams was head coach in New Orleans, was hired before last season.
Kaminsky didn’t play in 11 of Charlotte’s first 16 games. Later, he endured a stretch of 24 DNPs in 31 games.
“For all intents and purposes, the first 60 games of the season I wasn’t really a factor,” he said. “I wasn’t playing too much. I had a small opportunity in January, but that was just because of injuries and then people came back and it went back to pretty much the same situation.
“The last 20 games of the season, when our backs were kind of against the wall, they asked me to step up and play, just go out there and do what they knew I could do. I think I answered that.”
In game 62, at the end of that 31-game stretch, he came off the bench in Brooklyn and scored 15 points on 7-of-12 shooting with seven rebounds in 24 minutes and Charlotte won.
To commemorate his revival, Kaminsky posted a meme on Twitter of The Undertaker, of WWE fame, sitting up in his coffin.
The resurrection continued with Kaminsky playing in every game for the remainder of the season. He scored in double figures in 13 of those 20 games, including outbursts of 21, 22 and 24 late in the season when the Hornets were trying to sneak into the playoffs.
Kaminsky said that late stretch gave him confidence going into the offseason and into training camp, but it was a testing final year in Charlotte.
“It’s hard. It’s definitely hard,” he said. “Obviously you’re viewed as a basketball player, but it starts to wear on other parts of your life.”
He said he tried to remain ready and be a positive influence while waiting to get another chance from Borrego.
“That last year was obviously a big test for me mentally, you know, trying to stay patient, be the best teammate I could be, not make anything about myself,” he said. “(You) try not to be selfish, just try to go out there every single day and try to help the team and try to keep the culture in the right spot.
“When I finally got that opportunity to play, I was so excited to get out there and play. I love playing basketball. When you’re around a team every single day and you’re putting all the work in and you don’t get to see the results within games, it obviously works on you mentally.
“So I was just so excited when I finally got back out there. I wanted to do whatever I could to make sure it wouldn’t go back to what it was.”
And he picked up where he left off in the Suns preseason opener against Minnesota, playing center in some small lineups and power forward for a short stint with starters Rubio, Devin Booker, Deandre Ayton and Cameron Johnson, and longer stretches with reserves. He hit six of nine shots, including a pair of 3-pointers in five attempts, and grabbed four rebounds.
He was the first big man off the bench, and will likely play mostly as a floor-spacing power forward with Baynes at center in relief of Ayton.
“That’s what it’s been so far (in camp),” he said. “There’s obviously going to be some times when I’ll probably have to play five. You never know what’s going to happen. It’s a long season, so the preseason is all about being prepared for whatever you’re going to see.
“I just want to come in and have a role with this team. I’m not demanding anything. I know things go up and things go down, and it’s not always going to be perfect. But I will try to make the right plays. I feel like I’ve improved a lot on the defensive end, and I want to keep getting better and better at that. I know I can make all those moves and all those shots on offense. I have that in my game. But I want to keep getting better on the defensive end.”
Kaminsky spent the offseason working on his mid-range game to complement his long-range shooting. Mid-range skills are becoming a lost art in the modern NBA game, which emphasizes 3-point shots or going all the way to the rim.
But he is also trying to be a steadying presence on a young team, especially for the Phoenix reserves. He’s the kind of player who creates chemistry, a virtue that was sorely missed in the Suns locker room last season.
“I feel like my ability to get along and understand how people play is going to be a useful tool for this team,” he said. “Everybody likes to do different things. There’s got to be somebody that’s going to be a leader. You’ve got to have first-team leaders but you’ve also got to have a second-team leader.
“We have a really young team, so it’s important to have somebody out there who has kind of been through it, who can go out there and get people organized, get them in the right spots and try to make plays for them so they don’t have to handle too much.”
Kaminsky said he has worked on other aspects of his game that he never had the chance to show last season in Charlotte. But his basketball IQ has always been there.
“I get kind of get labeled as a spot-up 3-point shooter,” he said. “I think I can do a lot more than that. I can put the ball on the floor. I can create for other people. Within an offense, I’m going to be able to figure out how to help other guys play better and play to their strengths
and avoid their weaknesses.”
His other priority is staying in Ayton’s ear, but not to criticize. Quite the opposite.
“I try to get DA, every single day, to understand how dominant he can be in the NBA,” Kaminsky said, gazing across the locker room at the Suns man-child with a bemused look. “I haven’t played with somebody that has the potential that he has. You saw him. He can do it on both sides of the floor. He can be such a menace on defense. And he can be such a dominant force on offense.
“I know he wants to start shooting 3s and everything; he keeps telling me he’s looking at my shot to figure out how to shoot 3s. But that part of his game will come.
“It’s kind of crazy. He’s so comfortable shooting fade-away jumpers and turn-around jump shots. There’s not many guys that are comfortable with that part of the game before they’re comfortable shooting a 3. It’s kind of weird how his game has developed into this mid-range, floater, shoot-over-the top-of-you game before he’s developed away from the basket.
“I think you see that soft touch, his ability to read defenses and make good moves and finish them. So it’s only natural he’ll be able to move farther away. But the way he can dominate inside for us is just going to open up everything for everyone else.
“I truly don’t think he understands how good he can be. He can be first-team All-NBA, first-team All-Defense, get 25 (points) and 13 (rebounds) a night. I think he has that kind of potential.”
Kaminsky smiled, perhaps remembering for a moment how quickly fortunes can change in the NBA.
“And I hope I’m here to be able to see it,” he added.