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#TBT: The History of Suns Top 5 Draft Picks

A walk down memory lane from Walter Davis to Corky Calhoun.

San Antonio Spurs v Phoenix Suns
Boom or bust?
Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

With the NBA draft lottery coming up in just 12 days it seems apropos to go with a draft related throwback.

The Suns are guaranteed to draft in the top five by virtue of having the second worst record in the league, but let’s face it... it’s probably gonna be 3rd or 4th, so taking a look at the team’s history of top five picks sounds relevant.

Spoiler alert... it hasn’t been a series of rousing successes.

Neal Walk (#2 overall 1969)

Poor Neal Walk.

If Neal had just gone third instead of second he wouldn’t have been stuck with the dubious distinction of being the worst consolation prize in NBA history.

It wasn’t really his fault. Sure, the Suns could have gone with Jo Jo White or Bingo Smith (I’m sure Al McCoy would have had fun with that name), but it wasn’t like the 1969 draft was stocked with a surfeit of talent.

How bad was Phoenix’s luck in this situation?

Bad enough that Colangelo later said he didn’t know the commissioner would be flipping the coin over onto his opposite hand after catching it. What if he didn’t flip his coin onto the back of his other hand? What if the coin was just flipped onto the ground like is seen in NFL games?

What if the entire history of a franchise wasn’t dependent on something as totally arbitrary and random as flipping a coin?

Neal “the booby prize” Walk went onto a rather pedestrian NBA career. In his best season (1972-73) he did average 20.2 points and 12.4 rebounds per game, but his perch atop the leader boards was for finishing first in the league in total fouls (324).

And he wasn’t Kareem.

Corky Calhoun (#4 overall 1972)

If you’ve never heard of Corky Calhoun it’s probably because he’s the biggest bust in Suns’ draft history.

Although maybe that’s a reason you would have heard of him.

Unlike the Walk draft, the Suns actually passed on a couple of pretty decent players to take Corky.

One, Paul Westhpal #10 to the Boston Celtics, would end up playing for the Suns a few years later, after winning a title in 1974 with Boston. Westphal joined the Suns in the 1975-76 season when the team reached the NBA Finals before falling to his former team (Boston) in six games. Westphal made four straight all-star appearances for the Suns and scored over 20 points a game in five straight seasons. He would later coach the Suns team that made the finals (losing to the Chicago Bulls) in 1992-93... making him an integral part of both Suns’ finals appearances. He is now a member of the Suns’ Ring of Honor.

The other, Julius Erving #12 to the Milwaukee Bucks, never ended up playing a minute for the team that drafted him. The rights for his services ended up in legal battle between the Bucks, the Atlanta Hawks and the Virginia Squires of the ABA. Perhaps the same fate would have befallen the Suns if they selected Dr. J, it does sound like something that would happen to the Suns, but who knows?

Corky did manage to stay in the NBA for eight seasons despite his career averages of 5.3 points and 3.6 rebounds per game, so good for him. His career high, a robust 8.2 ppg, came in his second season for the Suns when he averaged nearly 29 minutes per game.

John Shumate (#4 overall 1974)

Shumate played in a grand total of 21 games for the Suns before being traded for some guy named Gar Heard, who I think may have hit a clutch shot for the Suns in the playoffs at some point.

Shumate was named to the NBA All-Rookie team in his first season, but things went downhill quickly and he was out of the league after just five seasons in which he played for six teams.

Interestingly enough, the Suns drafted a pretty decent player later in that draft at #40 overall.

You know how I alluded to the Dr. J situation as being something that might happen to the Suns?

Well it did.

Phoenix took George Gervin in this draft, but the Iceman elected to stay in the ABA with the San Antonio Spurs.

That kind of sucks.

Alvan Adams (#4 overall 1975)

Finally we get to the point of this mawkish misadventure that isn’t horribly depressing.

The Oklahoma Kid played his entire 13 year career with the Suns, making the playoffs nine times and reaching the finals in his rookie season.

Interestingly enough, Adams’ only All-Star selection was in that rookie season, where he averaged career highs in points (19.0), assists (5.6), blocks (1.5) and steals (1.5) and was named NBA Rookie of the Year. Adams averaged 23 points and 10.2 rebounds in six games against the Celtics in the finals.

Adams has been involved with the team ever since and is a member of the team’s Ring of Honor. He is currently the vice president of facility management at Talking Stick Resort Arena.

Walter Davis (#5 overall 1977)

Just two years after selecting Adams, the Suns hit again with their selection of the Greyhound.

Davis was also an All-Star in his first season and won NBA rookie of the year while averaging career highs in points (24.0) and rebounds (6.0). Davis would go on to become the leading scorer in franchise history and become another member of the team’s Ring of Honor.

It wasn’t all halcyon times for Sweet D, though, as he also became embroiled in the biggest scandal in franchise history. Davis was one of nine current or former Phoenix Suns that were indicted in a cocaine trafficking scandal. While the investigation eventually yielded little to no punishment for anyone involved, Davis’s role in Waltergate forever tarnished one of the most storied careers in franchise history.

While the 1987-88 season was definitely the lowest point in franchise history, the team rebounded in astounding fashion, trading for Kevin Johnson and signing Tom Chambers to return to the Western Conference Finals in 1989 after winning just 28 games the previous season.

Despite that overnight overhaul the current Suns are choosing to rebuild on the decade plan, because winning is hard.

Armen Gilliam (#2 overall 1987)

Gilliam was a highly touted recruit out of UNLV where the Runnin Rebels were embarking on a brief stint as a college basketball powerhouse, culminating in a national championship in 1990.

Gilliam, however, was gone before that and went on to have a very solid NBA career. Very solid just isn’t the hope for a player drafted as high as Gilliam, though, so he still ends up in the disappointments column.

Gilliam lasted just two years and change with the Suns before being traded to the Charlotte Hornets for Kurt Rambis.

The Suns just missed out on David Robinson in this draft, but unlike the year they missed out on Kareem this draft was replete with talent.

Instead the Suns took Gilliam.

They probably should have drafted someone else, like Reggie Miller or Scottie Pippen... or heck, even the guy they later traded for... Kevin Johnson.

Alex Len (#5 overall 2013)

I’ll save most of my best material for when I do his season review in the coming days, but let’s just say Len’s career in Phoenix has been less than stunning.

Considering the fact that Alex turns 24 next month it seems unlikely he will undergo the metamorphosis necessary to become a quality starter in the NBA. When a team is drafting fifth they are looking for a quality starter.

After his early growth was stunted by injuries, Len has struggled to earn playing time on a team that is perennially near the bottom of the league.

Phoenix would have been better off taking All-NBA talents Giannis Antetokounmpo or Rudy Gobert, who Brightside’s own Kris Habbas was fervently stumping for, but Ryan McDonough had at least one draft where he whiffed badly.

I guess nobody’s perfect.

Dragan Bender (#4 overall 2016)

While the book on Bender is still unwritten, he did very little in an injury plagued rookie season to instill confidence he will end up being a cornerstone of the franchise or become entrenched in Phoenix Suns’ lore.

A lot of these kids that are drafted high are still so raw it can take some time to tell.

I mean, not like Alex Len time, but at least a few years.

Bender does already appear to have an obstacle impeding his path to stardom since he was vastly outperformed by fellow rookie Marquese Chriss.

Let’s just hope he does better than most of his Suns’ predecessors taken in the top five.

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