No, the Phoenix Suns don’t have to take Deandre Ayton now that they secured the No. 1 pick for the first time in franchise history. It’s a two-man race and let me help explain to you why that’s the case.
Even if Ayton busts, that still will get general manager Ryan McDonough fired. As will whoever else he takes at the top, if they don’t work out. That’s a simple outcome that McDonough and owner Robert Sarver know all too well for when his contract extension runs out after the 2019-20 season.
It’s not a special case for the former Hillcrest Prep and University of Arizona star. There are flaws in all of the top prospects’ armor that make them vulnerable to reaching their maximum outlooks.
With Ayton, it is his ability to read a defense as a stand alone rim protector alongside him having to become the best offensive center in the NBA (needs to shoot 35-40% consistently from deep alongside an array of breakdown moves that need to develop) to help cover up his shortcomings on the other end.
However, that doesn’t mean Luka Doncic is a perfect prospect. His lack of separation on the perimeter against EuroLeague guards is concerning, but Phoenix is set up splendidly to help Doncic transition into the best-case scenario to help him reach his high marks.
Not only is Doncic the perfect lock and key fit into the Suns’ versatile vision they are building from the outside-in, but he’s someone who helps maximize talent around him. Whether it is Josh Jackson or Marquese Chriss in transition, he will immediately make them frightening in those scenarios when they are incentivized to get out ahead for the basketball.
When you glance at the NBA landscape, teams currently left in the playoffs, you will see a consistent trend stand out between teams like Golden State, Houston, Boston, and Cleveland. All four have full-on capabilities of becoming ultra versatile, switching 1-5 in a pinch when need be.
That’s where the future of the league is heading and there’s no way in stopping that trend. Perimeter playmaking, which Doncic has in spades, is needed for competitive teams.
When I spoke with McDonough on Monday after Igor Kokoksov’s introductory press conference, we discussed that exact instance going on revolving around versatility value.
Well, turns out, it felt vindicating because McDonough admitted that he selected Dragan Bender and Chriss in 2016 to help get closer to fulfilling that vision he saw initially when he was still in Boston under the watchful eye of Danny Ainge.
“I think with our physical profile, especially with the young players, we built our team that way (perimeter versatility focus). Now, we haven’t executed on that as well as we liked the last couple of years but that is something we talked to Igor about in the interview process and something our young players, our young bigs in particular, they have to become pretty good at. And I think guys like Dragan Bender and Marquese Chriss have the physical ability and the potential to do that,” McDonough said. “Obviously they have a long way to go as far as the technique and implementation of it but if you look at our roster, Dragan is 7’1” and Marquese at 6’10” and T.J. Warren at 6’8” / 6’9”, Josh Jackson at 6’8”, Devin, I think he’s growing he’s 6’7 now. So, we should be able to do that.
That’s how we set the team up. I think that’s something Igor will implement but obviously he needs to get his hands on the players and work with them a little bit more for sure, but, yeah, I think that’s what teams do. You mentioned the ball movement, player movement. If you can take away any advantage or minimize any potential advantage and not have blatant mismatches defensively, it gives you a position to be effectual and successful. When I was with the Celtics, we had that with Kevin Garnett. If teams tried to isolate a point guard or a guard on a 4 or 5 then great go on Kevin Garnett, we welcome that. So, I think we will continue to add versatile players with positional size, length, and athleticism who have the capability to switch and it will be up to Igor and his staff, ultimately the players (buying in), to hopefully be successful with it.”
If the Suns selected Doncic at the top, it would signal capping off this plan McDonough has seemingly been laying out for years while slowly constructing this roster as it bottomed out to help their draft odds alongside building up more cap space flexibility.
After setting the team up in this way, lets take a step back and focus once more on why Doncic is the final missing piece to their puzzle. From the outside looking in, having a system built around multiple ball handlers and plus passers helps those wings avoid mismatches often.
Doncic and Booker, sometimes even Jackson, would share ball handling duties as it allows them to switch everything constantly, including their forwards depending on their length. From Doncic’s point of view as a bigger guard with athleticism questions, being switched onto smaller guards in Phoenix’s system makes those concerns a near moot point.
It would allow him to not only survey the floor with no problem, but it allows him to break smaller guards down off the dribble, and it helps open up space for cutting lanes that Jackson and other speed demons for Phoenix would feast off of.
