In his first meeting with the local media since Ryan McDonough was fired as General Manager on Monday, Vice President of Basketball Operations and current interim in McDonough’s place, James Jones didn’t provide much clarity on the situation. And who could blame him, as I imagine trade talks are still ongoing around the league for a point guard and he can’t dig himself a deeper hole, at least that’s the hope here.
Before we dive into the juicier topics, Jones didn’t say much when asked about why they applied for a Disabled Player Exception for Darrell Arthur. Jones mentioned it was something they will monitor moving forward, and if accepted, ultimately could be the extra $3.7 million in room they need to pull off a trade.
Jones, who’s won three NBA championships along the way during his playing career, has quickly risen up the front office ranks in Phoenix to now holding the interim tag of general manager. The man they call “Champ” exuded extreme confidence, because he’s been consistently putting in the work for years. He even mentioned how many former teammates reached out to him when they heard the news, and Dwayne Wade even co-signed him on Twitter.
“That’s what I’ve learned, I’m the ultimate competitor,” Jones said. “Every single teammate will tell you I’d run through a wall for them and to win. And if I can continue to instill that message to our guys and just make that a part of our DNA and our culture, the rest will take care of itself.”
As it comes to the internal focus of this season, Jones alluded to the continued development of their young core, spearheaded by Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton. When asked about McDonough’s comments on Media Day about wanting to be the most improved team in the league, Jones continued to look towards the slow build led by these young pieces.
Jones even mentioned a point guard is of extreme importance, but they want to put their players in the best position to be successful.
“Our focus, as a team, is develop. It’s not wins and losses. We can’t define our season based off win-loss total,” Jones said. “We do know that our young guys need to improve, but I try to remind everyone that we have Devin (Booker) and we have Deandre (Ayton). And ultimately in this game, you need very good players, playmakers. A point guard is extremely important to us, but it’s a 5-man game. And if we can find a way to put our guys in positions to be successful, collectively as a whole, we’ll figure that out.”
Speaking of Booker, Jones threw out some great news about their $158 million man. Booker has been rapidly progressing since surgery on his hand, and he’s on track to suit up opening night for the Suns against the Dallas Mavericks.
And on the topic of Ayton, the Suns’ first No. 1 pick in franchise history, Jones said he was one of the best players league-wide during preseason where he averaged 18.2 points, 9.8 rebounds, 1.4 assists, and 2 blocks in 27 minutes while shooting 61.4% from the floor.
The former Arizona Wildcat has also taken on the challenge head-on of being their defensive anchor from Day 1, which has given the team more confidence. Also, another area that stood out to the interim general manager was Ayton’s unselfishness on the offensive end. That should mesh extremely well with Booker once he’s back in the starting lineup.
Ayton wants expectations on him, which Jones says it’s a foundational toolkit they’ve been targeting. Mikal Bridges was also mentioned with his winning experience from Villanova and how it’s rubbed off on his new teammates.
One area of strength Jones has over McDonough is player relations. Jones always lights up the room and he already is building strong relationships with players. That could have pushed majority owner Robert Sarver to go with him over McDonough simply due to more trust, and also the dire point guard situation accelerating ownership’s decision.
Outside of the two solidified building blocks of Booker and Ayton — plus tons of young talent that could be developed long term or flipped down the line, which also includes $40.4 million in cap space for 2019 free agency if they stretch Ryan Anderson’s contract and decline their fourth-year team option on Dragan Bender — Jones has a lot to work with short and long term in Phoenix.
Speaking more on 2019’s free agency period, Jones made his pitch simple. It’s all about teamwork, developing, and competing for championships. Players will be interested if you stick to your word. Backing up what you preach is the biggest deciding factor in these types of decisions, according to Jones.
“Play the right way and play an entertaining, exciting but play real basketball where it’s all about teamwork. It’s all about improving everyday and competing for your division, competing for the conference. Ultimately, competing for a title,” Jones said. “It’s the make up of your team. The make up of your team is important and our leadership. It’s not just off the court, but on the court. Players love to play with players that want to win. And Devin is a competitor, Deandre is a competitor. Our young guys have come in, especially Mikal Bridges, he’s tasted victory. And you can see that. You can feel that. You can touch that.
So, free agency, they think it’s all about recruiting and who puts on the best show. No, it’s really about backing up what you say. When you ask a player to come into your organization, does winning come first? Does there development come first? And if that’s the case, you’ve put yourself in a good spot.”
And as far as the 2018-19 season goes for the Suns, what’s the immediate goal for this team? Well, the biggest one is the continued development of their young core, which prioritizes Booker taking the projected All-Star leap and if Ayton maintains consistency on both ends.
Unlike how Sarver was speaking with 98.7 FM earlier this week, saying they weren’t as far along as he wanted to be and wants to win, it’s a different message but quite possibly still the correct answer. The Suns, unless Booker and Ayton are All-Stars in this loaded Western Conference, will not be a playoff team.
However, if Booker and Ayton prove to be a legitimate 1-2 combo coupled with grow from players like Bridges and Jackson, Jones is set up well to capitalize next summer.
“The continued development of our young core. Devin is ready to take another leap. If Devin can take that leap, I would consider that a success. If Josh Jackson can build on the second half of last season and do it consistently. If Mikal Bridges, if Elie Okobo, as rookies if they take and make tremendous strides. And most importantly, if Deandre is consistent,” Jones said.
“I think all of those things will translate to success in the box score, in the win-loss column, but ultimately that will make us competitive. Every night, when you watch us on TV, even if we don’t win, you’ll say at some point in the game, ‘We had a chance to win that game.’ And we either lost it because the other team was better, or we lost it because we didn’t execute. That would be what I consider success.”
The spotlight is squarely on Jones, and the pressure is already on from ownership with a trade for point guard being their top priority. With his track record of success on the floor, Jones knows he can be equally as successful off it.
And for Phoenix to finally rise out of the ashes of mediocrity, Jones’ blueprint under Sarver’s leadership will have to pay off big-time.