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2014-15 Phoenix Suns Season Preview: The art of Talent Evaluation

In the third part the Bright Side of the Sun season preview series, we try to break down the overall talent on the roster, but become entangled in semantics along the way.

Ezra Shaw

"Talent" is one of the trickiest basketball terms to pin down. The word doesn't retain quite the same definition in everyday life as it does when it carries over to hoops. If you were to attend a high school talent show, you might see something like a gaggle of 15-year-old girls performing a song-and-dance rendition of "It's Raining Men". And it might actually win.

Obviously on the basketball court, things are a bit different. "Talent" is typically reserved for players who possess natural-born physical ability -- like Dwyane Wade in his younger days, needing only two dribbles to go from the halfcourt line to the rim. Or Giannis Antetokounmpo, who resembles something that might have escaped from the Island of Dr. Moreau.

Typically, when it comes to basketball the word is not used to describe a player's fundamental skillset. For instance, one could say that Kyle Korver has a talent for shooting from long-distance, but since his prowess was assuredly developed over countless hours spent honing his craft, it doesn't quite apply. Had he been putting on shooting clinics at the tender age of five years, I suppose that would be talent?

According to the definition, yes. From

talent (plural talents)

  1. (historical) A unit of weight and money used in ancient times in Greece, the Roman Empire, and the Middle East. [from 9th c.] [quotations ▼]
  2. (obsolete) A desire or inclination for something. [14th-16th c.] [quotations ▼]
  3. A marked natural ability or skill. [from 15th c.]
    He has the talent of touching his nose with his tongue.

Ah, that word "natural" ruins it for poor Kyle. I mean, his shooting is neat and all, but can he touch his nose with his tongue? Cause that's true talent, right there.

"Talent" is a common buzzword in the lexicon of scouts and analysts, and is often accompanied with a couple other terms.

Ceiling: This term is used to purport the idea that one knows when a player will stop improving. The idea is that when a player cannot improve any more, their head crashes into the proverbial ceiling, at which point they gradually decline until they get old and eventually retire. Even when a player might be only 19 years of age and is yet to play a single NBA game, you're bound to hear scouts and analysts establish where said player's "ceiling" lies.

Potential: This term is reserved for players who have "talent", and a high enough "ceiling" for significant growth, but haven't accomplished a damn thing. Often you will hear these types of players referred to as "prospects". Most teams have one or two of these players at the end of their bench. They usually don't receive minutes, but are kept aboard in the chance that they begin to reach their ceiling. Some teams, like the Philadelphia 76ers, stuff their whole roster full of prospects and even let them run around on the court.

The concept of a "ceiling", in particular, is rubbish.

The Pistons famously flushed what was one of the most valuable draft spots in recent history -- 2nd overall in 2004 -- on lumbering stiff Darko Milicic. Why? Because his ceiling was supposedly huge! Chad Ford said that "He's the real deal. He's really one of a kind. He runs the floor, handles the ball, shoots the NBA 3-pointer, plays with his back to the basket, so you can slot him in at the 3, 4 or 5."

Well hell, who would pass that up? Actually, that quote reminds me more of Dirk Nowitzki. How ironic then, that in 1998 people didn't think all that much of Dirk's ceiling. Some folks at Sports Illustrated figured his best-case scenario to be Keith Van Horn (who admittedly wasn't a bad player back in '98).

I doubt many people were that thrilled with the ceilings of Steve Nash or Paul Pierce upon their arrival to the NBA. They were both good at basketball, but didn't have that raw potential that equates to high ceilings. What folks tend to forget is that there are other ways to improve besides simply filling out the natural ability possessed as a teenager. Ceilings can be raised through honing the fundamental craft of playing the game. Therefore, since the whole idea of a "ceiling" is that it's a fixed limitation on a player's improvement, it's a meaningless term and I will not apply it to this Phoenix Suns team.

Getting back to that talent conundrum, I'm going to suspend the dictionary definition of the word -- in particular the "natural" part -- and asses this roster using a broader sense of the idea. Funny thing is, when I look at these players, I can't help but think that Ryan McDonough took a similar approach.

