Eric Gordon, Royce O’Neale reflect on old teams and new life with Suns

HOUSTON — Judging by the warm reception Eric Gordon received from his teammates during Friday’s return to the Toyota Center, it was clear how profound his presence was during his three seasons in a Houston Rockets uniform.

Gordon, now in his 16th NBA season, has always been regarded as one of the more straightforward players in the league. The 35-year-old doesn’t sugarcoat things — he’s going to tell you exactly how it is. As a veteran previously caught in between eras of Rocket basketball, there was no one with a better vantage point. Gordon’s not vocal, but his voice carries when he uses it.

A little over a year ago, Gordon’s scathing comments about the state of Houston’s rebuild was as prominent of a sign of just how bad things had become. Since then, the Rockets’ overall situation has improved. As of right now, the 25-32 squad sits 4.5 games outside of the final Play-In Tournament spot in the West, but enough wins over quality opponents — including the Phoenix Suns as recent as last weekend — are just another sign of the improvement underway.

Recently, Gordon spoke with The Athletic about what he’s seeing from his former team, life in Phoenix, championship chasing and more.

A year ago you stood in this arena and said there was no improvement as it pertains to Houston’s overall rebuild. What can you say to that now? 

Everything’s totally different. You can tell they’re headed in the right direction. They’ve won a lot of games early on and you can tell all their young guys have gotten better. You can tell they’re moving in the right way.

What have you seen from the effect head coach Ime Udoka has had on this team over the first “half” of the season? 

He was a player, I played against him and he was a hard-nosed player. And you can see it as a coach. He’s seen it all. He knows what he’s doing. It’s good for the Rockets that he’s here.

Being in Phoenix now on a team that’s considered to be a championship contender, do you feel that grit or presence of guys that need to win now and recognize that?

 Yeah. For sure. We’re all in for the now. And that’s the situation that every player desires to be in. That’s what I look forward to and a lot of these guys look forward to also.

How has the acclimation process been for you overall? Been quite eventful for you over the past 12 months. 

We know we have a good team. We’ve hit our strides here and there during the season, but we just got to keep our poise and we’ll be OK.

You’ve been considered an X-factor for a long time because of your ability to space the floor and take pressure away from others. On a team like the Suns with as much star power as they have, what value does that bring?

I can always bring effective scoring and playmaking when things get tough. And I’m never afraid of taking the shot toward the end of the game. But when I get going, I get going. I like to change the game. So that’s what I’m here for — if some of these guys ain’t playing well, I can up my game and be ready to play. Just like when I was here with Houston when we were winning.

Speaking of Houston, wanted to get your thoughts on Amen Thompson and Cam Whitmore, the newest rookies in town …

They’re both getting a lot better from the last time we played against them, Cam Whitmore, his game is adjusting a lot. And for Amen, you can tell he’s starting to get a feel, too. I know there’s going to be a ton of progress, but both of them made big jumps over the past 20 games for sure.

You were probably one of the biggest supporters of Alperen Şengün while you were here. To see the level he’s reached this season development-wise, what does that do to you personally? 

I always tell people that his game is maturing and he’s going to continue to get better. Now you got to get guys around him. When you get certain guys around him, it should be even better. But they’re maximizing his potential. So every year, he should be getting better and better.

What do you see as the next step for this young team? Obviously, you know all about the Phase 1, Phase 2 stuff. But what’s the next thing?

Well, I don’t know. You can tell that they’re working hard, they’re playing hard and I know that they’re trying to win. And it’s kind of up to them to figure out. But they’re starting to get a good mix with good vets and good young players.

Do you think adding a star down the line would help this group move forward?

I don’t know. That’s the tough part because you want to see some of these guys grow, so they can be here and do well for the next 12 or 15 years of their career. And that’s always a tough call to figure out.

Shifting back to Phoenix before I let you go, what’s the biggest goal for you all down the stretch during these last 20-something games?

We got to show a level of dominance. We have to do that. And for us to propel ourselves going into the playoffs to show what we’re made of. We’ve done it in strides, but we got to do it a lot more to see if we can be a championship team.

Should we expect any more Eric Gordon quotables between now and the end of the season? 

