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Recapping the Northern Arizona Suns’ Inaugural Season: The Middle

By Jacob Withee | April 18, 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 Middle

The Suns were sitting at 10-1 on the season and entered their Dec. 14 matchup against the Santa Cruz Warriors with the best record in the NBA D-League. Besides Derrick Jones Jr., Northern Arizona was about to get its first flavor of its parent club…the Phoenix Suns assigned Tyler Ulis and Alan Williams to the team.

Ulis and Williams, who both played regular minutes for Phoenix (and played really well in those minutes) took control of their lone game for NAZ. Jones and Ulis tied Elijah Millsap for the second-most points on the team in the game, with Jones recording 13 points and seven rebounds, while Ulis put in 13 points and a team-high nine assists. Williams was a beast down low, contributing a team-high 20 points and nine rebounds. In the third quarter alone he had 13 points on 5-of-8 shooting and four boards.

The starting lineup for NAZ had the most experience as you will see in the D-League, with each person having played quality minutes in the NBA before that Dec. 14 game; Ulis started at the 1, Millsap at the 2, Jones at the 3, Johnny O’Bryant at the 4 and Williams at the 5. It was a big night of foreshadowing for…

The Call-Ups

O’Bryant earned the first GATORADE Call-Up in Northern Arizona Suns history on Jan. 26. The Denver Nuggets liked what they saw from the big-man, who was averaging 18.4 points on 46.0 percent shooting and 8.6 rebounds in 32.2 minutes per game at the time. He had also started all 24 Suns games, while achieving 10 double-doubles.

The Louisiana State product was having a monster month, and the Nuggets took notice. He ended December by scoring a career-high (and the most points by a Suns player in team history at the time) 37 points on 16-of-24 shooting, including 3-of-5 from the three-point line, to go along with seven rebounds, three assists and two steals.

Then the Suns’ starting center was named the NBA D-League Performer of the Week for games played Jan. 9-15. This marked O’Bryant’s first weekly honor and the first such award for a Suns player in team history. He led the Suns to a 2-0 week, averaging 24.0 points, 17.0 rebounds, 2.0 assists and 2.0 steals per game. On Jan. 10 against the Oklahoma City Blue, O’Bryant helped the Suns end the longest active winning streak in the league at seven games. He set his career-high in rebounds that night at 17, adding a double-double with 22 points. Then on Jan. 14 against the Grand Rapids Drive, O’Bryant again secured 17 rebounds, earning his second double-double in as many games with 26 points. He shot 7-of-17 from the field, including a career-best 4-of-6 from beyond the arc, to help the Suns beat the Drive by 31 points, which was the largest margin of victory for Northern Arizona in team history.

Just before being called up, O’Bryant earned an NBA D-League Showcase Honorable Mention.

For Denver, O’Bryant played in seven games, tallying 20 points and 11 rebounds in 46 minutes. If the trade deadline wasn’t looming, it was expected that the Nuggets would sign him to a multi-year deal, but alas, he returned to the NAZ Suns when his second 10-day contract expired.

It turned out well for him, because while in Denver he was named an NBA D-League All-Star, getting the first honor for a Suns player in team history. He was one of 12 original players named to the NBA D-League Western Conference All-Star team thanks to a combined vote of the league’s 22 head coaches and all players in the league. In the game, he achieved nine points on 4-of-8 shooting and a rebound, including a back-door contested jam.

However, he wasn’t alone in representing the Northern Arizona Suns and Prescott Valley at the league’s biggest stage…

Suns take over All-Star Weekend

First was NAZ Suns’ forward Derek Cooke Jr., who competed in the D-League Dunk Contest, presented by Verizon. Although Cooke did not make it to the final round of the contest, his second dunk in the preliminaries got the crowd at the Mercedes Benz-Superdome in New Orleans to its feet.

After O’Bryant played in the All-Star Game, it was time for the Verizon Slam Dunk (the NBA Slam Dunk Contest).

Jones competed against Indiana’s Glenn Robinson III, Orlando’s Aaron Gordon and the LA Clippers’ DeAndre Jordan. Jones was third in line and he took flight right away, dunking over Cooke and Phoenix Suns’ Marquese Chriss, Devin Booker and Williams. He earned 45 points for his effort, putting him in second place after each participants’ first dunk.

Jones’ next dunk was the one that got everybody talking, as he had Booker lob one off the side of the background while Jones followed with an alley-oop between-the-legs slam. It was as obvious a perfect score as there could be.

With a composite score of 95 points, Jones advance to the finals and took home second place.

If 10-1 hadn’t put the Suns on people’s radars to begin the season, everybody would start to notice the team from Prescott Valley after they took the nation by storm.