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Thoughts on the Phoenix Suns Draft: Adreian Payne, Rodney Hood, T.J. Warren, Anderson et al

Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports

What will the Suns do in the 2014 Draft? Without knowing if they will be in the lottery (that is, without knowing if they make the playoffs), it's hard to guess what they will do. But here are my thoughts about it.

I begin with this excerpt from an article in the Hangtime Blog, written by Scott Howard-Cooper:

"I think one of the things that’s important for people to realize is that we may not draft four players even if we have four picks (in the 2014 Draft)," (Suns GM Ryan) McDonough told NBA.com. "Our preference would probably be to maybe package a few of them. We’re obviously all looking for stars and we feel like we can put together a package as good, if not better, than any other team in the league if and when a star becomes available. That’s kind of generally what we’ve wanted to do, not only with our draft-pick situation but also with the cap space that we’ve acquired."
The Suns are in an especially good position to trade picks because they have two rookie first-round selections on the current roster, Alex Len and Archie Goodwin, the possibility of four in 2014 and two more in 2015. Taking all those goes well beyond a youth movement. Even if all four choices cannot be spent in the upcoming draft, they could delay only one year, at which point Phoenix would still have the unwanted riches of four in 2015.

McDonough's position makes sense. The Suns drafted two picks last summer, they have three picks this summer, and will have three-four picks next summer. There's not enough room on the roster for all those selections, much less, the staff time and playing minutes to develop all those picks. The Suns have an embarrassment of riches, and they'll surely be looking to make a deal with them this summer and next summer.

Undoubtedly the Suns would love to package some picks and move-up in this year's draft. It remains to be seen if they can find a team that's willing to take the bait in a draft that's loaded with quality players in the top10-12 picks. But for my purposes, I will assume the Suns make the playoffs, and will keep all three of their 2014 picks.

Who might they draft? To make my guesses, I have made the additional assumptions:

First, I don't see the Suns selecting a center, unless injuries or trades impact the team. The Suns have two young centers in Miles Plumlee and Alex Len who could use more development, and Mark Morris has been surprisingly effective as a reserve center. Unless the Suns miss the playoffs, win a top lottery position, and can get Joel Embiid, I don't see them selecting a center in the the first round.

Second, I don't see the Suns selecting a point guard, unless injuries or trades impact the team. The Suns have two PGs in Eric Bledsoe and Goran Dragic who will get a lot of minutes. I don't know if it makes sense to have a rookie sit behind these two. As a 3rd PG, Ish Smith does the job, and if I was GM, I'd keep him.

Yes, Smith is limited - he's a horrible 3PT shooter, for example - but you get what you pay for. At $1 million a year, he's a bargain. (As an aside: my feeling is that his weakness as a 3PT threat are mitigated by the fact that the Suns have so many guys who can shoot the trey. Smith's job is to get the ball to the shooters and scorers, and he does that at an OK level.)

I think the Suns would be best served by getting a veteran PG who wants to latch on with a title contender. The Suns aren't good enough to attract that kind of player - yet. But if they keep improving, in one or two years, that kind of guy might fall into their lap.

Third, the SG, SF, and PF positions are where the Suns should consider using their picks.

At PF: Channing Frye can opt out of his contract this summer, and his contract expires next summer. Frye is averaging $6.6 million through the end of next season (assuming he doesn't opt out), which is quite reasonable. I don't know if he'll opt-out, and if so, how much money he'll make, or, if he would desire signing with a different team. The Suns front-office might already know how they'll handle the different scenarios. But they should be looking at PFs in the draft, if only as insurance for the possible loss of Frye.

Without Frye (or perhaps even with Frye next season), Mark Morris becomes the starting PF, and he's played well enough to deserve that position. But if Frye is gone, Marc Morris becomes the sole backup PF - and I don't know if Marc is the answer. I think the Suns could use one more guy up front, perhaps another guy who could play C/PF AND hit 3PT shots… if a player able to do that could be found, of course.

At SF: PJ Tucker is only making $900,000, and he's been a huge bargain. He's due for a new contract at the end of the season, and he'll demand $3-4 million at a minimum. I don't know if the Suns will want to pay that, or more. Tucker has been invaluable as a role-playing defender, rebounder, and glue guy. But the Suns might feel it's prudent to go for a budding (and cheaper) talent in the second half of the first round.

My guess is that the Suns will keep Tucker IF the price is right and the contract length is not too long. I don't know what kind of contract Tucker thinks is fair (or what Tucker is worth on the open market.) But if I were the Suns front-office, I'd be thinking about a possible replacement.

