On the heels of Ryan McDonough’s recent extension with the Suns, one of the more popular compliments of his strengths is his ability to evaluate talent. The popular opinion seems to be that McDonough does well in the draft.
Talent evaluation was one of the skills owner Robert Sarver just listed in his reasoning behind extending Ryan.
But has he really excelled in the draft to the degree some would have you believe?
There are plenty of people who could write or have written about his genius, but since it takes a different/special type of (insert your favorite description here) to voice the contrarian view... I will be that voice.
While it seems imprudent to suggest that Ryan has completely whiffed during his tenure in Phoenix, an argument can definitely be made that the compilation of his picks didn’t require some level of inimitable prescience.
Let’s start off with his worst draft to date (because of chronological order, not trying to deliver body blows right off the bat).
Alex Len (5)
Archie Goodwin (29)
Ryan’s worst draft as the Suns GM came in his first year. This looks especially bad because it is far enough in the rearview mirror to make more concrete evaluations on. Len has a big enough body of work that he is unlikely to undergo a shocking metamorphosis. That fact is why he’s drawn very little interest in free agency.
And by very little I mean absolutely zero.
What’s especially disheartening is that the first round of this draft was replete with talent.
While Antetokounmpo and Gobert may be the only true star players in the draft, both just made second team All-NBA, there were 13 players taken below Len in the first round that have done better so far at the NBA level.
C.J. McCollum just came off a season where he averaged 23 points a game while leading the league in FT% (.912) and hitting 42% of his threes. In fact, his 48% overall FG% suggests he could threaten to join the 50/40/90 club at some point.
Steven Adams is a bruiser that projects to have a long, successful career as the type of physical enforcer that can fit right into a winning team. Through 40+ postseason games he has actually played better in the playoffs than the regular season.
This list also shows there were half a dozen bigs taken after Len that have outperformed him.
Only three players of the 25 taken after Len in the first round of that draft have a worse career VORP, and one of them is Archie Goodwin
While the 29th pick in the draft isn’t really expected to develop into a force in the NBA, it does say something that McDonough thought enough of Goodwin to make a trade in order to select him. Nothing of any value (whatsoever) was given up in the deal, but McDonough did think he saw enough “talent” in Goodwin to make a move to ensure he could get him.
Ryan would have been better off expending his energy to move up to 27 instead and take Rudy Gobert.
Unfortunately, he had already drafted his “franchise center” 22 picks earlier...
Did a lot of other GM’s also whiff in this draft?
Is it entirely possible that the transition into his new job negatively affected his level of preparedness heading into this draft?
But overall this ended up being a huge missed opportunity.
T.J. Warren (14)
Tyler Ennis (18)
Bogdan Bogdanovic (27)
T.J Warren is kind of a interesting situation. He seems like he would have been a truly solid player... in 1980.
Unfortunately, in the current climate the preferred skillset for a small forward is 3 and D, which are two of Warren’s biggest deficiencies. Warren shot just .265 from three point range last season on just 1.7 attempts per 36 minutes (for comparison Marquese Chriss took 4.6 per 36 minutes). Warren’s lack of defensive versatility is the reason that 19 year old rookie Josh Jackson will likely start over the four year veteran.
Warren will be 24 entering the season, so while there is still a chance for him to improve he is closer and closer to being the player he will be for his career.
While Warren is far from a bust at the position he was taken, an argument can be made that Gary Harris, Rodney Hood or Clint Capela may have been better selections (I’m not really going to count Nikola Jokic since he was such an outlier).
Tyler Ennis has already bounced around to four NBA teams in his first three seasons. McDonough actually traded him just eight months after drafting him during the 2015 trade deadline fire sale. Not a ringing endorsement for his shiny new toy.
Ennis just signed a deal with the Lakers where he will presumably fight for backup minutes behind the best point guard in the league.
Harris, Hood or Capela would have definitely been better selections than him.
The story on Bogdan remains completely unwritten. He was valuable enough to be included in a trade that allowed Phoenix to move up to #8 in the 2016 draft to select Marquese Chriss, but he turns 25 this week and has yet to play a minute of NBA basketball.
The Sacramento Kings just gave him a 3 year, $27 million dollar contract, but the Kings haven’t really been known for sound decision making for the last decade or so.
The stash pick made sense and McDonough was able to turn him as an asset, so there is some value in that.
Devin Booker (13)
Was Booker a stroke of genius or an obvious selection?
Bright Side of the Sun loved Devin Booker, but didn’t think he’d still be around.
A consensus mock draft compilation from 12 sources on NBA.com all scouted Devin Booker pretty accurately.
Six had Devin Booker going 9th.
