Former NBA player, Maricopa hoops coach talks Suns’ hopes

The former NBA player coached at Maricopa High School for three years. He’s got something to say about the Phoenix Suns.

Tony Fuller is no stranger to the NBA. Here's what the Maricopa resident has to say about the home team's odds this year.
Tony Fuller is no stranger to the NBA. Here's what the Maricopa resident has to say about the home team's odds this year.

What makes an NBA superteam? A trio of All-Star performers. 

The 2023-24 Phoenix Suns certainly qualify for the superteam label with an offseason trade landing three-time Washington All-Star Bradley Beal to join Kevin Durant and Devin Booker. But with that trio and center Deandre Ayton combining for more than $162 million in salary just this season, Phoenix is left with what may be one of the most inexperienced second units in league history. 

Maricopa resident Anthony “Tony” Fuller, a former aide to Suns Assistant General Manager Gerald Madkins, hopes for the best for the local team. But he isn’t convinced the right makeup is yet in place. 

Fuller once played for his hometown Detroit Pistons before embarking on a lengthy coaching career: Head coach at both San Diego State and his alma mater Pepperdine, 20 years as a college assistant and a dozen more as a high school head coach (nine at Brophy Prep in Phoenix and three at Maricopa High School, ending in 2019). 

There is no doubting the offensive credentials of the Suns’ trio, Fuller says. The veteran Durant, entering his 17th season, has a career scoring average of 27.3 points. 

Beal’s 11 years in Washington included a 31.3 average in 2020-21 and 23.3 points in 50 games last year. Booker, the Suns’ first-round draft pick in 2015, exploded last year for career highs of 27.8 points in the regular season and 33.7 in 11 playoff games. 

“But who’s going to rebound, defend and pass the ball?” asks Fuller, who lists defense, rebounding, hard work and togetherness as a unit as keys for any championship squad. He rattles off past superteams that have been more balanced — both in big three and role players. 

Among the examples: 

  • The Los Angeles Lakers of the late 1960s and early 1970s featured center Wilt Chamberlain, forward Elgin Baylor and guard Jerry West. 
  • The same held true 16 years ago when Boston brought in big man Kevin Garnett and sharpshooter Ray Allen to complement small forward Paul Pierce. Center Kendrick Perkins and point guard Rajan Rondo were also key parts of the lineup. 
  • In the 1980s, the Showtime Lakers — the best team Fuller says he has seen — combined center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, forward James Worthy and guard Magic Johnson. Future Hall of Famer Bob McAdoo, who averaged as many as 34.5 points a season earlier in his career, sacrificed his personal numbers to come off the bench for those championship clubs. 

According to Fuller, Lakers coach Pat Riley said “voluntary cooperation” was the key for those L.A. title teams. 

“If I was coaching, I would ask Beal or Durant to come off the bench and anchor the inexperienced second unit,” Fuller offers. A non-starting role doesn’t have to mean fewer minutes played but could certainly bring more balance. 

Frank Vogel, who coached the Lebron James-Anthony Davis Lakers to the 2020 NBA title, is the new head man in Phoenix. The Suns fired one-time Coach of the Year Monty Williams after a second-round playoff loss to the eventual champion Denver Nuggets. 

“Vogel is a championship coach. If any coach can get your best player to be your hardest worker and get buy-in to what you want to get done, you can be successful,” Fuller contends.  

Following the trade for Beal in late June, new Suns owner Mat Ishbia and his front office filled out the remainder of the roster — for now — with a variety of lesser-known free agents. The most accomplished, by far, is 15-year guard Eric Gordon, a prolific three-point shooter at times in his career. 

Fuller believes rugged forward Touman Camara, a second-round draft pick from Dayton, could develop into a key performer. But the jury remains out on most of the remainder of the roster. 

Center Ayton is the subject of continued trade rumors. If he stays, Fuller worries his numbers will suffer from the absence of former point guard Chris Paul. The Suns’ first overall pick in 2018, Ayton still must improve on running the court, catching the ball and his physicality, the former coach suggests. 

The wheeling and dealing, whether it’s moving Ayton or adding other pieces, may not be over. 

“It’s definitely going to be a show (from an offensive standpoint). It will be interesting to see how it all plays out. I wish them the best of luck,” Fuller says. “They’ve got some pieces but need more to have a championship team. There’s a lot of work left to do.” 

In addition to the defending champion Nuggets, Fuller sees the veteran Golden State Warriors and up-and-coming Sacramento Kings as leaders in the West. He expects Boston to be strong once again in the East.  

The NBA regular season will begin in late October and conclude in mid-April 2024.