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Recapping the Northern Arizona Suns’ Inaugural Season: The Beginning

By Jacob Withee | April 14, 2017

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 Beginning

The Suns broke training camp and opened their first ever season with 13 players on the roster; Daniel Alexander, Gracin Bakumanya, Askia Booker, Michael Bryson, Derek Cooke Jr., Josh Gray, Shaquille Harrison, Derrick Jones Jr., Greg Mays, Elijah Millsap, Johnny O’Bryant, Xavier Silas and Asaad Woods.

Four of those players (Booker, Cooke, Millsap and Silas) were over in Bakersfield with the team prior to the move and chose to return to the squad. Two were drafted (Bryson and Mays), while two others were affiliate players, meaning the Suns’ parent club liked what they saw from them in the NBA preseason and they wanted to keep those players in their own system.

Three guys (Alexander, Gray and Woods) earned their spot on the team after impressing the coaches and staff at a local tryout. O’Bryant had been with the Milwaukee Bucks before he was claimed by the NAZ Suns a day before the season began, and Jones was the lone Phoenix Suns’ assignee, meaning he was on an NBA roster as well as on NAZ’s team.

With this roster led by head coach Ty Ellis; assistant coaches Bret Burchard, Tyler Gatlin and Brandon Rosenthal; head athletic trainer and strength and conditioning coach Johnny Mak; assistant athletic trainer Michelle Ruan; it was all set to begin on…

November 12

The Suns opened their season against the Iowa Energy on Nov. 12 at Prescott Valley Event Center. In front of a season-opening crowd of 2,345 people, the Suns couldn’t have asked for a better start.

Six Northern Arizona players scored 13+ points, including the entire starting lineup. Harrison and Jones led the team with 19 points apiece, while O’Bryant and Millsap each scored 18 points to go with other impressive numbers. O’Bryant achieved the first double-double in NAZ Suns history, as he added 11 rebounds. Millsap foreshadowed what he would do the rest of the season, putting up numbers across the board with nine rebounds, seven assists and five steals.

Booker tallied 15 points on 7-of-12 shooting and led everybody with a +25 in the plus-minus category. Gray contributed 13 points, three rebounds and three assists off the bench.

The Suns had their first ever game in control the entire time, providing great entertainment for the crowd with high-flying dunks and impressive shooting. NAZ shot 45-of-89 (.506) from the field and had 15 steals compared to the Energy’s two. The Suns led by as many as 28 points in the game before winning 121-104.

1-0.

But the best was yet to come.

10-1

The Suns quickly drew the eyes of everyone around the league with an unbelievable start. They won their first three games of the season, earned 10 wins in their first 11 games, and began the season 8-0 at home.

The Suns tied the D-League record for the best start through the first 11 games of a season with their 10-1 beginning. The Rio Grande Valley Vipers (2013-14), the Iowa Energy (2009-10) and the Columbus Riverdragons (2004-05) were the only other teams in NBA D-League history to begin a season 10-1 through the first 11 games of a season. No one has ever started the season 11-0.

Memorable moments came in the first 11 games of the season to be sure.

The Suns’ only loss in that stretch was actually one of the most exciting games of the season for any team in the league. NAZ lost to the Los Angeles D-Fenders at the Toyota Sports Center in California 142-135 in double overtime after they made two incredible comebacks.

First, the Suns came back from 31 points down and after Harrison tied it with a two-foot floating bank shot with 2.3 seconds remaining in regulation, they forced it into overtime. That’s when another crazy comeback occurred.

The Suns trailed 128-121 with 36.2 seconds left. Gray and Booker each hit a three-point field goal on the next two Suns’ possessions, the Suns made their next four free throws after that, and then Booker hit a driving shot to make it a two-point game with 9.5 seconds left. Cooke then stole the ball, the Suns were able to turn a funky play into two points on a nifty Cooke reverse-layup with 4.5 seconds remaining and somehow they forced the game into a second overtime.

Pure craziness.

Later in the month, the world got introduced to Jones, AKA Airplane Mode.

In Salt Lake City, Jones finished off an alley-oop with a windmill dunk.

Jones quickly followed that up with a dunk that would be broadcast nationally for months to come, as he took a high pass from Millsap and threw it down against the Reno Bighorns. He literally threw the ball down.

The Suns would then cap it off later with an impressive home sweep against one of the better teams in the league in the Rio Grande Valley Vipers.

10-1. The beginning of the Northern Arizona Suns’ inaugural season couldn’t have gone any better.