PRESCOTT VALLEY- On Saturday, November 4th, the Northern Arizona Suns will tip-off their second season in Prescott Valley at the Prescott Valley Event Center against the Agua Caliente Clippers.
“Ready to be back to work, been a long summer,” said Northern Arizona Suns guard Shaquille Harrison, who averaged 9.8 points-per-game last season. “Everybody is itching to play.”
Harrison along with Askia Booker, Josh Gray and Xavier Silas return from the team’s inaugural season that got off to a 10-1 start and finished 22-28.
In the 2016-2017 season, Gray averaged 13.4 points-per-game. Booker, who had surgery in the offseason to repair a sports hernia, led the team in assists-per-game with 5.4 and was third in scoring at 15.5 points-per-game. Silas was a force from beyond the arc last season, draining 121 three-point baskets in 40 games.
"A lot of good energy,” Silas said of training camp. “We have a good core coming back from last year, so I feel really confident about the season.”
Joining the core are draft picks Eric Stuteville-#1 overall-and Rahlir Hollis-Jefferson-#6 overall- along with Alec Peters-a player on a two-way contract-and Zach Andrews, who was acquired in a trade from the Iowa Wolves.
In addition, Anthony Bennett, Peter Jok and Tidjan Keita were players allocated from the Phoenix Suns to the NAZ Suns.
Along with a majority of new players suiting up in the Northern Arizona Suns orange, the team also has a new general manager and a still-developing coaching staff. Louis Lehman takes over for Bubba Burrage after spending last season as the assistant GM of the club. Meanwhile, Burrage will focus on his position with the parent organization Suns.
“I never envisioned myself being a GM at 28-years-old, but it’s always been a goal of mine and something that I’ve strived for,” Lehman said. “Bubba (Burrage) did an unbelievable job giving me an opportunity to learn and grow last year under him and the year before in Bakersfield. It was a perfect opportunity for me to step in and get my first head GM job this year with the (NAZ) Suns.”
Lehman crafted a roster that has a similar backcourt but brought in additions for a revamped frontcourt.
Stuteville, 22, played in 31 games during his senior season at Sacramento State, averaging 11.6 points-per-game and 6.3 rebounds. The six-foot-eleven center shot .632 in his final season with the Hornets, the best mark for a single-season in program history.
“I look forward to bringing toughness, a physical presence, around the rim and the paint on offense and defense,” Stuteville said. “(I also look forward to) developing more and more so I can stretch the floor a little bit.”
Meanwhile, in the Canadian League, Hollis-Jefferson was the defensive player of the year.
“We want to play high-pace offensively...defensively, we want to show our toughness and our grittiness," Lehman said. “Adding guys like Eric (Stuteville), like Rhalir (Hollis-Jefferson), really help us in that aspect."
Even with the season just mere hours away, Lehman’s job crafting the team is not complete. Head Coach Ty Ellis, Associate Head Coach Bret Burchard, and Assistant Coach Brandon Rosenthal were called up to join the Phoenix Suns coaching staff following the Sunday, October 22nd, dismissal of Phoenix Suns Head Coach Earl Watson. The three joined the staff under Interim Head Coach Jay Triano. NAZ Suns Assistant Coach Tyler Gatlin ran the training camp.
“A lot of mixed emotions,” said Gray, who was working out with Ellis and Burchard when the call was made telling the coaches of their promotion. “I was looking forward to coming back and playing for those guys, but it’s a huge accomplishment for those guys. They are at the place we are all trying to get.”
The team has yet to announce a replacement head coach, but have been conducting a search over the past few days.
“It’s been long nights, a lot of phone calls, a lot of research,” Lehman said. “We compiled a really solid pool of candidates that are qualified, that are experienced... they fit what we want to do, our vision, our philosophy for the team.”
Considering the amount of turnover both coaching and player wise, it’s up to the returners to be leaders on the team.
“It just means that my voice matters more than ever now,” said Booker, who mentioned he knew almost immediately after the season he would return. “This is my third year in the G-League, I know what goes on. I know how to handle certain situations…being a guy that everyone can look up to.”
Booker learned the lessons to be in this position from playing for Ellis.
“Mentally, he’s prepared me for this year,” Booker said. “Learning how to be a leader on the team.”
After days of practice, one preseason match and various inter-team scrimmage games, the Northern Arizona Suns are ready to showcase to fans the style of play they have been training.
“They (fans) are going to see a team that is tough, going to come out and play hard,” Harrison said. “We are going to get up and down, play fast. That’s the type of basketball that a lot of people want to see and that is what we are going to provide.”
The Northern Arizona Suns start the 2017-2018 campaign on Saturday, November 4th, at the Prescott Valley Event Center. Tip-off is 7:00 pm.