Preview: NAZ Suns tipoff ‘Year 2’ in Prescott Valley on Saturday

Coaching change, new roster additions not phasing Suns’ focus

Northern Arizona Suns players Shaq Harrison (3), Xavier Silas (13), Josh Gray (5) and Askia Booker (31) are all returning in year two for the Phoenix Suns’ NBA Gatorade League affiliate in Prescott Valley. (Les Stukenberg/Courier)

Northern Arizona Suns players Shaq Harrison (3), Xavier Silas (13), Josh Gray (5) and Askia Booker (31) are all returning in year two for the Phoenix Suns’ NBA Gatorade League affiliate in Prescott Valley. (Les Stukenberg/Courier)

2017-18 Northern Arizona Suns Schedule

Date Opponent Time

11/4 Agua Caliente* 7 p.m.

11/9 Iowa 6:30 p.m.

11/11 Iowa 7 p.m.

11/14 at Rio Grande Valley 7 p.m.

11/16 Long Island 6:30 p.m.

11/18 at Salt Lake City 7 p.m.

11/21 Austin 6:30 p.m.

11/26 at Fort Wayne 5 p.m.

11/28 at Delaware 6:30 p.m.

11/30 at Greensboro 7 p.m.

12/2 at Lakeland 7 p.m.

12/5 South Bay* 6:30 p.m.

12/8 at Agua Caliente* 7 p.m.

12/12 Santa Cruz* 6:30 p.m.

12/15 at Iowa 7 p.m.

12/16 at Texas 7:30 p.m.

12/19 at Oklahoma City 7 p.m.

12/22 Oklahoma City 7 p.m.

12/29 at Sioux Falls 7 p.m.

12/31 at Memphis 1 p.m.

1/2 at Rio Grande Valley 7 p.m.

1/5 at Reno* 7 p.m.

1/10 vs. Erie^ 1 p.m.

1/12 vs. Canton^ 12 p.m.

1/18 at Austin 7:30 p.m.

1/20 Salt Lake City 7 p.m.

1/23 Oklahoma City 11 a.m.

1/26 Agua Caliente* 7 p.m.

1/27 at Reno* 7 p.m.

1/31 at South Bay* 7 p.m.

2/18 Maine 7 p.m.

2/3 Santa Cruz* 7 p.m.

2/6 Rio Grande Valley 6:30 p.m.

2/9 at South Bay* 7 p.m.

2/11 at Agua Caliente* 7 p.m.

2/21 at Memphis 7 p.m.

2/23 at Texas 7:30 p.m.

2/25 Austin 3 p.m.

2/27 Reno* 6:30 p.m.

2/28 at Santa Cruz* 7 p.m.

3/2 Memphis 7 p.m.

3/4 Reno* 3 p.m.

3/9 at Salt Lake City 7 p.m.

3/11 South Bay* 5 p.m.

3/16 Raptors 905 7 p.m.

3/18 at Santa Cruz* 6 p.m.

3/21 Texas 6:30 p.m.

3/23 Sioux Falls 7 p.m.

3/24 Sioux Falls 7 p.m.

(* Western Conference Pacific Division Game

(^ NBA Gatorade League Showcase in Mississauga, Ontario

For as hectic as the beginning of the inaugural Northern Arizona Suns season was a year ago, coaches, players and front-office staff likely expected a smoother transition into year two.

Enter the Phoenix Suns, which shook up the NBA world two weeks ago by firing Earl Watson and naming Jay Triano his interim replacement.

The ripple effects of a major coaching change at the NBA level were quickly felt in Prescott Valley as Northern Arizona head coach Tyrone Ellis was called up to sit on Triano’s bench in Phoenix.

Ellis’ lead assistants Bret Burchard and Brandon Bowers were also asked to come along, leaving only Tyler Gatlin to run training camp.

So goes life in the NBA Gatorade League.

RETURNING PLAYERS

Before the G League draft took place Oct. 21, Northern Arizona had six players sign a league contract to return to Prescott Valley.