At SG: Gerald Green is basically the Suns only true shooting guard. (Actually, he's a SG/SF swingman who backs up combo guard Goran Dragic. Until the Bledsoe injury, Green played some SF, and he's seen more SF minutes since Bledsoe's return). If Green were to suffer an injury, the Suns wouldn't have a viable alternative.

The team did bring in Leandro Barbosa, and he had several good games before he hurt his wrist. Archie Goodwin is just too raw to be effective at that position, although the teams feels that with time, he'll be a player. The Suns may well draft a shooting guard, but they might do better to get a veteran like Barbosa, and wait until Goodwin is ready.

Meanwhile, we should note that Green's contract expires in the summer of 2015. If he has another season like this one, or if he improves even more, he'll be offered starter minutes and money somewhere else. It would not surprise me if Green wound-up being packaged in a trade somewhere down the line due to these considerations.

Fourth and last: the Suns are one of the NBA's better offensive teams, and they might get even better if Alex Len pays off on the promise shown in his selection as a #5 pick. It is the Suns defense that is an area for improvement. It would be a good idea for the team to focus on players who are proven defenders and have some offensive skills. A couple of players are highlighted below because they are good defenders; they might be counter-intuitive picks for folks who focus on offensive players.

With all that in mind, here are my thoughts on potential draft picks for the Suns, assuming they using all three picks and are not in the lottery (so projected top-15 picks guys like Julius Randle or Doug McDermott are not discussed):

(1) The Most Obvious choice for a Suns pick, to me, is PF Adreian Payne (6'9", 7'0" wingspan). His stock fell during the season as his Michigan State Spartans went into a late slump, but the team has been playing well lately, his stock is rising and will rise even more if the Spartans can go deeper into the NCAA tournament. He's been projected as mid- to late- 1st round pick lately by most sources. But I'm high on this guy.

His numbers tell the story: averages of 16.6 ppg, 54.4% on 2PTers, 43.8% 3PTers, 78% FTs, 7.3 rebs. On top of that, Payne is already playing the role of an inside/outside bigman on a running, guard-oriented team. Of all the players in the draft who might be able to play stretch-4 in the Suns' offense, Payne is a standout.

I see Payne as an upgrade over Channing Frye, assuming Payne can hit the NBA trey. Payne is shorter than Frye, but he's more athletic, and projects to be a better rebounder, defender and inside scorer.

Payne has a lot of red flags. He's old for a draft pick, he has a history of foot problems, and they say he has a decreased lung capacity issue. He's also kind of lean for a big man. So there is some risk.

Some say that he's a C-PF tweener, but I don't see it. His mobility and outside shooting touch will surely enable him to effective as an NBA forward, IMO. And he has the versatility to play center in a small-ball setup. (Michigan St is basically a small-ball team.)

Meanwhile, I think his age, and his experience, is a positive, not a negative. Payne will enter the NBA with pro-body, and his well-developed shooting skills set him apart from other big men. Payne is also a good passer from the high post; while he's no Jokim Noah, that might also be a useful skill for some NBA team.

Folks should not get enamored of Payne after his 41 point explosion against a hapless Delaware team in the first round of the NCAA tournament. If Payne was putting up 40 pts in Big 10 conference play, he'd be listed as a top 5 draft pick. I don't see him being a future superstar, or even a future All-Star.

But I can't think of a better guy to fill Frye's role in this draft. At the worst, the Suns will get a big man who can hit outside jumpers (if not NBA 3PTers) and finish around the basket. If Payne can stay healthy, he'd be a fine addition to the team.

(2) Rodney Hood (6'8", 6' 8" wingspan) of Duke is an obvious choice at SF. As his 16.1 ppg, 49% 2PT shooting and 42% 3PT shooting numbers show, he can put the ball in the basket. But his poor performances against Virginia in the ACC Tournament Final and against Mercer in the NCAA's make me wonder if he's a guy who can step up in the big leagues. Granted, everybody has off games, but this was glaring.

One key to the Suns' success is the junk yard dog attitude that PJ Tucker brings to the game at SF. Tucker defends and rebounds well for a SF. I don't see any of that coming from Hood, and I wonder what effect his game would have on the Suns' team chemistry.

But if the goal is to get an offensive threat at the 3, Hood seems like as good a choice as any. What Gerald Green does as a streak shooter, Hood might be able to do consistently because he's more of a pure shooter.

(3) One choice that has been floated for the Suns is TJ Warren (SF, 6'8", 6'9" wingspan) of NC State. Warren is one of the top scorers in the NCAA (25 ppg, 58% 2PT(!!), 26.7% 3PT, 69% FT, 3.2 OffRB,) but he has lots of red flags for NBA play. He doesn't have 3PT range (right now), he has limited one-on-one skills, he's a good, but not great athlete, and his ability to defend wing players is suspect. In some earlier mock drafts he was projected as a second round player, but his stock has been on the rise lately.

