This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2017, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
The Phoenix Suns are not going to make the playoffs this season. In fact, they are going to have to work over the next four months to stay out of the cellar of the Western Conference.
At the same time, it's difficult not to notice the progress of a painfully young roster making its way through an NBA that's unforgiving to teams with youth in key spots.
You can see steps being made with Saturday's victory over the San Antonio Spurs in Mexico City, for example. You can see steps being made as Devin Booker makes the steady climb to being a star player.
As the Suns face the Jazz on Monday, you can see the roster mirroring some of the characteristics head coach Earl Watson had as a player: They are a tough bunch, feisty and aggressive. And as his first full season at the helm marches on, Watson is slowly adapting to the significant job of teaching a young team that essentially started over last year when the franchise moved on from Jeff Hornacek.
"We have a lot of guys who are playing at a high level, but it's going to take time," Watson said. "We start a 19-year-old. We start a 20-year-old. We have young guys coming off the bench, and it's a process. But we continue to push forward. We have a lot of positive things going on, and we have a positive outlook. We just have to continue to take steps."
The group Watson is tasked with molding into a competitive squad is still in its infancy. But the ingredients for a good team especially among the young players seems to be in place. It starts with Booker, who is morphing into one of the best young shooting guards in the league.
A relentless shooter who is also a playmaker, Booker enters Monday night the owner of consecutive 39 point outings. He averages 19.8 points per night, and supplements that with 3.1 assists and 2.8 rebounds. He's averaging 29 points on 55 percent shooting in his last four games, and seems to be getting better by the game.
"I think he makes you work as much as anything," Jazz coach Quin Snyder said. "He forces you to concentrate throughout an entire possession, through an entire game because he's so aggressive. He plays with a high level of confidence, which he should. He can score in pick-and-roll, and can score off screening actions."
Booker isn't the only young guy on the roster with significant talent and upside. Marquese Chriss is already one of the more athletic power forwards in the league, and has quickly forged himself a role in Phoenix's starting lineup.
Dragan Bender in his rookie season has played small forward and power forward. As a seven-footer, his ability to shoot from 3-point range projects as a valuable skill. Tyler Ulis has turned heads in his rookie year, even as a 5-foot-9 point guard, as a heady floor leader. And TJ Warren is making a name for himself as a guy who can go out and score buckets.
Watson who once played for the Jazz hasn't left his youth flapping in the wind. He's surrounded them with veterans, guys who have been there and done that. People like Tyson Chandler and PJ Tucker, and even younger vets like Eric Bledsoe, have provided meaningful leadership and contributions. The dividends haven't shown up in the win column, but Watson said there's been progress.
"I think the young guys have been playing at a high level," Watson said. "I think Eric's been a great leader this season, and he's been playing at an all-star level. Tyson's always been a great veteran presence in this league, and TJ's getting back into a groove since returning from injury."
The Jazz lead the season series 2-0, yet go into Phoenix knowing fully that the Suns are capable of beating them on Monday night. They will likely be without Rodney Hood, who hyperextended his knee in the fourth quarter of Utah's win over the Orlando Magic on Saturday night.
On a positive note for the Jazz, however, Alec Burks played his best game since his recent return against Orlando. Derrick Favors also played arguably his best game of the season. The Jazz have won three straight and four of their last five games.
"It's a different type of team," Hood said on Saturday night before the Jazz win. "They play hard, regardless of what their record says. They have a lot of talent."
Utah Jazz at Phoenix Suns
When - Monday, 7 p.m. MST
Where - Talking Stick Resort Arena, Phoenix
TV - ROOT Sports
Radio - 1280 AM; 97.5 FM
Records - Utah Jazz 26-16; Phoenix 13-27
Last Meeting - Jazz 91-86 (December 31st, 2016)
About the Jazz - Rodney Hood, Gordon Hayward and George Hill have scored 20 or more points in the same game twice this season. … Hayward on Friday night passed Darrell Griffith for ninth on the all-time franchise list in assists. … The Jazz were last as many as nine games over the .500 mark in the 2010-2011 season. … Rudy Robert, Mark Eaton and Andrei Kirilenko are the only three Jazz players to record 23 or more games with at least three blocked shots in the first 41 games of an individual season. … Joe Johnson (rest), sat out of Saturday's game against the Orlando Magic.
About the Suns - Second year shooting guard Devin Booker has recorded 39 points in two consecutive games. … The Jazz lead the season-series against the Suns 2-0. … Phoenix is the first NBA team to play two regular-season games in the same season south of the border, according to ESPN.com. … Tyson Chandler has recorded five consecutive games with at least 15 rebounds, a franchise record. … Phoenix has won three of its last five games, including a win over the San Antonio Spurs.