Nahhh. I just gotta keep it simple. I know I had a lot of memes here in Houston, but it would be good to just keep it here.

Royce O’Neale talked to The Athletic about his trade to Phoenix. (Chris Coduto/Getty Images)

Seated just a few seats down from Gordon was forward Royce O’Neale. The veteran 3-and-D forward, now in his seventh NBA season, arrived in Phoenix along with Grizzlies wing David Roddy as part of a series of trade deadline moves to bolster the Suns’ depth. O’Neale, a career 38 percent 3-point shooter, brings playoff experience and two-way tenacity, despite a curious ending in Brooklyn.

With the flurry of trades that took place earlier in the month, O’Neale’s move was less advertised but make no mistake — his value will show in the playoffs. Just ask any Jazz fan. The 30-year-old wanted to get some things off his chest, having arrived at a championship contender at the midway point in the season, a tough ask for anyone. 

You’ve been around the NBA for a while now so you’re well aware of the business side of things. Did it feel like it was time for a new environment, having been in Brooklyn for two seasons? What are your thoughts on the whole move in general?

I mean, yeah. Last year at the trade deadline, we kind of got like a whole new team. So, yeah, of course it was tough. Everybody figuring out their roles and stuff. And then this season, it was still a little tough. Especially rotation-wise, guys in and out. It varied in different games. But my time there was good. Learned a lot, especially from first coming in to the guys playing with a new team and still being a leader and everything this past year when I was there.

Being a respected defender joining a team that needed those hard-nosed types, how has it been for the first two weeks on the job?

It’s been good. That’s what kind of made my name in the league, defense. Just coming in, being one of the guys that brings that defensive intensity, leadership, trying to help these guys and they’re helping me out. So it’s been good, I feel welcomed back to playing good basketball.

Do you feel that change in mentality being around these new teammates?

For sure. Book been to the finals. KD (Kevin Durant) won. Brad (Beal), a lot of experience. Thad (Young), EG (Eric Gordon), other guys with experience, now it’s just combining all that together. Making sure we are all on the same page offensively and defensively. So I think defense, we’ll pick it up. Starting to learn more about each other. And then offensively, just stay connected and play the right way.

Seems like the role and specific skill set of a veteran 3-and-D player is lost on the casual fan. Why is your presence so important for the Suns right now? 

In the league, everybody wants to score. I take pride in playing defense, but doing the little things too. Whether I have to score, play-make, get guys the ball or play a half role, just doing the little things that count. And just being myself, trying not to do anything I’m not capable of or not supposed to be doing, you know? Doing what got me here and what’s gonna continue to keep me here.

I know you played with Kevin (Durant) last year, but what have you seen from him and Devin Booker that you might not have seen in your earlier playing days in Utah when they were your nightly opponents?

Playing with Kevin last year, I’ve seen a lot. His work ethic, leadership, how he prepares every day. Unselfish. He’s one of the greatest scorers in the league, but people take his passing ability for granted. Playing against Book all these years, seeing how talented he is, finally being on his team. Understanding how he sees the game, getting guys involved and actually being a listener. He asks you what you see, stuff like that. So it’s been good. These guys welcomed me, making the game easier for me.

When you hear prominent figures openly questioning Kevin’s leadership skills, how does that strike you?

I mean, it’s a little weird. They act like he wasn’t a leader like OKC coming up with that team, and in Golden State being one of those guys. Leaving, being in Brooklyn and then now. So it’s surprising but I mean what do they want him to do? Yell at everybody? Be a tough guy, hard on everybody? He shows his leadership in different ways. Taking accountability, holding guys accountable and showing up every day.

We don’t often talk about players that get moved in the middle of a season, especially not to teams expected to win. It’s not easy, right? To just fit in on the fly. 

For sure. I mean, it’s a big adjustment. Especially just being traded midseason. You go from one team to a whole different one and might have to learn a whole new concept. But coming into a contending team, you know it’s an honor to be traded and take pride in it. But just coming in, affecting the game any way you can, being yourself. And then just showing up every day and being happy.

(Top photo of Eric Gordon: Christian Petersen / Getty Images)

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