Ryan McDonough was clean shaven when he addressed the media on Draft Night, but he might as well have come out sporting a full beard and cowboy hat because, at least on this particular June day, he was The Gambler.
McDonough, helming his fourth draft as general manager of the Phoenix Suns, entered the evening with the Nos. 4, 13, 28, and 34 picks, but even possessing four picks and two lottery picks wasn't enough to satisfy McDonough. Like a child in a toy store, he was torn between two choices — Croatia's Dragan Bender and Washington's Marquese Chriss — and couldn't bear to put one back on the shelf.
"We went back and forth and deliberated, and it was split almost right down the middle between our staff (to select Bender or Chriss)," McDonough said after the Suns had concluded their draft business. "We were all going back and forth for weeks now. And then earlier today, we said, ‘Well, what if we can get both?'"
What seemed implausible became reality later that day. After Phoenix selected Bender with the No. 4 pick, they swung a deal with the Sacramento Kings that sent Nos. 13 and 28 along with the rights to Bogdan Bogdanovic and Detroit's 2020 2nd round pick away. In return, the Suns received the Kings' No. 8 pick and immediately snatched up Chriss.
In securing the services of both Bender and Chriss, the Suns now possess two of the highest ceiling players the draft had to offer. They also possess two of the draft's biggest question marks, with both players being anything but sure things.
Bender is just 18 years old — the youngest player in the draft — and won't turn 19 until Nov. 17. He did not play much last season for a veteran Maccabi Tel Aviv team, and his numbers when he did (4.5 points, 2.5 rebounds in 12.9 minutes per game) do him no favors.
Despite his inexperience, the physical tools he possesses are tantalizing. At 7'1 with a 9'3 standing reach, Bender has gaudy measurements. Even better, he moves extremely well, even able to keep guards in front of him defensively when switching out on the perimeter with his combination of footwork and length. Offensively, he runs lanes well, possesses good court vision and passing ability, and can stretch the floor with his shot. Bender is currently profiled as a power forward but has a very real chance to evolve into a small forward.
"Bender, to me, has a great opportunity to play on the perimeter," head coach Earl Watson said. "He can handle the ball really well, and he's open to growing. That's always a positive."
Chriss, who is also 18, first picked up basketball in 2011. A relative newcomer to the sport, his unsanded game was on full display at Washington last year. He averaged 13.8 points with a paltry 5.4 rebounds as a big man over 34 games that saw his effort ebb and flow, but even more concerning was his foul rate of 6.5 per 40 minutes. He led all players in the NCAA with 138 fouls, which is the highest total since Lavon Long of Siena picked up 148 in 2013-14.
No matter how many splinters his game has in it, though, he has undeniable potential. He stands 6'10 with a 7'0 wingspan and possesses a 38.5-inch vertical as measured at the Draft Combine. He had also bulked up to 233lbs by then, helping to eliminate some of the questions surrounding his frame as a big man. Chriss finishes strong above the rim, moves around the court well, uses his leaping ability to block shots, and has range from the perimeter, making 35 percent of his 3-point attempts last season. That makes him dangerous as both a pick-and-roll and pick-and-pop power forward.
"Marquese is really unique. He's a guy that can play above the square (on the backboard) literally...and the way he has a finesse shot at the elbows is unique," Watson said. "He reminds me a lot of LaMarcus (Aldridge) just speaking to him, his personality, the way he carries himself."
In choosing both Bender and Chriss, McDonough finally picked a strategy and placed the Suns squarely on the rebuilding path. Those two players will need a few years before they can realistically help the team win — and that's if they don't wash out of the league before then.
It's a gamble many general managers wouldn't take, especially when running a team that hasn't made the playoffs in six seasons and just finished a dreadful 23-59 campaign that was second-worst in team history. Most would instead hedge their bets by taking a better-established player with the second pick to soften the blowback if a player busts. But McDonough threw caution to the wind, and he should be given credit for having the nerve to do so. And considering this was a draft with very few sure bets, banking on a couple high-risk, high-reward players isn't a bad move.
McDonough even gambled in the second round, choosing undersized point guard Tyler Ulis from Kentucky (where else?) with the No. 34 pick. The 5'10 Ulis, who was the SEC Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year, will now join Kay Felder as the NBA's latest batch of diminutive guards who must prove their size is not a hindrance to being effective at the highest level.
But while Ulis could become a solid backup to point guard Eric Bledsoe, no one is losing a job if he fails to pan out. Come up empty on not one but two top 10 picks, though? That's a pink slip waiting to happen. Conversely, a lineup of Bledsoe, Devin Booker, Bender, Chriss, and Alex Len could be frightening in a few years if all parties live up to their potential.
"[Bender's] a unique player, and a unique talent, just with the size and length and skill. Again, Marquese Chriss is also unique. I really haven't seen too many guys who can do some of the things those two guys can do in my 13 or 14 drafts," McDonough said. If his faith in their games is rewarded, it will not only cool his seat but whitewash the past missteps of his tenure.
McDonough unearths more gems on Draft Night than a diamond miner in Botswana, and after a 2015 haul that landed the Suns Booker, it will be exciting to see if the combo of Bender and Chriss becomes McDonough's personal Star of Africa.