Over the last two NBA Drafts, the Phoenix Suns have had the good fortune to select three of the first 12 players taken out of the first-year player pool that includes the world’s best prospects.
With those picks, they drafted top international prospect Dragan Bender 4th overall and late-rising Marquese Chriss 8th in 2016, and then sure-thing Josh Jackson 4th overall in 2017.
But so far the Suns have yet to see any consistent production from these three players. They’ve each flashed unique skills, but none have shown the early consistency that Devin Booker (13th in 2015) and T.J. Warren (14th in 2014) gave us in the early stages.
Let’s give Josh Jackson a break, since he’s less than two months into his NBA career.
Here are the Suns last four draft picks in their second NBA seasons (so, not including Jackson here for obvious reasons):
And now, to be fairer, per 36 minutes:
Ok, that still looks bad.
Clearly, the late-lotto picks Booker and Warren did much better than the high-lotto picks Chriss and Bender have done in their second seasons in the NBA.
How do Chriss and Bender compare to other rookies? I took a look at all of the Top 10 picks since 2000. That’s 180 players, all taken with the hope that they could become starting caliber players for their losing franchise.
Here is the spreadsheet so you can see all 180 players and sort it any way you want. Data as of Saturday morning, December 16, 2017 (before Saturday’s slate of games).
Marquese Chriss (8th in 2016)
Quese has so far been the most productive of the last three Suns picks, but he still appears to most closely profile the underwhelming career of former #2 overall pick Tyrus Thomas more than anyone right now.
For their careers, Thomas and Chriss rank almost exactly the same in shooting percentage (mid-pack among Top-10 picks since 2000), and remarkably similar in all other categories.
Now Chriss just needs to get fortunate enough to sign a big free agent deal and make an 8-year career out of his raw skills. Remember Thomas got a 5-year, $40 million contract from the Bobcats coming off his rookie deal, after being acquired from the Bulls a few months earlier. The Bobcats loved his measurements and potential.
Other long, athletic Top-10-pick forwards taken since 2000 that didn’t quite pan out the way their teams hoped: Mike Sweetney went 9th in 2003. Shelden Williams went 5th in 2006. Jordan Hill went 8th in 2009. Ekpe Udoh went 6th in 2010. Thomas Robinson went 5th in 2012. Anthony Bennett went 1st in 2013. Noah Vonleh went 9th in 2014. Thon Maker went 10th in 2016.
And this is only a few of them!! Check the spreadsheet for more busty goodness.
Dragan Bender (4th in 2016)
The dice-roll of international power forwards is one with long, long odds for success. For every Dirk Nowitzki or Kristaps Porzingis, there are a dozen busts. Most of them don’t go Top 10 though.
Nikoloz Tskitishvili went 5th in 2002. Darko Milicic went 2nd in 2003. Rafael Araujo went 8th in 2004. Yi Jianlian went 6th in 2007. Jan Vesely went 6th in 2011. Need I go on?
Bender was a clear “projection” pick. He barely played after bursting onto the scene as a 16 year old in the international U-18 tournament in 2014. He is skilled and talented, but he’s still trying to find his offensive repertoire and, frankly, the necessary alpha mentality to be a producer at the NBA level.
Before his 17-point outburst on Saturday night, boosted with 5 three-point makes in 7 attempts, he had not scored more than 9 points in a game in almost a month.
So far, Bender is one of the worst shooters to enter the league as a Top-10 pick since 2000.
Bender has shown flashes of defensive potential both on the perimeter and at the rim, even combining both of those skills with chase-down blocks in the half-court at least once or twice a week.
He needs to discover a scoring mentality — one that does not include any hesitation on catch-and-shoot opportunities — and develop more of a post game around the paint.
Josh Jackson (4th in 2017)
You think Bender’s shooting is bad? Jackson’s is almost as bad.
But at least Jackson seems to have a lot of company. There are four — FOUR — other Top-10 picks from his 2017 draft shooting even worse than JJ’s 37.5% so far.
And only two of the Top 10 picks shoot better than 40%, as of Saturday December 16. Jonathan Isaac has only appeared in 12 of the Magic’s games, while Jayson Tatum remains the extreme outlier gifted with a great team that doesn’t need him to step outside his comfort zone.
So we need to give Jackson some more time to settle down and find his game. He’s already showing an ability to be a very good defender. If guys like Andre Roberson and Tony Allen can make careers out of being non-shooting lock-down defenders, so can Josh Jackson. We just hope for something more than that.
Two sobering comparisons for Jackson’s career could be exactly the guys that came to mind as needed next to Devin Booker. Big strong wing defenders Justise Winslow and Stanley Johnson — Top 10 picks in 2015 — may play good defense, but they can’t shoot and are still trying to fulfill their promise in their third NBA season.
Of course I hold out hope that Chriss, Bender and Jackson become stars in the NBA. Unfortunately, the odds are against them already. Especially for Bender and Chriss.
If you're Ryan McDonough, you don’t want to be known as the GM who took Nikoloz Tskitishvili 2.0 and Tyrus Thomas 2.0 in the same draft. Or Shelden Williams 2.0 and Jan Vesely 2.0. Or— well, you get the picture.