Ish Wainright only spent two seasons in Phoenix but you would have guessed his Suns tenure was for a decade after the amount of quick reunions he had across Footprint Center on Monday.
From owner Mat Ishbia to a video coordinator or that security guard he’d walk by every day, the Portland Trail Blazers forward Ish Wainright was unsurprisingly greeted quite positively by the fans when he got welcomed back.
Just like it was for The Twins, this was a very emotional night for Wainright. An undrafted player out of Baylor in 2017, Wainright spent four years working his way to the NBA. Phoenix was the team to give him a chance on a two-way contract and he became a terrific development story for the program.
Nice ovation for Ish Wainright pic.twitter.com/d3lyRdtz68
— Kellan Olson (@KellanOlson) January 2, 2024
He grew into a reliable, trustworthy option on the back-half of the bench. Whether it was injuries or something not flowing on a night Wainright initially wasn’t going to play, he took advantage of every opportunity across those two years.
His true value, however, came with the person he is in the locker room and the worker he is in the gym. He was a beloved teammate and how hard he played through that made it easy for everyone to latch onto him.
“Not just the players but the workers,” Wainright told Arizona Sports of the people he was seeing again on Monday, referencing fans and security workers by name. “Just seeing everybody, just seeing all the familiar faces I haven’t seen in a minute. Emotions is running.”
What did those connections mean to him?
“Everything. Literally everything,” he said. “From the ball boys to the workers to the fans. … to fans that travel not just from Phoenix but from like every other city. Just little things like that.”
The connection extended to the city itself.
“I still have things going on this summer in Phoenix,” he said. “Phoenix is home. I’m not gonna be like, ‘Oh, this is not home.’ No. Phoenix is home. My mom loves it here, my lady lives here, my family’s here too. I will be looking for a house eventually.”
Wainright, who was claimed by the Blazers off waivers in October after the Deandre Ayton trade created a Suns roster logjam, moves to a Portland team that is a seamless fit. Head coach Chauncey Billups is trying to establish the foundation of his basketball culture around the promising young talent of Ayton, Scoot Henderson, Anfernee Simons and Shaedon Sharpe.
It cannot be emphasized enough how much guys like Wainright matter in achieving that.
“Obviously he can play basketball,” Billups said. “He knows how to play. You put him in there, he’s always a plus guy. He’s vocal, he talks. But when you’re starting and trying to build something, you need guys like Ish that are gonna push your message.”
Billups confirmed players that go on journeys like Wainright’s to get to the league come with certain traits.
“They haven’t been given anything,” Billups said. “In fact, not only have they not been given anything, nobody ever thought they would be here. It comes with part of who they are. You have to do everything right. You have to be about the right things. No matter if you’re playing or not or you’re getting minutes or not, you still have to maintain and be the same person. You have to be positive, you gotta be a positive guy in that locker room. He’s that person. Period.”
Wainright had the unique perspective of entering the NBA and joining a top-tier team that was just coming off a Finals appearance. The 29-year-old gets to take everything he absorbed and put it toward making a long career out of this.
“I’ve been around elite players, Hall of Famers, even guys I’m about to play against right now,” Wainright said. “I learned from [Chris Paul], I learned from Jae Crowder, JaVale McGee — guys that have won championships. [Kevin Durant] and [Devin Booker] and all those guys. So I’m just taking whatever they taught me and installing it into the younger generation, the younger guys that’s on the team.”