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Prospect watch: Finding the Phoenix Suns’ small forward of the future

Baring a draft lottery win, one of these three prospects could be wearing purple and orange next season.

For all of the noise surrounding the two headlining guards in this year’s draft class, there is heavy chance that the Suns are going to target a swingman with their pick. For one, drafting one of the point guards would require some roster gymnastics from GM Ryan McDonough, and although he is prone to shuffling the puzzle pieces every summer, something tells me that he is going to try to keep the Eric Bledsoe and Devin Booker backcourt in tact. Secondly, these swingmen have the chance to enhance the ceiling of Phoenix’s core without stepping on the toes of one of, if not their best player.

The fun thing about evaluating Josh Jackson, Jayson Tatum, and Jonathan Isaac is that they each have different skill sets while playing the same position. But at the same time, a contrast in skill also makes a front office’s job more difficult because one player may be a “better prospect,” yet another guy may be better suited for the roster already in place.

Let’s take a look.

Josh Jackson

It is difficult to not like the all-around potential that Jackson exhibits when he graces the floor. He began his only season at Kansas mostly hanging around the rim — picking up scraps on the offensive glass and aggressively barreling into the poor saps that were stuck guarding him. As the season went on, he showed more of a potency from behind the arc, tossing in some set threes from the corner (the money shot for a swingman), and even a few threes with some wiggle.

His shot may start a little lower than scouts would like, but Jackson shot 38% from three and 51% overall, leaving little for detractors to quarrel about.

The ultimate separator for Jackson as he heads into the league is his athletic ability. Dude can jump out of the gym, and he showcased enough awareness of how to leverage that athletic ability into productive musings for his team. As I mentioned before, Jackson likes to hang around the glass, and he showed some flashes of being a Michael Kidd-Gilchrist-like force on the boards. There is no 50-50 ball that he cannot gobble up. He will be a dangerous off-ball cutter — a blur that can flash through lane or along the baseline into a pogo-stick finish in an instant.

As for his potential as a “first-option scorer,” that remains to be seen. The flashes of off-the-dribble brilliance are a nice start, and I was more impressed with his handle than I anticipated. Jackson is more than comfortable shuffling through the hazards of a defense using his left hand — a nice novelty for such a young player.

At the end of the day, Jackson (along with most rookies) are not going to step into the league on day one and command a scoring average over 20 points per game. But that is more than fine — especially if Jackson is heralding the purple and orange come June. The presence of Booker and Bledsoe would ease the pressure off of Jackson, allowing him to crash the boards, attack the passing lanes, and knock down open corner-threes a la P.J. Tucker. I believe there is a world where he and T.J. Warren can coexist, and he can also mask as a four-man alongside Marquese Chriss, Dragan Bender, or Tyson Chandler.

The situation in Phoenix would allow Jackson to grow into himself, and for that reason, he may be the top target for McDonough.

Jayson Tatum

Tatum, as the immortal Stuart Scott would say, is “as cool as the other side of the pillow.” Nothing about his game is in a rush — not only because he isn’t the most elite of elite athletes, but also because he is more often than not in control of his game. Squint hard and you will be unable to see much flash about Tatum’s game, but the man is long, smart, and just knows how to rain buckets.

Tatum shot a worse percentage than Jackson from behind the arc (34% to Jackson’s 38%), but I feel confident in saying that he is going to be the more consistent sniper at the next level. His shot reminds of Giannis Antetokounmpo’s in the way in which it is holstered, just without the inspector gadget arms. Comparisons to Danny Granger strike a chord with 13-year-old me who indulged heavily in NBA 2k9, and it is not hard to envision Tatum morphing into a scorer of that mold.

There is a certain instinctual feel to Tatum’s game that is difficult to quantify. He can sense the moment, as he did when he went bananas in a game against Virginia this past season.

Notice how Tatum resets his approach after the action wanes and sizes up his defender into a pull-up that feels very Paul George-ish at first glance. These kinds of sequences are ordinary for Tatum, which was perhaps the biggest reason for his ascent up draft boards once tournament season rolled around.

For me, the biggest question mark about Tatum’s game (besides his foot speed on defense) will be his potency as a slasher. The aforementioned George catches some flack for not getting to the free-throw line enough, and I got the same feeling watching Tatum last season. Getting to the stripe is the art form that can transform a 15-point a night scorer into a 25-point a night star.

With that said, he is not without a crafty drive that puts it all together:

One of the more fascinating players in the class, Tatum’s career could go all sorts of ways. Through one door he is Tobias Harris, an all-around scorer that lacks the requisite oomph on both ends to really push the needle. Through the other door he is a new-wave Danny Granger.

His Duke pedigree and performance this spring should place him somewhere in the top six of the draft, but I understand why there is a loud clamoring for the talents of Jackson over him if you are a Suns fan. (I am Team Tatum, but I get it.)

Jonathan Isaac

Woof — Isaac is a massive human being capable of wreaking havoc merely by waving his arms in the air like one of those wacky inflatable tube men. He is noticeably more raw than both Jackson and Tatum, but his upside is not to be dismissed due to the marriage of his skill set with his length.

Issac has the best shooting stroke out of the three swingmen in my opinion, sporting a high release that packs no wasted effort. Like Tatum, his 35% from three is misleading, and I would not be surprised if he hovers around the 40% mark if he falls on the right team.

(He could be a corner marksmen, but if a team asks him to stretch out to the top of the key consistently then there could be some issues.)

Unlike Jackson and Tatum, Isaac is not nearly as gifted of a natural scorer, and he has the makings of a solid third option that can hit on open three, toggle between both forward spots on defense, and keep the train moving with spotty secondary ball-handling if called upon.

On defense, the sky is the limit for the Florida State forward because of his capability to switch onto smaller ball-handlers, disrupt the glass with his length, and be a dangerous help defender.

Being a malleable terror on defense and a stabling force on offense should be the end game for Isaac, and any team that drafts him expecting more from that from the get-go could stunt his growth. He could potentially be an option for Phoenix if they trade down (I am not against this ploy), but he will almost certainly go to a team like the Dallas Mavericks and be freaking awesome for a decade.

Shout to Frankie Vision for all of the footage you see above. You can view his channel here.

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