PRESCOTT VALLEY, Ariz. – The Phoenix Suns wanted an NBA D-League closer to better evaluate the talent, for ease of transportation and for an opportunity to assign more players and get those players extra minutes in games that they might not be getting at the highest level.
So they took control of a team they previously had a hybrid affiliation with, the Bakersfield Jam, and moved them to Prescott Valley, Arizona, which is about 90 miles north of Phoenix.
The team transformed into the Northern Arizona Suns.
In this three-part segment, we take a look back at the NAZ Suns’ inaugural season:
The Suns returned home following the All-Star break with Johnny O’Bryant on the roster for the first time since the NBA D-League Showcase in Mississauga, Ontario, Canada, in mid-January. His impact was immediately felt, as the Suns knocked off one of the better teams in the Eastern Conference, the Windy City Bulls, 103-92 at the Prescott Valley Event Center. O’Bryant tallied 17 points, eight rebounds and four assists that game, and for his efforts, he got called up by the Charlotte Hornets, where he stayed the rest of the season.
As for NAZ, they would face as tough a stretch you will see, soon after. Starting on Feb. 26 and going through March 5, the Suns played four games against the three teams with the best records in the D-League; the Los Angeles D-Fenders, Raptors 905 and Oklahoma City Blue.
The first game of that stretch was a roller coaster ride for the fans. The Suns scored 41 points in the second quarter to take a 15-point lead at halftime, thanks to Shaquille Harrison’s deep buzzer-beating shot.
— Northern AZ Suns (@nazsuns) February 26, 2017
Then the D-Fenders responded by dropping 44 points of their own in the third quarter, doubling up the Suns in the frame and taking a seven-point lead into the fourth quarter. From there, the Suns picked up their defense and forced the D-Fenders to shoot 31.8 percent from the field and 0-for-7 from beyond the arc in the last 12 minutes. The place was rocking and the Suns took the victory 117-113.
Following a close loss to the 905, the Suns welcomed the D-Fenders back to PVEC for the NAZ’s Breast Cancer Awareness Night. A crowd of 2,184 came out to support the cause and the Suns on March 3. NAZ purchased pink jerseys that they wore for the game and auctioned off after, with proceeds going to the BreastCare Center at Yavapai Regional Medical Center. Coaches, volunteers, employees and fans sported pink ribbons to show unity on fighting the dreaded disease.
It didn’t look good for the Suns through the first three quarters. They trailed by 22 points, but fought back and made it a thriller in the end. NAZ even made it a three-point game with under two minutes remaining before dropping the contest.
NAZ went on to beat the Blue on the road in their next game to finish the tough stretch 2-2, but as exciting as that was, their biggest thrill came just a few days later, thanks to Askia Booker.
He Called Game
The Suns were in Texas on March 9, coming off of a loss in the same arena to the Legends on March 7. The game started the same as the last one finished, and the Suns trailed by nine points after one. However, the Suns rallied in the second frame, outscoring the Legends by 13 and taking a four-point lead into the locker room.
Fast forward to the fourth quarter, where the Suns trailed the Legends by five with under four minutes remaining. Josh Gray nailed a three-pointer, Elijah Millsap did his usual thing and Derek Cooke Jr. made a lay-up with a minute left. All of a sudden it was a two-point game. Then Michael Bryson threw down a dunk thanks to a sweet Booker feed, and Northern Arizona forced overtime.
From there, it was all Booker. He shot a perfect 3-of-3 in the overtime period, scoring all six of the Suns’ points, including a game-winning, buzzer-beating 18-foot step-back jump shot.
Askia Booker called GAME pic.twitter.com/kwVhDTXxEi
— Northern AZ Suns (@nazsuns) March 10, 2017
What a victory.
How Each Player Finished
The Suns finished their inaugural season 22-28 and eighth in the Western Conference. Although their record might suggest it was an unsuccessful season, it was quite the contrary. The Suns had two players get GATORADE Call-Ups, with both players signing multi-year deals with their new NBA teams. They also had an assigned player get numerous starts and play quality minutes at the pro level, so all in all, three NAZ Suns made their mark in the NBA.
A Northern Arizona player got recognized with a weekly award and a Showcase honor. Three Suns players were instrumental in making the All-Star Weekend another smashing success.
Many NAZ guys will be invited to the NBA Summer League and will likely participate in NBA training camps/preseason games. From there, maybe even more guys will take what they learned at the development level and make it to the NBA soon.
Looking at the following numbers, it’s definitely possible, if not probable, for at least a handful of players to do so.
- Gracin Bakumanya averaged 2.7 points on 49.0 percent shooting, 3.2 rebounds, 0.4 assists, 0.3 steals and 0.3 blocks in 10.5 minutes per game. He played in 40 games, starting 13 of them. He was the lone NAZ Suns player who was born overseas.
- Askia Booker averaged 15.5 points on 39.3 percent shooting, 4.0 rebounds, 5.3 assists, 1.2 steals and 0.1 blocks in 31.6 minutes per game. He played in 42 games, starting 40 of them. Booker missed eight games on the year because of a groin injury, but was still able to lead the team in assists and take third on the team in scoring. He tied Iowa’s Wade Baldwin IV for 11th in the league with those 5.3 assists per game.
- Michael Bryson averaged 5.1 points on 38.3 percent shooting, 2.4 rebounds. 0.8 assists, 0.4 steals and 0.8 blocks in 18.1 minutes per game. He played in 46 games, starting two of them. Bryson was one of the more athletic guys on team, soaring for big blocks it seemed in every game. He swatted the second-most shots away on the team (39).
