Marshall arrives with expectations in Phoenix

PHOENIX — Not long after his freshman season at North Carolina, Kendall Marshall was asked if he was coming back to Chapel Hill.

The question caught him off-guard.

"Where would I go?" Marshall recalled. "It didn't dawn on me that I could play in the NBA."

The seed of playing in the NBA was planted that day and Marshall fulfilled the late-blooming dream Thursday night, when the Phoenix Suns selected him with the 13th overall pick of the NBA draft.

And, by all accounts, it was a match both sides wanted: Marshall said Phoenix was the one team he wanted to play for, the Suns called the heady, pass-first point guard the top choice on their draft board.

So, yeah, there were plenty of smiles Friday when the Suns introduced the player they hope will be the franchise's point guard of the future.

"This young man is well beyond his years and has the "It" factor," Suns general manager Lance Blanks said. "He's dynamic in his personality, he has a great sense of who he is, he's not trying to be anything that he's not, not only as a basketball player, but as a person."

On the court, Marshall is a player who makes up for his lack of athleticism with smarts.

In an age of dynamic point guards like Russell Westbrook and Derrick Rose, Marshall is a bit of a throwback, an offensive orchestrator with a knack for finding the right person at the right time with the right pass.

Certainly, he can be flashy, throwing alley-oops from anywhere and how-did-that-get-through passes in traffic. But what sets Marshall apart — and makes up for his lack of athleticism — is his understanding of the game, knowing how to run an offense, figuring out where players like to get the ball and making sure they get it there every time.

Marshall's father, Dennis, instilled a know-how-to-pass-first mentality in Kendall at a young age and it carried him through a stellar high school career in northern Virginia, two successful seasons at North Carolina and into the NBA.

"People often say someone is a player's coach, well he's a coach's player," Suns coach Alvin Gentry said. "It's almost as if you have a coach on the floor. I love what he does as far as pushing the basketball — obviously we're an up-tempo team — but more than anything is the cerebral part."

Marshall is faced with learning under or replacing one of the best point guards in NBA history.

Steve Nash, a two-time league MVP, becomes a free agent on Saturday and has plenty of suitors.

Should Nash re-sign with the Suns — they're one of his top choices — Marshall will get a firsthand look at how a team is run by one of the game's master orchestrators. If Nash leaves the desert, Marshall will be the one feeling the heat, thrust into a solo mission of taking over a team that had run so smoothly for so many years.

Whether Nash returns or not, Marshall is looking forward to the challenge, believing the work he's put in over the years has prepared him for whatever might come.

"I'm just excited about the opportunity to play in the NBA," he said. "If he is here, he'll be someone tremendous to learn from on and off the court. But that's not in my control. I feel like I've got the skills to learn from the other great veterans here."

If Nash does leave, Marshall could also take over another of his roles: the Suns' bridge to the community.

Nash had become the face of the franchise in his nine seasons during two stints in the desert, his selfless, down-to-earth nature a good fit in the Valley of the Sun.

Smart, humble, affable and thoughtful, Marshall has some of the same qualities, which the Suns' front office certainly noticed in his two pre-draft trips to Phoenix.

"There's just something about Kendall when you meet him and he works out, there's something that just stays with you," Blanks said. "We talked about the kind of players we wanted for our team and I don't think there was anyone in the draft who could have been any better for what we wanted and what we're trying to do.

"Regardless of what happens with free agency, there is a risk of tough times in the future and you need a stabilizing force on the court, in the community; you need someone who can basically represent who and what you are about. From A to Z, Kendall embodies all of those things."

Dressed in a tailored suit while confidently and coolly answering questions from the Phoenix media, Marshall certainly looked the part.

This fall, he'll get the chance to see if he can fill the part, whatever it may be.