Tudor: UNC's Marshall could benefit from Steve Nash's exit at Phoenix

caulton.tudor@newsobserver.comJuly 9, 2012 

At age 38, NBA superstar Steve Nash is old enough to be Kendall Marshall’s agent.

And in one of the most indirect manners imaginable, Nash is quickly opening doors for the left-handed former North Carolina floor leader.

The recent decision by Nash to leave the Phoenix Suns to join the Los Angeles Lakers should create a rare opportunity for 20-year-old Marshall to make a substantial rookie impact in 2012-13.

When Phoenix made the second-year Tar Heel the No. 13 overall pick in the June draft, it wasn’t completely clear that Nash would leave the Suns.

That situation changed suddenly last week. Nash, the Suns and Lakers agreed to a sign-and-trade arrangement that will give him an opportunity to end a memorable career with a title contender.

Coached by former Appalachian State player Alvin Gentry, the Suns gradually have retreated into a wide-scale rebuilding process. The team’s 33-33 record last season left Nash – and former Duke star Grant Hill (39) – out of the playoffs and on a roster with more spaces than aces.

Like Nash, Hill is expected to make a move – possibly to the Lakers.

Gentry, a Shelby native and first cousin to former N.C. State star David Thompson, was a point guard for Bobby Cremins at Appalachian State during the mid 1970s and lobbied aggressively for the addition of Marshall.

Although Marshall didn’t even start during much of his first season with the Tar Heels, he quickly emerged as the team’s most important player. When he suffered a season-ending wrist injury against Creighton in UNC’s second NCAA tournament game in March, the Heels’ national title hopes ended.

There were casual comparisons of Marshall to Nash long before the draft. Both are mid-sized point guards with exceptional passing skills and a natural ability to orchestrate offensive movement.

“He has the ‘it’ factor,” Phoenix general manager Lance Blanks said of Marshall on draft night.

Marshall told reporters: “It’s the best scenario. This is exactly where I wanted to be.”

Whether the Suns turn floor control immediately over to Marshall obviously won’t be known until deep into preseason camp.

The Suns are expected to sign veteran point Goran Dragic, a 6-foot-4, 26-year-old native of Ljubljana, Slovenia, who averaged 11.7 points and 5.2 assists per game last season with Houston.

The team hopes to add 6-3 Eric Gordon, who averaged 18.3 points for New Orleans, after signing him to an offer sheet. But since Gordon basically is a wing shooter, the point guard competition could come down to Dragic and Marshall.

Nash averaged 10.7 assists and 12.5 points last season even though he frequently played fewer than 30 minutes. Even so, no one else on the team averaged more than 2.5 assists, meaning there will be an inordinately high priority on distribution when practice begins.

With 6-11 Marcin Gortat, who averaged 15.4 points, plus the arrival of 6-10 Michael Beasley from the Minnesota Timberwolves, the Suns should have decent potential to score inside if the offense functions correctly.

Either way, Nash’s departure makes it virtually certain that Marshall will be the most closely scrutinized of Carolina’s four NBA rookies next season. Nash ranks fifth on the all-time NBA assists list – sandwiched between No. 4 Magic Johnson and No. 6 Oscar Robertson.

Trying to follow a franchise legend can be intimidating and sometimes overwhelming in sports. In a perfect world, the Suns would have preferred from Marshall to learn the job as Nash’s reliever and on a team with the scoring punch that made them a regular Western Conference heavy until the past two seasons.

But Nash is gone and, for better or worse, a career opportunity is at hand for Marshall.

Tudor: 919-892-8946

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