Let's get started.

Drafting Habits

When Ryan McDonough took over the duties of rebuilding the moribund roster inherited from the Lance Blanks regime, he was most identified from his time in Boston by guards Rajon Rondo and Avery Bradley. After quickly acquiring Eric Bledsoe and drafting Archie Goodwin, his penchant for long-limbed, athletic two-way players was further solidified.

I had visions of a Suns team full of feisty waterbugs with freakish limbs, loping about and creating all forms of madness in the passing lanes and the open court. He also drafted Alex Len, a big man who could seemingly envelop the entire painted area with his expansive reach.

While actual basketball skills were yet to be realized, McDonough's Suns would be an endless tangle of appendages. It seemed that the idea was to fill up the court with length, then hopefully teach the tarantulas how to actually play ball at some later point.

Then the 2014 draft came, and McDonough threw a change-up.

In T.J. Warren and Tyler Ennis, the Suns have brought in a much different kind of youth than what was expected. Neither is particularly long or athletic. Neither were touted as having much defensive potential. They are both what can be described as "skill players", meaning they both have "knacks".

Warren has a knack for finding all sorts of silly ways to score.

Ennis has a knack for running an offense and managing a game.

Hold up, since when do the Suns draft young players based on things they are already capable of, rather than what they might hopefully someday soon be capable of? During pre-draft workouts, McDonough explained what they were looking for in a prospect:

Personally I like to get a feel for what they've been doing since their season ended.   We watched them practice during the season; we watched them play during the season.  We're trying to get a feel for what they've been working on, have they improved, what kind of shape they're in.

And so the plot thickens.

He didn't seem to be particularly concerned with how high a player's ceiling was. He seemed much more concerned with what they were doing to eliminate it. He professed many times before and after the draft that they will take whatever player they think will have the best overall career.

McDonough and his other half, Jeff Hornacek, are cognizant of the oftentimes dramatic arc that a player's career can have. It's rarely as simple as establishing a ceiling and then taking bets on whether or not the player will reach it, and this idea was practiced with the team's vets as well. The Morris twins both had quite wretched seasons in 2012/13, yet their team options were picked up in October before any tangible improvement could be shown on the court.

Wouldn't you know it, they improved.

2014/15: Rookies and Sophs

As of the dawn of the 2014/15 season, the young talent on this Suns team comes in the form of "potential" -- that unfortunate euphemism for "hasn't done a damn thing yet". Looking at them individually, each youngster on this team has at least one standout attribute that can, with a little luck, reward them with a long career in the NBA.

Alex Len has every tool one could ask for in an elite rim protector. He possesses a massive 7'1 frame, is light on his feet, can beat smaller players down the floor, and as he adds bulk will become an immovable object in the post. Looking at the shape the roster has taken over the last year and change, the path has been paved for Len to hopefully become the piece that brings it all together.

Archie Goodwin has all the makings of a two-way pest. On offense he is hell-bent for leather, slashing to the rim whenever he sees even a sliver of daylight. On defense he uses his quick hands to poke and slap and generally be a nuisance. He's the kind of guy you put in the game when you're trailing by 15 in the third. "Get out there and be obnoxious."

T.J. Warren has the ability to be a 20 PPG scorer one day. The guys scores in ways that seem to defy geometry -- creating angles and apparently bending the fabric of space to will the ball into the cylinder. He can get a shot off from any angle, off one feet, off two feet, off no feet, standing on his head, riding a llama, floaters, flippers, scoopers, it doesn't seem to matter. Factor in his high motor (seriously, who doesn't love a high motor?), and expect this guy to rain hellfire on basketball nets everywhere.

Tyler Ennis seems a bit mundane at a glance, but at a closer look it's easy to see this guy running a high-octane offense at some point. While he doesn't possess many athletic gifts, things like footspeed for instance, he has an innate ability to see plays develop and quickly pass ahead before the defense knows what hit them. He is also fearless and was known during his time at Syracuse for nonchalantly draining clutch daggers like it was just another day at the office.

