This feature on Steve Nash appeared in the Arizona Daily Sun on Oct. 9, 2004.
A legitimate leader
By Ed Odeven
When the Phoenix Suns drafted Steve Nash in 1996, fans had mixed reactions: many booed, some cheered. Kevin Johnson was a well-established star then and many wondered why the Suns would spend the 15th pick in the draft on a point guard.
Nash didn’t spend a lot of time in a Suns uniform. In July 1998, when Jason Kidd was the undisputed floor leader of the Suns, Nash was deemed expendable and was traded to the Dallas Mavericks for Pat Garrity, Bubba Wells, Martin Muursepp and a future first-round draft pick, which turned out to be Shawn Marion in the 1999 draft.
Over the next six seasons, Nash transformed himself from a capable backup into one of the NBA’s top point guards. He made All-Star appearances in each of the last two seasons.
Nash became a free agent last offseason and signed a four-year deal with the Suns during the summer. It surprised many that Mavericks owner Mark Cuban did not match the Suns’ offer (a $65 million contract) or make a serious bid to re-sign him.
“I left pretty green and in many ways unproven, and to come back having gone through a lot of the battles (I have been a part of) I have a lot more confidence and legitimacy. My teammates have been great. They’ve respected me and welcomed me,” Nash said Tuesday, the first day of the Suns’ weeklong preseason training camp in Flagstaff.
Indeed, the Suns, who went 29-53 last season, welcome the 30-year-old Nash back to the Valley with open arms.
First and foremost, Suns coach Mike D’Antoni is cognizant of Nash’s leadership skills.
“The guy’s a winner, obviously, and his intensity and excellent work ethic and everything else (are valuable),” D’Antoni said. “He just brings so much to the table.”
After Stephon Marbury was traded to his hometown New York Knicks in early January, the Suns did not have an experienced point guard. They lost 18 games by five points or less last season, a telltale sign of a team lacking leadership.
Enter Steve Nash.
“I think they felt like I was a perfect fit for this team,” he said. “They have a lot of great talent, and I think for me my attributes are my experience and making my teammates better.
“If I can help these guys improve and help this team reach its potential … that’s why they brought me here.”
The Suns already field a young, athletic nucleus of players, including guards Joe Johnson and Quentin Richardson, who signed a free-agent deal after playing for four years with the Los Angeles Clippers, and forwards Shawn Marion and Amar’e Stoudemire.
Now, Nash will be expected to mold this team into a winner.
“I think he just brings his veteran (leadership) and experience,” said Marion, who was one of only two NBA players (Kevin Garnett was the other) to be in the top 30 in points, rebounds, steals, blocks and minutes last year.
“He’s been in the playoffs on a consistent basis (six straight years with Dallas) and we were lacking experience at point guard, so that’s going to help us become a more seasoned team.”
The Suns want to be a higher-scoring team this year after averaging just 94.2 points a game last season. Nash’s former team led the league with 105.2 ppg compared with the league’s worst-scoring team, Toronto (85.4 ppg).
“His style is to run up and down,” D’Antoni said. “We always want to do that. We’ll just run a little smarter now with him.”
As a result, the Suns should make better decisions with the basketball.
“He’s a great passer,” Marion said. “He’s an elite-five (player) in the NBA in passing. That says it all right there.”
Added Nash, “I think this is a very talented group, a very athletic team. We have some definite strengths. We are going to be able to score.”
Nash has averaged 7.3 or more assists per game in each of the last four seasons, including a career-high 8.8 apg in 2003-04. In addition, he’s a terrific free-throw shooter (a career average of 89.3 percent) and a dependable 3-point shooter. He’s averaged 12.5 ppg in his career.
Statistics don’t interest Nash, however. Only winning does.
“(Making) the playoffs is the only real goal,” Nash said. “Any other goal, if you don’t make the playoffs, what good is that? So that’s the only goal.”
Along the way, the ex-Santa Clara University standout who now considers himself a “grizzled veteran” will be a mentor to young Suns guards, including Leandro Barbosa, the second-year pro from Brazil, and rookie Yuta Tabuse, a former BYU-Hawaii player who is trying to become the first Japanese-born player to make an NBA roster.
“He always moves the ball and he never stays still on the court,” Barbosa observed. “I think this is different than other point guards. I think (seeing this) has helped me a lot.
“I can learn a lot of things when he moves the ball and I defend him (in practice).”
As Tabuse is surrounded by a throng of Japanese media members on a daily basis, Nash has become his most vocal supporter. After Tuesday’s evening practice concluded, Nash chatted briefly with Tabuse before speaking to the media.
“I told him he should never feel uncomfortable or embarrassed if there’s so much attention here,” Nash said. “I think it’s a difficult situation to be a rookie and be from a different culture and have all this attention.”
On and off the court, Nash knows how to be a leader.