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If Suns drop down board after lottery, they should not trust GM to take the best player

McDonough’s track record on Top 5 picks is not good. So should the Suns give him yet another chance?

NBA: Phoenix Suns-Media Day Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Since taking over the helm of the Phoenix Suns five drafts ago, after working under Danny Ainge in Boston for nearly a decade, Ryan McDonough has had the chance to take three Top-5 picks.

And he’s so far failed at all of them.

This is not to say any other GM would have made better choices. It’s only to point out that the Suns cannot trust McDonough to tap a franchise changing player with a #4 or #5 overall pick.

In McD’s defense, his Top-5 picks have come in bad drafts. But the proof is in the pudding, as they say. McDonough failed maneuver in the right ways to take the most impactful players when he drafted.

2013 - #5 overall - Alex Len

Foresight grade: B

Hindsight grade: D

Fans were aghast, but kudos must be given for the Suns’ indifference to Nerlens Noel (#6) and Ben McLemore (#7), two players commonly ranked at the top of the 2013 draft in terms of sheer talent. Neither even survived their rookie contract with their drafting team.

In fact, not a single player drafted inside the top 10 of the 2013 draft developed into a ‘franchise player’. Not one lottery pick even developed into their drafting team’s best player. Heck, only four of the 2013 lottery picks even GOT a rookie extension with the team that drafted them (#3 Otto Porter, #4 Cody Zeller, #10 C.J. McCollum, #12 Steven Adams).

The best lottery picks (1-14) that year have become:

  • #2 pick Victor Oladipo, who made the All-Star team this year for the Pacers but was traded by his drafting team (Orlando) before his rookie contract was up. The Pacers are his third team in five seasons.
  • #3 pick Otto Porter, who didn’t become a starter until year 3, is now arguably the Wizards’ third best player these days, behind former top-2 picks John Wall and Bradley Beal. He signed a max extension last summer, after year 4.
  • #10 pick C.J. McCollum, who didn’t play much until the end of year 2, but since then has been Portland’s second best player. He was the first 2013 draftee to get a max extension, in July 2016.
  • #12 pick Steven Adams, an immediate starter for the playoff perennial Thunder, has been a good-but-not-great center

A pair of non-lotto picks became the best players from that draft: #15 Giannis Antetokuompo and #27 Rudy Gobert.

Can you fault McDonough for failing to take McCollum, Adams, Giannis or Rudy at #5 overall?

Not really. None of them were rated inside the top 10, and the highest-rated (McCollum) profiled only as an undersized, defense-challenged “old” shooting guard.

Can you fault McDonough for failing to trade down into the mid-to-late lottery for one of those guys?

Maybe. Maybe a good GM would have done that. You’d think he could have traded down easily from #5 into #10 and taken any of the core four there without fear of them being off the board. In fact, the Jazz did trade their way into the Gobert pick at #27 - getting it from Denver for Erick Green and cash. Instead, McDonough already had Len in his back pocket and traded up for Archie Goodwin two picks later instead (a spot where hindsight says he should have taken Allen Crabbe).

Could McD have done worse? Sure. Look at all 60 draft picks from the 2013 draft. Less than 10 have been good enough to last 5+ years with their drafting team.

Could he have done better? Definitely. Alex Len has gotten umpteen chances, and yet didn’t earn a rookie extension and will likely play out his NBA career on one-year, make-good contracts.

2016 - #4 overall - Dragan Bender

Foresight grade: B

Hindsight grade: D or F

This was supposed to be the draft that got the Suns back on the Timeline to a playoff team. Having lucked into productive players at #13 and #14 overall the prior two drafts, and still awaiting the exciting Bogdan Bogdanovic from overseas, the Suns had a bright drafting future.

McDonough needed a home run in the front court to complement Booker and Warren and, excluding the unattainable Ben Simmons, he had his choice among the two remaining best big men on the board. Then, instead of just picking one, he traded up to take both Dragan Bender and Marquese Chriss (foresaking Bogi in the process). SMACK! LONG DRIVE! WAY BACK! IT COULD BE! IT MIGHT BE...!

At the time, McDonough got huge kudos both nationally and locally for giving the Suns a chance at a star by grabbing both Bender and Chriss.

But to continue the home run analogy, after smacking the pitch hard and high into the outfield, McDonough appears to have only reached the warning track right at the left fielder.

You’re out!

Can you fault McDonough for failing to take better players at #4, #13 and #28, and keeping Bogi, where they started?

Sure. At #4, McDonough could have taken Jamal Murray, for example, to pair Booker and Murray in a dynamic back court much like Denver has now with Murray and Gary Harris. Or just taken Marquese Chriss straight up.

Where McD failed was with the rest of the draft.

Even if he still traded into #8, he could have taken Jakob Poeltl (who went #9), whose been good this year in Toronto, rather than Chriss. Or Domantas Sabonis (who went #11). But then again, Sabonis has followed Oladipo around the country and was already on his third NBA team by year two.