Three had him going 13th to Phoenix (the Suns most popular pick).
SB Nation, Paul Coro from AZCentral.com and HoopsHype also had Booker going 13th to the Suns.
That means 6 out of 15.
Only 2 of the 15 had him going lower than 13th.
So Ryan McDonough nailed the pick... but it would have been a baffling deviation from the consensus for him to take anyone else.
One could even argue that he just made the pick everyone said he should... and it was just as much a case of not blowing the pick.
But... results count so it’s still a good pick.
Booker appears to be a very talented player and has a chance to become a perennial All-Star. I think most people will concede that.
But is he more Kobe Bryant or more Carmelo Anthony?
Because if he ascends to the level of an MVP candidate in the league, let alone a top 10 player of all-time, that can be a franchise changing pick.
But if he just becomes a prolific scorer that is a defensive liability it won’t necessarily move the needle.
Alex English and Dominique Wilkins were dynamos, but when the company line is competing for championships a team needs more.
To that effect, as much as Booker has flashed, and not to compare the players in any way (e.g. personality), looking at Carmelo Anthony can temper some of the Booker enthusiasm.
It’s pretty easy to make the argument that Anthony was a better player than Booker at the same age and it’s not like he ended up carrying his teams to the promised land.
In the interim Booker is McDonough’s saving grace.
Can you imagine what the totality of his Suns’ portfolio would look like without Devin as the centerpiece?
Dragan Bender (4)
Marquese Chriss (8)
Bender struggled through a rookie season where he was one of the worst performing members of his draft class before being shut down for the last half of the season due to injury.
Bender’s age makes it difficult to gauge whether that actually portends struggles moving forward. Obviously it would have been nice for him to stay healthy and not suck, but he’s still only 19.
He’ll still only be 22 when he hits his qualifying offer summer (Alex Len is 24). One of the disadvantages of taking younger players is evaluating them as professionals before they come into their own.
Speaking of player evaluation, many Euros have failed in recent years... basically every single one since Dirk Nowitzki... so that stereotype may lead some to be even more skeptical of Bender.
But even looking at some of his recent peers does not cast him in a positive light.
This chart from The Ringer shows that (over a very small sample size) Bender has underperformed compared to other recent highly rated foreign players.
In fact, I think the early results indicate that McDonough took the wrong guy first.
Marquese Chriss fared much better than Bender as a rookie. He managed to beat out Bender for minutes and eventually started 75 games for the Suns. Chriss was named second team All-Rookie and January Rookie of the Month.
The luster of those awards is slightly tarnished by the lowly results from last year’s class. The Rookie of the Year actually went to the 36th overall pick (Malcolm Brogdon) and two rookie first teamers weren’t even from the 2016 draft. Joel Embiid (injury) and Dario Saric (overseas) were taken in previous years.
The very early results suggest that McDonough might have made a pretty solid pick with Chriss. But while McDonough liked Chriss enough to trade up to get him, he liked Bender even more and took him first.
Following the careers of these two players could be revealing in whether McDonough actually scouted this draft accurately or not.
*Bonus here if Tyler Ulis ends up turning into a real basketball player. Anytime a GM can pluck a rotation player from the second round is a coup.
That winds this examination down with the Suns most recent lottery selection, Josh Jackson at #4 overall.
Nobody knows exactly what kind of player Jackson will turn out to be, but the overwhelming majority opinion is that he will be (at the minimum) a very good pro.
I don’t know that this pick necessarily gets McDonough a ton of accolades though. Him taking anyone else would have been an even bigger surprise than if he would have passed over Booker in 2015.
Everyone had Jackson pegged as the Suns prime target at #4 and nearly everyone thought he would be gone by then.
When the Celtics took Jayson Tatum, McDonough was sprinting to the podium.
There is a caveat to this. If McDonough actually did have a role in a clever artifice to discourage the Celtics from taking Jackson, which appears very likely, then it seems like he should get some credit for winning the day.
But winning draft day doesn’t always correlate to winning NBA games.
The truth of the matter is that it will probably be at least a few more seasons before anyone can accurately judge whether Ryan has drafted like a genius or a dolt.
While Devin Booker looks the role of future NBA star he hasn’t actually achieved to the level of a Giannis Antetokounmpo.
While Josh Jackson projects as a fearsome defensive presence he hasn’t even played a single minute of NBA basketball.
The closest thing there is to a clear picture is that Ryan’s first draft was a huge whiff and from there it gets hazier and hazier.
So how will McDonough’s draft record ultimately be judged years from now?
Suns fans better hope it keeps looking better over time.
Because so far #TheTimeline is based on mixed results.