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How Northern Arizona Suns found success in form of five NBA call-ups

They missed the G League playoffs, but the Northern Arizona Suns’ success can be measured in other ways.

Cleveland Cavaliers v Phoenix Suns Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

This past season, the Northern Arizona Suns amassed a 23-27 record and missed the playoffs. Some may consider that a failed season, until one realizes that the team’s original head coach was swiftly plucked away following a coaching change in Phoenix.

When the NBA affiliate fired Earl Watson after just three games, NAZ head coach Ty Ellis and a handful of other staffers were promoted to The Association. This is an accomplishment to celebrate, however, poor timing made the transition a bit tricky. Though the NBA season was already in full swing, G League training camp was just getting underway. This left associate head coach Tyler Gatlin to run camp with a limited support system until new head coach Cody Toppert arrived.

“Cody arrived later in the day of our first game. He came into a different situation and we needed to be there to welcome him,” Gatlin told “We had to be on the same page. We collaborated and worked toward the bigger picture.”

It’s easy to assume that the aforementioned bigger picture leads to winning games and competing for a championship. That’s certainly part of the equation, but there are many moving parts when it comes to the G League. The minor league acts as a development tool and allows NBA teams to prepare such youngsters to potentially contribute seamlessly to specific programs.

In that regard, Northern Arizona’s fast moving operation made quite the immediate impact. The team saw five players get called up to the NBA, including three directly to Phoenix. Those who received promotions including Isaiah Canaan (Suns), Derrick Jones Jr. (Heat), Josh Gray (Suns), Shaquille Harrison (Suns), and Xavier Silas (Celtics).

Again, winning ball games can be difficult when a team’s top talents are going back and forth, plucked away at any moment. It forces a team and respective coaching staff to make necessary adjustments. Despite how well they prepare, it can’t be denied that the more talented players are being removed with little notice. After signing a two-way contract, Jones Jr. was brought under Miami’s development program and never returned.

Continued call-ups presents a minor league team with challenges, but none that they aren’t eager to take on. It’s the nature of the beast, but again, moving on up is the ultimate goal. As NAZ did their best to maintain a consistent rhythm, there were many twists and turns. Still, it was easy to motivate guys around the idea of earning a call-up or staying ready for that next opportunity, especially as they witnessed those around them begin to prosper.

“Every ten games or so, you could see us hitting our stride. We started to roll and our record was improving,” Gatlin added. “Over the last twenty games, we had four guys get called up to the NBA. It was a testament to us pounding the stone.”

Part of that process was Coach Toppert’s unwavering attention to the development of each player as he fostered relationships from top to bottom. Gatlin praised him and the rest of the staff for their dedication and attention to detail.

“Cody was grinding every day and was always around breaking down film like it was game seven of the NBA Finals. It’s a testament to the hard work behind the scenes. We’re on the team bus watching film,” Gatlin pointed out. “Late at night, we found gyms on the road to do extra shooting drills. Xavier Silas made it back to the NBA after four years and got called up by the Boston Celtics, no less. That was an incredible moment for the whole team.”

Indeed, it’s likely that a transitioning team is inclined to roll the dice on young talent. It’s unique when a championship contender like Boston thinks highly enough of NAZ’s program and feels they kept Silas primed to contribute later in the season.

Five NBA call-ups later, and it’s safe to say the staff’s tenacity validated Phoenix’s vision for development. For a young big league team undergoing a transition of its own, the ability to look toward a local avenue for supporting talent along the way is a huge plus. Thus, there are different ways to measure success in the G League.