Elie Okobo was admittedly nervous going up against three-time NBA All-Star Damian Lillard in his first start of the preseason Friday night.
The rookie from France got over those jitters, but he was unhappy with his performance.
“I think I need to play with more confidence, to be able to bring something to the team,” Okobo said. “Then it will be better for me and for the team, too. I need to be consistent every time I step on the court. That’s what I need to improve on and that’s what I’m trying to do.”
That’s a synopsis of Phoenix’s current point guard situation.
Isaiah Canaan, Shaquille Harrison, rookie De’Anthony Melton and Okobo have had their moments this preseason, but the Suns need more out of that position.
“Overall, their energy and presence is there,” first-year Suns head coach Igor Kokoskov said. “A lot of mistakes. There’s a lot of room for improvement.”
They’ll be tested by another elite point guard in Steph Curry as the Suns play at Golden State Monday. Curry’s expected to return after missing Friday’s game for personal reasons.
Golden State point guard Tyler Ulis, a training camp invite for the Warriors, started against Sacramento. Ulis, who averaged 7.8 points, 4.3 assists and started 43 games last season in Phoenix, was waived by the Suns this summer.
That only adds intrigue to a preseason game in which the Suns are still trying to sort out their team.
“We’re playing the best team in the world, but it’s really about focusing on ourselves,” Kokoskov said Sunday. “Let’s try to see if we have a good practice, how are we going to come out after we have a good practice. Show some improvement.”
While Golden State is as secure as any team can be at the point with two-time MVP Curry, Phoenix is far from that.
The Suns went hunting in the offseason to upgrade that position, but came up empty.
Suns would flourish with proven point guard like Damian Lillard
The season opener is less than two weeks away and Kokoskov has been playing what he calls “two and a half point guards” this preseason to figure out what he has.
Kokoskov started Harrison the first two preseason games before giving Okobo the nod Friday. Harrison didn’t play against the Trail Blazers, but will see action Monday, Kokoskov said.
Harrison is the best defender of the Suns’ four point guards, but he sees positive qualities in the other three.
“Elie brings great shooting and great poise,” Harrison said. “Isaiah brings experience, he brings great shooting. A real fast guy and Melton, I love his game, too. He’s so savvy and fundamentally sound.”
Melton scored 10 points off the bench against Portland on 4-of-7 shooting, making consecutive 3s. That looks good on the surface, but eight of his points came after Phoenix fell behind by 33 in the fourth quarter.
Each player has had their moments, but Kokoskov continues to evaluate the foursome.
“It’s an open competition for all of them,” Kokoskov said.
Canaan made his preseason debut Friday night against the Blazers to complete a long journey back from a gruesome ankle injury suffered Jan. 31 last season.
“It meant a lot to me personally,” Canaan said after the game. “Give credit, like I’ve been saying, to this organization, to this training staff for doing an unbelievable job of getting back not only on my feet, but back to competing at a high level. Just very thankful.”
Canaan scored 11 points on 4-of-8 shooting. He made 3 of 5 3s, but managed just three assists and committed four turnovers.
“I think I played bad, especially with the turnovers,” he said. “It’s all timing. Timing got to come back. Flow got to come back. Rhythm got to come back.”
Turnovers have plagued Phoenix in the preseason. The Suns have committed 61 in three games with 22 coming against the New Zealand Breakers last week.
“When you play better teams, you’re going to pay a big price for that,” said Kokoskov after that game.
Phoenix did in its next game against Portland.
The Suns had 21 turnovers and lost by 22 points.
“That concerns me,” Kokoskov said. “We want ball movement, we want everybody touching the ball, but 21 turnovers (to 20 assists), that ratio is something we have to work on.”
Part of that is a result of having to learn a new offense from a new head coach with new players in the mix, but protecting the ball is usually a responsibility of the point guard.
Phoenix is trying to offset that by having multiple ball handlers. The idea keeps everyone engaged, but it also raises the risk of turnovers.
Take Josh Jackson, for example.
Heavily involved in the playmaking this preseason, Jackson has found rookie 7-footer Deandre Ayton for lob dunks. Jackson leads the team in assists with 16, but he’s committed the same number of turnovers with a combined 13 coming in the past two games against New Zealand and Portland.
“I think I’ve been doing a pretty good job of facilitating, finding open guys, but I think I can do a better job of picking and choosing when the play is there and when it’s not there,” said Jackson after a game-high seven turnovers against the Breakers.
As much as Kokoskov’s offense is predicated on passing, cutting and decision-making with multiple options, Jackson probably wouldn’t be handling the ball so much if Phoenix had a point guard who could without turning the ball over much.
Harrison had six in the preseason opener against Sacramento. Canaan totaled four vs. Portland.
The Suns will look completely different once Devin Booker returns from the injury to his right shooting hand, but the point guard’s role will remain the same: Run the offense, defend, get the 50-50 balls and communicate.
“I never talk to the whole team during the game,” Kokoskov said. “I talk to the point guard and his job is to relay the calls and the messages to the other guys. That’s how communication goes. If somebody doesn’t know the play on the court, that’s your job as the point guard to deliver the message. That’s his job. That’s what my expectations are for the point guard. To be my voice or the voice on the court.”
Kokoskov keeps saying he needs his point guard to be “solid,” but the start of the regular season is drawing nearer, and Phoenix remains under major construction at that position.
Suns at Warriors
When: 7 p.m.
Where: Oracle Arena, Oakland.
TV: NBA TV.
Outlook: Phoenix lost its second preseason game, 115-93, to Portland as the Suns turned the ball over 21 times and shot just 38.8 percent (33 of 85) from the field. … Golden State won its first preseason game, 122-94, over Sacramento at KeyArena in Seattle where Kevin Durant started his NBA career. Durant had 26 points in the 28-point win. … Suns rookie 7-footer Deandre Ayton is averaging 21.3 points, 12.7 rebounds and three blocks through three preseason games. … Stephen Curry missed Golden State’s last preseason game due to personal reasons. … Josh Jackson leads the Suns in assists (16) and turnovers (16) through three preseason games. … Devin Booker remains out for Phoenix with his injured right hand.