Still, the problem with this crop of talent is that none of them have accomplished anything of note (obviously Warren and Ennis have yet to begin their careers), and furthermore, only Len figures to have guaranteed playing time in 2014/15.

While I do find it interesting that each of McDonough's draft picks have a special skill going for them (which in Len's case is just being huge and able to move well), expect the jury to be sequestered for quite a while yet before we really have an idea of the talent on hand.

What gives me hope is that they will be cultivated in a climate based on hustle and hard work, fostered by a group of veterans that have all been overlooked or counted out at some point.

The Role Players

Consistent with the nature of the youngsters on the team, the talent of the Suns' veterans can only be fairly measured in the special skills that they have each developed. Be it the inside/outside scoring of the Morris twins, the dunks and defense of Miles Plumlee, the microwave scoring of Gerald Green, or the 3 and D skills of P.J. Tucker, the role players on this team each have their own way of adding to wins, and uniquely so among their teammates. Hardly a single skill is redundant on this team, save for the ever-important 3-point shooting, which is a testament to the system of Jeff Hornacek.

Each player has developed a talent, and each talent has been maximized. This is where the "natural ability" part of talent is overrated and unnecessary. Shannon Brown had oodles of natural ability. Does anyone miss Shannon Brown? No. No one does.

The Rock Stars

Without question, the real talent of this Suns' team lies within Goran Dragic, Eric Bledsoe and Isaiah Thomas. These guys are the real rock stars of the team. They're going to get the headlines, they're going to attract the fans, and the team will go as far as they can take them. Each can do things on the basketball court that very few, if any, can.

Remember that business earlier about "ceilings"? If you need any further reason to disregard the entire concept, look no further than Goran Dragic. Not many people were impressed with Dragic's ceiling as prospect. If you check out his DraftExpress page, you'll see his best case comparison is Jason Hart. This guy has smashed through so many ceilings since then, I doubt anyone will be trying to build him another anytime soon. He is living proof that a basketball player can always improve, at least until their bodies break down.

In some contrast, Bledsoe is the embodiment of natural ability. At a stout 6'1, 190 lbs and with a 6'7.5 wingspan, he can shut down players five inches taller than him. If that wasn't enough, he can also leap for dunks and blocks, and is strong enough to finish plays through contact with ease. Basically, he's Nightcrawler from the X-Men.

If all that wasn't enough to give opposing backcourts night tremors, Isaiah Thomas was brought on board to keep the attack in full motion at nearly all times. Although he was cursed with a diminutive 5'9 stature, Thomas was blessed with an embarrassment of talent packed inside that tiny frame. No one can stop and start quicker than he can, and like the rookie Warren, he has a multitude of funky shots in his arsenal to rack up the points.

The Verdict

Giving a fair assessment of the Suns' talent is not an easy task. I just spilled over 2,200 words from my brain and I still don't feel like I have a better idea of the talent level on this team than I did when I started. The youngsters are all question marks -- every last one of them. They all have varying degrees of natural ability, but as the veterans on this team can attest to, it can be a long, hard journey before ability is translated into impact. Some of these guys' careers have already been dead before.

It's hard to rank the talent on this team in the upper echelon of the NBA due to one simple factor: They lack both a top-flight prospect and a true star player. Most teams at least have one or the other.

When the 2012/13 season collapsed under years of stagnation, it was impossible not to entertain visions of Andrew Wiggins or Jabari Parker in a Suns uniform. I doubt many would trade the progress made in 2013/14 for that shiny prospect, but the hole is still there. Len or one of the other youngsters may indeed fill that hole at some point in the near future, but there is no young talent on this team that seems to be begging to breakout at this point.

However, if there is one thing to be counted on when it comes to young players, it's that something will always surprise you. Whether it's a good something or a bad something, there is no telling. And in the case of Gerald Green and P.J. Tucker, sometimes a player has to come all the way back from the dead before turning talent into impact.

Be patient with the young guys. Give them time. Teach them well and let them lead the way. Show them all the beauty they possess inside.

Enjoy watching them grow. Even in Bakersfield.

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