Warren intrigues me because he impacts the game in many of the ways that former Suns Cedric Ceballos did when he was with the team in the 90s.:

• both Ceballos and Warren were/are great at running and finishing fast breaks

• both are very good offensive rebounders

• both are very good at finishing around the basket

• both are great at moving without the ball

• both are so-so ball handlers (although Warren is a better ball handler than Ceballos)

• both are so-so outsider shooters at this early point in their careers

A primary difference between the two is that Ceballos was more athletic, while Warren is taller and stronger. Warren's half-court skills make him best suited for a team that employs a lot of passing and cutting in the offense {such as the Spurs, or a triangle team, or Chicago with Jokim Noah}; or a team with a PG who is good at hitting who at passing to teammates who move well without the ball {such as a Steve Nash or Jason Kidd; or Rajon Rondo or Ricky Rubio today}.

The thing is, the Suns don't fit in either of those categories right now. The Suns' PGs are great at the pick-and-roll and hitting spot-up shooters, but the Suns' offense otherwise doesn't have a lot of motion. I think that somebody like Warren, who depends on teammates getting him the ball to be effective as a half-court scorer, would be under-utilized in Phoenix.

Still, if Warren can develop a 3PT shot, his ability to run and score off the ball could make him an effective player for Phoenix. But I think he'd prosper more in another system.

(4) Clint Capela (PF, 6'10", 7'4" wingspan) from Europe has drawn a lot of interest on mock drafts. His height, length, and athleticism puts him in the physical mold as Kevin Durant and Anthony Davis. But unlike those two, Capela is quite raw, and needs to develop his fundamental skills.

If the Suns keep all of their picks, Capela is an obvious choice, if for only one reason: the Suns could stash him overseas while he gains skill, strength, experience and perhaps, maturity. If he can bulk up from 215 to say 240, and develop some scoring and shooting skills, this guy could be a monster. But he'll need more seasoning to get there.

(5) Perhaps no one player presents more of a conundrum for scouts than Kyle Anderson. He is perhaps the ultimate tweener: a 6'8" inch (7'2" wingspan) point guard who lacks the athleticism to defend NBA wing players. Where do you put this guy?

Anderson has a lot going for him. He's a very good ball-handler and passer for his size (6.5 assists per game). He's making 50% of his 2s AND his 3s. He scores (14.1 ppg) and helps out on the boards (8.7 rebpg). From the standpoint of skills and size, he has the entire package.

But the NBA is a league of athletes. And Anderson, after all, is the guy they call Slo Mo. He's not a bad athlete for the college game, but he looks to have problem in the pros. More to the point for the Suns: is this a guy they can really use? To be most effective, Anderson would need the ball in hands - playmakers need the ball. But the Suns have two PGS in Bledsoe and Dragic. The Sun are mainly in need of a guy who doesn't need the ball to be effective. Anderson is not that kind of guy.

Having said all the above, I think Anderson can be a good NBA player. I look at how effective Nicholas Batum is for the Portland Trailblazers, as a playmaker and outside shooter, and I think Anderson could fill that role. I think he'd be a good fit for the Detroit Pistons as a point-forward - he'd be another playmaker to get the ball to their big men, who have problems creating their own shot; his outside shot can space the floor; and with Anderson, the collective height of their front court would prove a problem for opponents. Switching from a low IQ guy like Josh Smith to a high IQ guy like Anderson would do that team wonders.

But I don't think he's someone the Suns would find useful.

As an aside: I love this guy as a committed basketball player. To reach his skill level as a passer, ball-handler, and shooter, he had to put in a lot of gym time. This is a guy who's not going to fail because of poor work ethic. I think he understands his weaknesses and is doing all he can to give people a reason to want him despite the things he can't do. Good for him. If Chris Mullin could make it in the NBA and even become a star, I think Anderson can too. But he'll need to find a team that can make use of his talents.