In the early morning hours of Oct. 20, however, the Suns flipped veteran Elijah Millsap and popular rookie guard Michael Bryson to Iowa for the No. 1 pick in the draft, leaving four returning players in camp.

Askia Booker, Shaquille Harrison, Josh Gray and Xavier Silas are all set to return for the 2017-18 season, and according them, that’s a good thing.

“I bonded with these guys last year. It’s important to have that team chemistry and I feel like we already have the upper hand on some teams because we have four guys returning,” Harrison said.

Booker, who averaged 15.5 points per game last season and led the club in assists with 226, said it’s important his “voice” be heard.

“I have to utilize my experience, make sure everyone hears my voice and I’m saying the right things, not just talking to talk. To say the right things when they need to be said and continue to encourage guys,” Booker said.

Silas, who averaged 15.4 points per game and led the Suns in 3-pointers made with 121 in just 40 games played, will likely provide the long-distance attack many clubs crave.

Gray, one of only three players to play all 50 games for the Suns last season, had 224 assists while averaging 13.4 points per game, giving Northern Arizona plenty of options at guard.

NEWCOMERS

Eleven players made the final roster cut when training camp ended Thursday, and the resume for several of the newcomers speaks for itself.

Selected with the 54th overall pick in the 2017 NBA Draft in June, former Valparaiso standout Alec Peters signed a two-way contract with Phoenix and will likely be a regular starter for Northern Arizona this season. Peters led the Suns with 27 points on 11 of 17 shooting from the field in a 120-116 loss against the South Bay Lakers on Oct. 29, their only exhibition game this season.

The 6-foot-9, 235-pound Peters said his purpose in Prescott Valley is to “get better” as a player.

“That’s what this is all about. That’s what everyone on this team is all about. Being on this team means getting better and developing, becoming a good team and hopefully winning some games,” Peters said.

Northern Arizona’s two draft picks, including No. 1-overall selection Eric Stuteville, and Rahlir Hollis-Jefferson (No. 6 overall) made the roster out of camp.

Stuteville, a 6-foot-11 center out of Sacramento State, said his adjustment to the pro game has gone well mostly because the Suns are a “great group of people.”

“Half the battle at this level is people that actually like each other, because that goes a long way,” Stuteville said. “People that can build courtesy and comradery with each other can go a long way and it can make up for a lot of flaws.”

Hollis-Jefferson, the older brother of current Brooklyn Nets forward Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, said his defensive abilities are what brought him to Prescott Valley.

“I know they wanted to be a defensive team last year, and with me, they have a defensive-minded person on the team,” Hollis-Jefferson said.

Add the aforementioned group to affiliate players Peter Jok, Tidjan Keita and former NBA No. 1-overall draft pick Anthony Bennett (2013, Cleveland) and Suns fans have a lot to look forward to in 2017-18.

NEW COACH

Former Rio Grande Valley Vipers assistant coach Cody Toppert was hired as the next head coach of the Suns in Prescott Valley, but as of late Friday, had not signed a contract.

Toppert was unavailable for comment Friday, and the club will not make a statement until he signs a contract, according to general manager Louis Lehman.

SEASON OUTLOOK

The Suns began the inaugural season in Prescott Valley winning 10 of their first 11 games, but struggled down the stretch and finished just 22-28, missing the playoffs.

With a new head coach who has yet to run a practice, much less coach a game, Northern Arizona’s start to the season may not be as important as how they finish.

Look for a better all-around game on the offensive side of the floor for the Suns with solid guard play, and big men who can shoot. As for the defensive side, that’s still a big question mark.

UP NEXT

Northern Arizona (0-0) opens the 2017-2018 season tonight by welcoming the Agua Caliente Clippers (0-0) to the Prescott Valley Event Center. Tipoff is set for 7 p.m.

Brian M. Bergner Jr. is sports editor for The Daily Courier, the Prescott Valley Tribune and the Chino Valley Review. Follow him on Twitter at @SportsWriter52 or on Facebook at @SportsAboveTheFold. Email bbergner@prescottaz.com or call 928-445-3333, ext. 1106.