- Derek Cooke Jr. averaged 7.5 points on 55.9 percent shooting, 7.6 rebounds, 0.8 assists, 0.9 steals and 0.6 blocks in 21.7 minutes per game. He was one of three players to play in all 50 Northern Arizona games, starting 10 of them. If it wasn’t for Jones, Cooke might have gotten more noticed for his leaping ability. He still got invited to participate in the D-League Slam Dunk competition. Cooke was very efficient on the year in shooting, making a higher percentage of shots than anyone else on the team. He was 14th in the league with his shooting percentage.
- Alex Davis averaged 7.5 points on 44.9 percent shooting, 4.9 rebounds, 1.0 assists, 0.8 steals and 1.9 blocks in 24.3 minutes per game for the Suns. He played 23 games for NAZ starting 21 of them, and in total, played 51 games with 39 starts on the season. Davis came over in a trade with the Erie BayHawks. He had the most blocks on the team even though he played with NAZ just the second half of the season. Not counting his time in Erie, Davis finished seventh in the league in blocks per game.
- Josh Gray averaged 13.4 points on 44.3 percent shooting, 3.6 rebounds, 4.5 assists, 1.6 steals and 0.1 blocks in 25.5 minutes per game. He was one of three players to play in all 50 Northern Arizona games, starting nine of them. Gray tallied big numbers all season in limited numbers off the bench. He has the only triple-double in NAZ Suns history after making the team as a local tryout.
- Shaquille Harrison averaged 9.8 points on 45.3 percent shooting, 4.1 rebounds, 1.7 assists, 1.3 steals and 0.8 blocks in 27.7 minutes per game. He played in 48 games, starting 17 of them. The quickster has tremendous potential, coming to NAZ as an affiliate player. He will likely be invited to an NBA Summer League team and take part in preseason activities like last year, where he was with the Phoenix Suns in October.
- Joe Jackson averaged 9.0 points on 54.2 percent shooting, 2.3 rebounds, 3.0 assists, 0.5 steals and 0.0 blocks in 16.3 minutes per game. He played in four games, starting the season finale. Jackson joined the team late in the year coming over from a professional career overseas.
- Derrick Jones Jr. averaged 14.5 points on 50.2 percent shooting, 5.6 rebounds, 0.9 assists, 1.2 steals and 1.4 blocks in 31.9 minutes per game. He played in 19 games, starting 17 of them. He played his last game for NAZ on Feb. 22 and was recalled by Phoenix the next day. He quickly became nationally known for his jumping ability, and got to play quality minutes for the NBA team towards the end of the season. For the Phoenix Suns, Jones averaged 5.3 points on 56.2 percent shooting, 2.5 rebounds, 0.4 assists, 0.4 steals and 0.4 blocks in 17.0 minutes per game. He played in 32 games with Phoenix, earning eight starts.
- Chris McCullough averaged 10.9 points on 44.9 percent shooting, 5.3 rebounds, 0.9 assists, 0.7 steals and 0.9 blocks in 23.7 minutes per game. He played in 12 games for the Suns, starting six of them. He was on the Long Island Nets at the start of the season on assignment from Brooklyn before he was traded to the Washington Wizards. The Wizards assigned him to NAZ on March 3. In total, McCullough played in 43 D-League games, starting 35 of them. At the NBA level this season, he averaged 2.3 points on 50.0 percent shooting and 1.2 rebounds in 16 games (14 with Brooklyn, two with Washington).
- Elijah Millsap averaged 19.7 points on 42.7 percent shooting, 7.9 rebounds, 4.0 assists, 2.1 steals and 0.5 blocks in 37.0 minutes per game. He was one of three to play in all 50 Northern Arizona games this season, but was the only one to start in all 50 games. He led the team in scoring, finishing 15th in the league, while also leading NAZ with 2.1 steals per game, taking fifth in the league in the category. He scored a team-record 38 points in the Suns’ season finale on April 1, and was called up by the Phoenix Suns on April 9. In two games with Phoenix, he tallied three points and six rebounds in 23 minutes.
- Johnny O’Bryant averaged 18.4 points on 45.3 percent shooting, 8.8 rebounds, 1.6 assists, 1.0 steals and 0.7 blocks in 31.9 minutes per game. He played in 25 games (all starts) for the Suns. O’Bryant led the team in rebounding and was second in scoring. He was 11th in the league in rebounding. He scored a career-high 37 points against Los Angeles on Dec. 30, and was called up by the Denver Nuggets on Jan. 25. He signed two 10-day contracts with them before returning to the Suns and playing in the D-League All-Star Game. After one game back with NAZ, he was called up by the Charlotte Hornets, where he signed two 10-day contracts before signing a multi-year deal with them. In total this season playing in the NBA, O’Bryant tallied 38 points and 19 rebounds in 80 minutes played in 11 games (seven for Denver and four for Charlotte).
- Xavier Silas averaged 15.4 points on 42.7 percent shooting, 2.9 rebounds, 0.8 assists, 0.8 steals and 0.1 blocks in 31.3 minutes per game. He played in 40 games, starting 32 of them. Silas made the most three-pointers on the team, going 121-of-300 from beyond the arc (.403). He also was the Suns’ best free throw shooter, finishing the year 97-of-110 (.882) from the charity stripe. He averaged 3.0 three-point makes per game, which was sixth in the league, and his 88.2 percent mark from the free throw line was also sixth best.
- Asaad Woods averaged 1.7 points on 41.4 percent shooting, 0.8 rebounds, 0.1 assists, 0.1 steals and 0.0 blocks in 7.7 minutes per game. He played in 23 games, starting one of them. Woods made the team as a local tryout, and was one of two (Gray) to finish the season on the team as a local tryout.