(6) A possible late round pick for the Suns at the SF spot, assuming Tucker doesn't return, is KJ McDaniels (6'6", 6'9" wingspan) of the Clemson Tigers. Many people say Aaron Gordon is the next Shawn Marion, which I don't see. (I do buy the comparisons of Gordon as a poor man's AK-47). The guy in this draft who is most like the Matrix in the 2014 Draft is McDaniels, the ACC Defensive Player of the Year. Consider these comparisons:

• both Marion and McDaniels are great at running and finishing fast breaks

• both are very good rebounders from the SF position (McDaniels - 7.1 rebs pg)

• both are good at finishing around the basket (McDaniels - 53% 2PTFG)

• both are great at blocking shots (McDaniels - 2.7 blks pg - tops in the ACC)

• both are great at getting steals (McDaniels - 1.1 steals pg)

• both are so-so ball handlers (although McDaniels is a better ball handler than Marion IMO)

• both are so-so outsider shooters, although McDaniels is a better shooter at this point in his career (McDaniel - 30.4% on treys)

• both are very good foul shooters (McDaniels - 85% from the foul line)

McDaniels is that rare kind of player: a defensive player who consistently finds ways to score. He's only 6'6", and perhaps not well suited to play against today's big SFs (Kevin Durant/OKC, Chandler Parsons/HOU, Trevor Ariza/WAS, etc). Tucker can defend those guys in part because's he's so strong. McDaniels could guard PGs, SGs, and smaller SFs.

I don't think McDaniels is what the Suns are looking for right now. He lacks 3PT range, which is a big consideration considering the way the Suns play. But he's a decent late first round choice for development.

>>Arizona's Rondae Hollis-Jefferson is another possible defensive oriented pick, if he comes out. RHJ is another guy who is a primarily a defender, yet finds ways to score. RHJ's size makes him a better choice for guarding big SFs, and he's a very good rebounder. But he's shot just ten 3PT shots this season, and he's only made two of them. Obviously, he doesn't have the green light when it comes to shooting the trey. If he decides to enter the draft, I think the Suns would look at him.

(6) If the Suns are in the market for a back-up PG in the bottom part of the draft, Elfrid Payton of Louisiana Lafayette is well worth a look. Payton was the Sun Belt Conference Defensive Player of the Year, thanks to his 6'4" height, 6'7" wingspan, and athleticism. He's great at running and finishing on the break, he has good passing skills, and he helps out on the glass. His per game numbers: 19.1 ppg, 53.4% 2PT, 26% 3PT, 59% FT, 6.3 rebs, 5.8 assists.

The red flag on Payton is that he has Jason Kidd/Rajon Rondo disease: he's a skilled and versatile PG who can't shoot. His 25% shooting on 3s and horrid 60% foul shooting shooting are scary bad. He'd be a lottery pick if not for his poor shooting and mid-major background. As it stands, Payton could fall to the late first round like Rondo did. (And who can forget that the Suns picked Rondo before selling him to the Celtics?)

But if Kidd and Rondo can prosper despite poor shooting, so can this young man. Because of his size, he'd be a good fit as a playmaking 2-guard on a team with a very aggressive scorer/shooter at 1-guard. On a running team with shooters and scorers like the Suns, he could very useful. Basically, he'd be a bigger and more versatile version of Ish Smith. Smith has been able to carve out a nice role on the current Suns team despite his own 3PT shooting woes (which are costing Smith a lot of money and opportunity on the free agent market).

Payton would need some time to develop his lean body and his jump shoot. He'd make good insurance for the Suns down the road if Bledsoe develops knee problems. Also, he'd give the Suns an added defensive presence at the point, in an era when the league seems to be overrun with fast and quick scoring PGs. Although I think it'd be better for the Suns to get a veteran PG as a backup, Payton might fall into the "best player available" category when the Suns are on board for the last of their three 2014 picks.

(7) If the Suns are looking for a pure shooting guard (and I don't know that they are), then Nik Stauskas (6'6"/6'7" wingspan) from Michigan is an obvious choice for SG - see his averages of 17.4 ppg, 50% 2PT, 45.1% 3PT. He's been compared to Klay Thompson, and I think that's right. His ability to shoot makes him a threat you have to respect, and he has enough handling and passing skills that he can run plays and create for others.

His red flag is lack of foot speed - he's probably a defensive liability as a starter, but he wouldn't start on the Suns. I get the impression the Suns are looking for more athletic and defensive ability in their players, and if so, Nik Stak might not fit the bill. But his shooting ability makes him a possibility for any NBA team.

********

If I was the Suns front office, I'd focus on Adreian Payne and Rodney Hood. My dark horse/late round pick would be Elfrid Payton as an upgrade/replacement for Ish Smith. I would pass on a SG with the idea that Archie Goodwin might show me something in 2014-2015, or, with the hope of getting a SG from the free agent market. The Suns could use the 2015 draft to get another SG - the Suns have the Lakers' pick, and the Lakers are a long way from being a playoff contender next year in the loaded Western Conference. The Suns might see a lottery level player fall into their laps next summer.

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