Watching film on the scoring combination of Steve Nash to Amar'e Stoudemire is enough to leave opposing coaches bleary-eyed and befuddled. Footage of Nash to Jason Richardson is almost as worrisome. Then there are the disturbing sequences of Nash to Channing Frye and ... wait, back up. Nash to whom? Channing Frye? Yes, it's the 6'11" Trail Blazers' castoff turned starting center, whose perimeter shooting is a major reason that the Suns were 9--2 at week's end. "With Channing," says Phoenix G.M. Steve Kerr, "we hit the jackpot."
This is an article from the Nov. 23, 2009 issue
A 2005 lottery pick by the Knicks out of Arizona, Frye averaged 12.3 points as a rookie. But he was traded to Portland a year later, and last season, playing behind Greg Oden, LaMarcus Aldridge and Joel Przybilla, his scoring average dipped to 4.2 points. "I just couldn't find my niche," says Frye. The Suns, however, saw what he could become in their system. After unsuccessfully trying to trade for Frye last season, Kerr signed him to a two-year free-agent deal for about $4 million. "When we unloaded [Shaquille O'Neal], we wanted to get back to playing the way we're comfortable," says Kerr. "We believed Channing could help us do that."
Frye is the anti-Shaq: He creates space for Nash, whereas O'Neal just took it up. After attempting only 70 three-pointers in his first four seasons (and making 28.6%), Frye had launched a team-high 68 through Sunday, connecting on 47.1% and averaging 13.5 points. His ability to stretch the floor has helped the Suns pick up wins at Boston and Miami. "You can't leave him," says a Western Conference scout. "So when Nash penetrates, that's one less guy you can send to help."
Although Frye is happy to be back in Phoenix—he graduated from Saint Mary's High—he's still acclimating to the Suns' jack-it-up offense. He has what he calls "relapse moments," when he questions if a quick three is the right shot. One came last week against the 76ers. After missing three of his first four shots from beyond the arc, Frye caught a pass from Nash on the right wing. He hesitated, then missed badly off the side of the rim. "The coaching staff here keeps telling me that if I'm open, that's the shot I have to take," Frye says.
Defensively, the 245-pound Frye can be overpowered; in last Thursday's 121--102 loss at L.A., the Lakers racked up 78 points in the paint. At week's end Frye ranked 29th among centers in rebounding, with 5.4 per game. To compensate for his lack of heft, he demands that opposing pivots expend energy by chasing him. "If you're going to bang me, then I'm going to run your tongue out," says Frye. "Eventually, it will take its toll." The Suns' defense has been at its strongest late in games; opponents are shooting 49.0% through the first three quarters but just 45.1% in the fourth.
Phoenix will have to wait until April to answer the familiar question about how well its fast-paced style will hold up in the playoffs. But for now the progress is clear. "The pieces were wrong last year," says Kerr. "That's my fault. This team has the energy and depth to be very good."
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Power Of Ben
When Detroit brought in Ben Wallace, 35, for a second tour of duty, they expected him to teach defense more than play it. Turns out, he's doing both. The four-time Defensive Player of the Year (below), who contemplated retirement in the off-season, had started every game through Sunday and was averaging 9.3 rebounds and 1.7 blocks. His 16 boards against the 76ers on Nov. 8 were his most since February 2008, and the center has anchored a D that was holding opponents to 91.5 points per game (sixth in the NBA) and 42.5% shooting (fourth). "He came here with no guarantees for playing time," says Pistons coach John Kuester. "Now we can't keep him out of the lineup."