Marion’s big season keeps Suns winning

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PHOENIX (AP) – He can soar, score and steal with the best of them in the NBA.

At 6-foot-7, his natural position is small forward, but he often plays power forward – sometimes even center – in the undersized, high-octane game of the Phoenix Suns.

While Steve Nash gets most of the credit, the Suns would be nowhere in the Pacific Division without Shawn Marion.

“I don’t know if there’s another guy that you could say “Well, he guarded Yao Ming and then the next night he guarded Tony Parker,”‘ Suns assistant coach Alvin Gentry said. “I don’t know if there’s anyone who asks a guy on their team to do as much as we ask Shawn to do.”

In his seventh NBA season, Marion has never been better. With Amare Stoudemire missing virtually the entire season with knee trouble and Kurt Thomas out with a stress fracture in his foot, Marion has become even more crucial to the Suns’ success.

He has not disappointed, quietly putting together what coach Mike D’Antoni calls “an MVP-caliber season.”

Marion is the only player to rank in the top 20 in points, rebounds, steals, blocks, field goal percentage and minutes. He leads the Suns in scoring (21.5), is third in the NBA in rebounding (11.9) and fifth in steals (2.0).

Always on an even keel, and never one to pound his chest with pride, Marion has steadily developed a confidence in his abilities.

“Anybody that knows basketball, they know what I go out there and do for this team,” he said. “It speaks for itself. Night in and night out, I’m trying to do what I can to help this team win, regardless of whether it’s me scoring more, rebounding more, playing defense.”

“The Matrix,” a nickname given to him by former NBA guard and current television analyst Kenny Smith, joins Kevin Garnett, Elton Brand and Yao as the only NBA players to average at least 20 points and 10 rebounds per game.

“Man, you almost become envious,” teammate James Jones said. “He has everything to be a great player, and it’s not just physical. It’s just the way he approaches it, humble. He’s a hard worker undersized against everyone he plays, but he always feels like he’s bigger.”

No one mentions Marion in most valuable player talk, but he is as important in many ways as Nash in the Suns’ surprising Pacific title defense despite the absence of Stoudemire and the loss of Joe Johnson.

“Shawn is completely paramount for our team and our success,” said Nash, whose lob passes for Marion’s power dunks account for a hefty portion of the point guard’s league-leading 10.5 assists per game. “He fills so many gaps for us. We all know how he fills a state sheet, and for him to be able to play bigger than his size is just so important for a small team.”

Marion is reserved by nature. His mother, Elaine, was in her mid-teens when she gave birth to Shawn and his twin sister, Shawnett. Eventually, there were four children, and his mother worked two jobs to support them.

When Marion was in junior high, about the time he first dunked a basketball, the family moved from Chicago to Tennessee.

After a standout high school career in Clarksville, he attended Vincennes Junior College in Indiana, where he was named national JC player of the year as a sophomore. Following one season at UNLV, Marion left for the pro game and was chosen as the ninth pick overall by the Suns. It was a widely criticized choice, because Phoenix passed on the much better known Corey Maggette.

Marion earned his first all-star berth in 2003 but his game erupted with the addition of Nash last season. Marion’s speed and ability to jump quicker than anyone, and probably as high as anybody, in the NBA, meshed perfectly with the energized game that D’Antoni wants and Nash orchestrates.

“I don’t think you can appreciate everything that he gives us unless you coach him and you’re there every day and you see what we ask him to do,” Gentry said. “In terms of his overall game, I don’t know who you could compare him to in the league, really. You know, there are very few guys that can score 21 points a game and get you 12 rebounds and weigh 220 pounds.”

Very few things bother Marion, but he didn’t like being left off the all-defensive team last season.

“I’m the only one who had to go out and guard somebody out of position the entire year, and I did it,” he said.

And never question his unorthodox, sort of two-handed, shooting style. He sees nothing wrong with it, and will say so in no uncertain terms. The results speak for themselves, just like the rest of Marion’s game.

“I don’t know where that came from, whether I got it from my mother or not,” he said, “but I’ve always been a player who speaks with his game, without talking. I don’t need to talk. I just go out there and do what I’ve got to do.”

AP-ES-04-14-06 1556EDT

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