Alex Len. Dragan Bender. Marquese Chriss. All three are top 10 picks and all three will be in the Phoenix Suns’ rotation this season. In honor of Phoenix trotting out three top 10ers, here’s a look back at the Suns’ draft history in the upper reaches of the NBA Draft. It is sad and exasperating and evidence that either:
A. Top 10 picks are a total crapshoot.
B. The Phoenix Suns are historically not great talent evaluators.
Prepare yourself: of the 15 top 10 picks Phoenix has made since 1968, only 2 are currently in the Ring of Honor (though 2 more are likely to join them) and only 5 last more than a couple of season in the Valley of the Sun.
1968 - Gary Gregor (Round 1, Pick 8)
Would you believe the Suns’ first top 10 pick didn’t pan out? Would that surprise you one iota? After creating a roster in the expansion draft (technically Dick Van Arsdale was the first Suns’ draft pick), Phoenix picked the University of South Carolina prospect in their inaugural NBA draft. He had decent season, pulling down 11 points and 9 rebounds, but was traded at season’s end to the Atlanta Hawks for an upgrade in the form of Paul Silas. Gregor would be out of the NBA/ABA by 1974.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Neal Walk (Round 1, Pick 2)
If you’ve ever wondered if the Suns are just cursed to be “just good”, then this is the precise moment that you would look back on as the start of that curse. In this era, the first two picks in the draft were given to the two teams who finished last in the NBA’s two divisions, with the order determined by coin flip. Those two teams were the Milwaukee Bucks and the Phoenix Suns. Up for grabs was one of the greatest players in NBA history. The Bucks won the toss and got Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and his 20 years of hall of fame greatness. The Suns got Neal Walk and 5 years of average to above-average play at center, including a big 20 point, 12 rebound season in 1972-73 before trading him away.
1970 - Greg Howard (Round 1, Pick 10)
Greg Howard was selected by Phoenix after playing one season of Italian basketball. He was then traded away after one season of Suns basketball in which he barely played in half the Suns’ games.
1972 - Corky Calhoun (Round 1, Pick 4)
Corky Calhoun’s draft rights were actually traded twice before the 1972 draft even took place. I have no idea how that even works. What I do know is that he logged heavy, yet unspectacular minutes for the Suns before being traded to the Los Angeles Lakers for draft picks in 1974. Nothing became of those draft picks, but Calhoun went on to have a fine career in the oil industry. You can, if you’d like, check out his LinkedIn page here.
1973 - Mike Bantom (Round 1, Pick 8)
Despite Bantom claiming All-Rookie honors his first year, he was let go after 2 seasons. After being sold to the Seattle Supersonics, he would play 6 more seasons in the NBA, including 4 productive ones with the Indiana Pacers before ending his playing career overseas.
1974 - John Shumate (Round 1, Pick 4)
Either the draft was different in the old days or the Phoenix Suns were not great evaluators of talent. Shumate joins the list of Top 10 picks Phoenix let go or traded away with in a couple of season of having drafted him. The Notre Dame power forward was traded by the Suns to the Buffalo Braves for Gar Heard who would later hit the “Shot Heard Round the World” in the 1976 NBA Finals. Finally, a decent return on a draft pick!
1975 - Alvan Adams (Round 1, Pick 4)
PAYDIRT! It took Phoenix seven tries in the top 10, but they finally got it right with the Oklahoma Kid. Adams was an undersized center/power forward at 6 feet, 9 inches tall. But what he lacked in size, he made up for in talent as a scorer, rebounder and passer. Adams won the NBA Rookie of the Year Award after a season in which he averaged 19 points, 9 rebounds and 6 assists per game. He would play his entire career in Phoenix, retiring as a Sun in 1988. He currently is the franchise’s all-time leader in minutes played, rebounds, and steals.
1976 - Ron Lee (Round 1, Pick 10)
Ron Lee might have been an early candidate for the Dan Majerle Hustle Award. In his first season with the Suns, he nailed down a spot on the All-Rookie team. In his second, he led the NBA in steals. In his third, he was traded to the New Orleans Jazz, where his production and minutes tapered off until he was out of the league in 1982.
