There is a very ominous hush around the new center for the Phoenix Suns. Normally when a 7'1 behemoth is selected with the fifth pick in the draft, the buzz is palpable. However, the hyperbole surrounding new GM Ryan McDonough, combined with the uncertainty surrounding his first big draft pick, have begged a question that some of us might be afraid to ask out loud: "Does this guy know what he's doing?"
Delivered From the Doldrums
Ryan McDonough arrived in the desert and before he even opened his mouth, he was exactly what this organization needed. The tumbleweeds had been blowing through town ever since Amare had finished his last pick-and-roll as a Sun, and while the front office clung to it's last vestige of relevance in Steve Nash for as long as it reasonably could, the most interesting thing they had done in recent memory was to sign Eric Gordon to an offer sheet that everyone knew would be matched.
This place was bloody boring. And as the lonely eyes of Suns fans turned to one Lance Blanks for something, anything, to get behind, he always delivered as expected: By lulling everyone to sleep and collecting scraps like Michael Beasley and Shannon Brown, in the off-chance that one of them would buy him enough time to fake his way into another contract.
Alas, one can only bury so many bodies before the stench alerts the neighbors, and thankfully Blanks was exposed by the most disastrous season of Suns basketball of this generation. It was bound to happen.
Who would replace Lance Blanks was the biggest decision Sarver had since the Amare conundrum, and one that Lon Babby (who was probably very lucky to keep his job given the results of his first three years) absolutely had to knock out of the park. The new GM had to be a lot of things that his predecessor was not. Inventive, fresh, modern, charismatic, but most importantly, he had to have a strategy and a plan of direction to put this strategy in motion. They scored off the charts with McDonough.
A Fine Day for Chaos
The 2013 draft was by all accounts the weirdest damn draft I can remember. There was no consensus number one pick, there was no consensus number two pick, and outside of maybe Victor Oladipo, there wasn't even a consensus top five pick. Perhaps not the ideal draft for a first-year GM, but with a first-year GM like McDonough perhaps it was fitting? One of the biggest reasons for his rise through the NBA executive ranks during his time with the Celtics was his drafting acumen. He favored a particular type of skill, and wasn't one to be swayed by popular opinion. The 2013 draft was a total crapshoot as far as which player was likely to go to which team, and this had to appeal to McDonough's style.
Even within such unpredictable circumstances, McDonough managed to drop some jaws.
Holding Down the Paint
There is an oft-repeated myth that this isn't a big man's game anymore. People often posit that the point guard is the most important position these days, both on offense and defense. It all depends on how you identify impact. If you're looking at it strictly in the context of the nasty things that Shaq did to the league during the early-2000's, or the Big Man Heyday of Olajuwon, Robinson, and Ewing, then it is indeed hard to make a case for today's giants. However, under closer inspection, while they aren't the focal point of many offenses anymore they're just as vital as ever.
Great teams excel on both ends of the floor, and the first step to shoring up a defense is to protect the paint. Indiana was able to threaten Miami's invincibility by defending the paint successfully with Hibbert. The Spurs almost stole another title with Duncan and Splitter (mostly Duncan) locking it down inside. The Warriors actually looked like a serious contender with the resurgence of Andrew Bogut, adding a defensive anchor to the offensive onslaught of Steph Curry. Memphis has been a nightmare playoff matchup with Gasol being the most important cog in the Grindhouse. Larry Sanders just netted himself $44 million, and there is only one thing he does exceptionally well - he protects the rim. Even after a tumultuous season in LA, Dwight Howard was still the prize of the offseason, because Dwight Howard at 100% is good enough to offset even the defensive deficiencies of a team like the Rockets. Tyson Chandler was the biggest difference between the Mavs' title team in 2011 and all the Mavs teams that came up short during Dirk's tnure.
McDonough had the right idea; it takes big men at least a few years to learn how to play effective defense down low, so if you want to build a real contender, identify your big man quick. His former Celtics teams were only true contenders when Garnett was on the floor and doing all the things that Garnett does. But did he pick the right guy for his new team?
No to Nerlens?
Here is where McDonough put his brass boys on the table. Nerlens Noel was the closest thing to a consensus number one pick that this draft had, even after his knee blew out like a pretzel stick. If that wasn't enough, the best shooting prospect in the draft was still (rather stunningly) on the board in Ben McLemore, and holy shite do the Suns need some shooting on the wing. Instead, the name of one Alex Len was called. Befuddlement ensued. But why?
A panel of respected SB Nation writers (and Tom Ziller) recently published their predictions for who they feel will be the best players in the NBA, ranked 1-100, in four years. Hopefully I don't have to tell you to take these with a grain of salt; it's meant as a fun way to pass the time in August and inspire some discussion about the players we love and hate and regardlessly are deprived of during the slow hell that is summer. One thing that immediately caught my eye, however, was according to their projections, they're wagering that in four years, Nerlens Noel will be the 25th best player in the NBA, while McDonough's boy Len is all the way at number 87. Let that sink for a moment.
Len and Noel. Noel and Len. Finkle and Einhorn. They'll be linked throughout their entire careers. But does one really stand out over the other? They are both considered injury risks, and big men are risky enough as it is. Noel is seen as a more defensive-minded prospect, while Len is more versatile on offense. They both move well for their size, but Noel is more athletic. When it comes to size, Len is inarguably superior. He also won their head-to-head matchup quite handily, but I wouldn't run too far with that. So how could a panel of dudes that eat, sleep, and drink hoops, project Noel to be SIXTY-TWO spots better than Len in four years?
Perhaps it's the Kentucky brand. Players sign on to Kentucky for this exact reason; to increase their stock as professional prospects. If Len and Noel switched schools, how much impact would that have on how they were viewed as prospects? What if they switched names, or Len tried out the flattop look? Is it a result of real scouting, measurables, ability and projection? Or is it a matter of name recognition and media preference?
At any rate, this is exactly what McDonough was brought here to do. Develop a strategy, stick to his formula, do what he gets paid to do and let the pundits do what they get paid to do. Unfortunately in a position like his, he has to build a winner using intuition, scouting, and implementing a design whilst hoping that the pieces he needs will come his way somehow. After all that, we get to judge him using the benefit of hindsight. I think it's fair to him at this point, before we see how this will all play out, that he be commended for what he has done in such a short amount of time. Question his decisions as you may be inclined, but don't question his conviction. If Len flops and goes down in the annals as McDonough's Sam Bowie, people will point to his ankles or his inability to dominate in college and wonder what in the holy hell he ever did to get drafted in the top five. But if McDonough is right, then the Suns have their anchor for years to come, and I'll be pretty damn confident by that time that the right man is in charge of adding the necessary complementary pieces. Alex Len could very well be the decision that cements McDonough's legacy, for better or for worse.
SB Nation's own Mike Prada had this to contribute when discussing the drafting of Len over Noel:
It's weird that a GM that drafts as well as Ryan McDonough took Alex Len over him.
In that case, perhaps it isn't so weird after all?
Good luck, Ryan. No pressure.