Staying at #13 would have left him a draft board of, well, no one who’s done anything of merit in the NBA yet.

But taking anyone at #13 and staying at #28 could have surrounded Booker in the back court with Bogdan Bogdanovic (averaging 12 points on 40% three-point shooting, plus 3 assists per game) and either Dejounte Murray or Malcolm Brogdon. Or both. Murray could have come at #28 with Brogdon taken over Ulis at #32. Ugh.

Imagine a front court without Marquese Chriss, but with a back court of Dejounte Murray, Malcolm Brogdon, Devin Booker and Bogdan Bogdanovic. That’s a nice back court. And maybe Bledsoe doesn’t melt down, adding him to that mix too.

But this article isn’t about the bottom of the 2016 Draft. It’s about the top of it.

Could McDonough have drafted better than Bender at #4? Sure. He could have taken Jamal Murray.

Imagine a bereft front court (no Bender or Chriss), but a back court of Booker, Jamal Murray, Malcolm Brogdon and Bogdan Bogdanovic. How many wins would the Suns have? Would they have kept Bledsoe, and coach Watson, and won 35 games this year? Note that Bledsoe and Brogdon haven’t produced wins sharing the point in Milwaukee, even with Giannis and better overall talent than the Suns would have.

Could he have done worse than Bender at #4? Absolutely. Kris Dunn (#5) looks hardly better Elfrid Payton, and Buddy Hield (#6) looks hardly better than Troy Daniels. Bender, Chriss, Hield, Dunn and Murray were a clear consensus best-5 on the board at the Suns’ pick.

McDonough didn’t fail the 2016 Draft by taking the consensus best player available (Bender) with his first pick. He failed because of what he did with the late-first/early-second picks.

2017 - #4 overall - Josh Jackson

Foresight grade: A

Hindsight grade: Incomplete, but not an A

If the Suns had taken Jamal Murray and Brogdon/Dejounte Murray in 2016, to go along with Booker and probably happier Bledsoe, would they have taken Josh Jackson at #4? Unlikely.

For one thing, they wouldn’t have drafted at #4. Their pick likely would have been in the 8-13 range. And for another, no matter where they picked, they’d have taken a big man. Johnathan Isaac went 6th. Lauri Markkanen went 7th. Zach Collins went 10th.

But given the circumstances last June, holding the #4 overall pick, the Suns get a big fat A for taking Josh Jackson. I wrote all spring, as did lots of local and national writers, that the best fit in the draft to pair with Devin Booker was the defensive-minded pogo stick Josh Jackson.

Now that four regular season months have gone by, would hindsight still give McDonough that A?

Too soon to tell, but Jackson was likely the best pick.

  • DeAaron Fox (#5) is everything he was at Kentucky: full of promise and whirling-dervish speed at the point, but unpolished and unproven as a team leader. He’d be a nice future piece next to Booker long-term, though. Real nice. But the Suns already had Bledsoe at the time.
  • Jonathan Isaac (#6) looks a lot like Bender/Chriss in that he still needs a great deal of development before becoming a good pro. He’s hardly playing for a terrible Magic team.
  • Lauri Markkanen (#7) has been excellent as a rookie, and looks to have a long-term career no worse than Ryan Anderson
  • Frank Ntilikina, Dennis Smith and Zach Collins (#8-10) are exactly as advertised as well. Frank and DSJ still can’t shoot, and Collins needs time to develop to prove he’s not Meyers Leonard 2.0.

Sure, Donovan Mitchell (#13) has been incredible, but it’s not really smart to take a shooting guard at the top of a very important draft when the only good player you have is shooting guard.

The Suns conceivably could have traded down and taken Mitchell anyway. Or had the foresight to know Bledsoe’s discontent and taken Kentucky’s Fox. Or Dennis Smith Jr. Now point guard has become one of the Suns biggest needs.

The reality is that the players McDonough has taken in the Top 5 have been relatively disappointing and ill-fitting. No one on the team seems capable of playing good defense or contributing a good offense.

Drafting old-school center Alex Len into the new-world NBA? Not good.

Pairing two power forward prospects sporting different but equally massive developmental needs with a coaching staff short on big-man skills teachers? Not good.

Failing to identify, target and acquire the best possible talents in each draft, even if that means trading down a bit to take a player you secretly know will be better than everyone thinks once they get to the NBA? Not good.

McDonough’s hand picked roster, almost entirely made up of his draft picks, have the league’s worst defense, worst offense and second-worst record.

The Suns will have a Top-5 pick again in June, and they desperately need to hit that elusive home run.

This will be McDonough’s 4th attempt at drafting a franchise player at the top of the draft since taking over the Suns in 2013. His first three are Alex Len, Dragan Bender and Josh Jackson. It’s quite probable that at least two, if not all three, won’t be good enough to even earn rookie extensions.

Can we trust McDonough with yet another Top 5 pick?


How would you grade McDonough’s Top-5 picks on the whole?

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