1977 - Walter Davis (Round 1, Pick 5)
Now we come to the second Ring of Honor member drafted by Phoenix in the top 10. Sweet D was two-way shooting guard/small forward who spent his first 10 season wearing purple and orange. He repped the Suns in 6 NBA All-Star Games in that span and is the all-time leading scorer in Phoenix Suns history. Despite being one of the greatest players in the young franchise’s history, the end of his playing career in Phoenix was an ignoble one. In the final year of his contract in 1988, Davis became the face of a drug and point shaving scandal that engulfed the entire squad. Members of the press went so far as to dub the scandal “Waltergate.” Davis would play out the final years of his career with the Denver Nuggets and Portland Trailblazers. In 1994, Phoenix welcomed him back and retired his number 6.
1985 - Ed Pinckney (Round 1, Pick 10)
If there’s one thing I’ve learned in researching this, it’s not to get attached to Phoenix Suns top 10 picks. They’re usually gone in their third season and Ed Pinckney is no exception. After a pair of seasons as a reliable bench presence for the Suns, Pinckney was sent to the Sacramento Kings for conscienceless gunner turned Suns broadcaster Eddie Johnson.
1986 - William Bedford (Round 1, Pick 6)
William Bedford was the first Phoenix Suns draft pick I remember being excited about. I have no idea why. Probably something something Center of the Future. It would be my first object lesson in the fallibility of professional athletes. Bedford had “character issues” at Memphis State which followed him to the NBA. “Character issues” being code for “drug addiction.” After a bad year in Phoenix, he was traded to Detroit. After 38 more lackluster games, he checked himself into the NBA’s drug addiction rehabilitation program and sat out the rest of the 1987-88 season and all of the 1988-89 season. Bedford would play 3 more sub-par NBA years and his drug problems would follow him for the rest of his life, resulting in a 2003 conviction that saw him serve an 8 year prison sentence.
1987 - Armen Gilliam (Round 1, Pick 2)
Would you believe the Phoenix Suns had the second overall pick and that player did not become a cornerstone of the franchise? Or any franchise? Or that SURPRISE, he didn’t even last 3 seasons in Phoenix? All of that sells Gilliam’s talents a little short. Nicknamed “The Hammer”, the UNLV power forward had a solid build that he used to great effect in the low post. He also had a short fuse that he used to terrible effect, whether it was continuing an on-court altercation by entering the opposing team’s locker room or picking a fight with his own teammate Tom Chambers in practice. After the Chambers incident, the Suns had seen enough and sent Gilliam to the Charlotte Hornets for Kurt Rambis. While Gilliam never lived up to his hype, he did have a solid 13 year career.
1988 - Tim Perry (Round 1, Pick 7)
Tim Perry officially cured me of getting excited about Phoenix Suns draft picks. Perry was an athletic power forward who could leap out of the gym, as evidence by his 3 appearances in the NBA All-Star Slam Dunk Contest. Where he never finished higher than fifth. His two greatest accomplishments as a Phoenix Suns were signing an autograph for me at the Baskin Robbins at Central and Camelback and getting traded for Charles Barkley in 1992.
1999 - Shawn Marion (Round 1, Pick 9)
I expect Shawn Marion will find himself in the Suns Ring of Honor very very soon. Another highly touted Runnin’ Rebel, Marion was a key piece of the Seven Seconds or Less Suns, doing literally everything: scoring from inside and out, defending 5 positions, and pogoing in the paint for rebounds and putbacks. His ugly shooting form and lack of a solid handle were his only weaknesses. While teammates Steve Nash and Amare Stoudemire developed a devastating two-man game, Marion did a lot of work, primarily on the glass and defensive end that made those SSOL teams work. Feeling underappreciated (and perhaps rightly so), he became a locker room concern and was ultimately traded for Shaquille O’Neal in 2008.
2002 - Amare Stoudemire (Round 1, Pick 9)
Another soon-to-be-member of the Ring of Honor, STAT was a super-raw high school student when Phoenix took a chance on him in the 2002 draft. That chance paid off in spades as Sun Tzu developed into one of the most devastating pick-and-roll finishers in NBA history. While injuries hampered his career, they also inadvertently improved it. Each time he had a lengthy layoff in Phoenix, he used it to work on his outside game. First it was developing a reliable short jumper, then it was extending his range to just inside the 3-point line. It was of course injuries that led Phoenix to decline to match a $100 million offer from the New York Knicks in 2010. Stoudemire went on to have perhaps the best season of his career in New York in 2010-2011. But it wasn’t to last as injuries (both self-inflicted and not) led to dwindling effectiveness as a player and his retirement from the NBA in 2016.