Another feather in Doncic’s cap is him checking all the boxes for valuable skillsets needed in today’s NBA as it transitions to more fast paced, wow factor offense. Perimeter shooting, passing, and handle ability are crucial to survive and thrive as a bigger guard.
Taking a glance around the league right now, are they any playmakers around 6’8” that defenders will need to go above the screen against? Doncic’s perimeter threat will keep defenses honest, allowing him three options: Pop a shot right in your face, hit Booker from the corner as the defense is sucked in by Doncic’s drive, or catch Jackson running full speed from the three-point line ready and waiting for a lob attempt.
Another overlooked factor is Doncic’s ability to pick defenses apart consistently out of pick-and-roll opportunities. Far and away, he’s the best at it in this class and is likely the best jumbo sized playmaker in that category that’s come out since Ben Simmons, maybe even better in that sense.
As Phoenix’s bigs learn how to properly hedge and set hard screens, focusing on the little things that were consistently ignored the past few years, it will open up a Pandora’s box of outcomes for their offensive possessions. Most of the time, that’s an aspect ignored by most but it makes or breaks how actions begin off the PnR.
Defenses will be frustrated night-in, night out if they have to go through the Doncic/Booker PnR torture chamber for 48 minutes. It’s a unique bind the Suns would be able to put teams that is too hard not to ignore, because Doncic consistently is able to read defenses off like an NFL quarterback does to safeties to open space in the middle of the field.
Remember, he just turned 19 only a few months ago.
McDonough has mentioned studying the likes of Golden State and other successful rebuilds, but when you look specifically at the Warriors, which he told me Kokoskov’s offense will mimic a similar style of constant motions on and off ball, they are bigger than most of their opponents.
It’s a simple process, but playing bigger and maintaining perimeter speed allows teams who are more skilled to continuously create mismatches that are picked apart possession by possession. Not sacrificing size is ideal to be one of those teams who falls in the ultra versatile category.
James Jones, Vice President of Basketball Operations, sees the direction today’s NBA is heading in. After playing through the “walk it up” era based around low scoring slugfests, it’s hard to deny the pace of play is the primary change from back then.
For Jones, it circles back to the hiring of Kokoskov, because they want his renowned development pedigree to pay dividends on its moldable young core that could easily transition into a Boston-like outlook in terms of versatility on both ends.
It’s always been important, but nowadays its become critical for teams to slither out of the bottom into a perennial contender.
“I think we see it now. I would beg to differ and say that versatility has always been important,” Jones said. “I just think the pace of the game has increased and the speed of the game has increased and the scoring has increased. The teams who don’t have elite scorers or the elite players, they’ve had to rely more on doing it by committee so you get an opportunity to see a deeper roster. You see teams going 9, 10, 11 deep whereas walk it up NBA you can go eight deep. It didn’t mean that the players on the roster were more versatile it just meant you never had an opportunity to see it in games.
I think that as the game continues to grow and they continue to change the rules, they try to increase the pace, they try to increase the wow factor with the rules, you’ll have to get players that can do more. And if they don’t come out of college with the ability to do it, teams have to do a better job developing internally and that’s where I think player development has played a huge role in the ascension of a lot of these young teams: Boston, Toronto, Philly. You see it internally guys are expanding.”
Back in 2015, McDonough tried his hand at optimum versatility but it fell on its face soon thereafter because his trio was Goran Dragic, Eric Bledsoe, and Isaiah Thomas. Three years later, McDonough has the opportunity to fix his mistake by pulling off the exact modern-day version of backcourt versatility he was eyeing back then.
Again, from Doncic’s point of view, landing in Phoenix allows him the best opportunity to thrive under not only his former EuroBasket coach in Kokoskov, but play alongside two wings that are dynamic in their strengths playing perfectly off his.
McDonough has stayed in Booker’s ear all summer telling him they are going to get him help to take his massive offensive burden off. Adding in Doncic makes Booker’s life significantly easier, and he will quickly realize just how open he will be from the perimeter off drive-and-dish opportunities or even just witnessing the Slovenian phenom’s insane court vision up-close.
Not only that but Doncic, as mentioned, is the missing key to starting up this Ferrari engine. The offensive firepower that a Booker, Doncic, Jackson trio would entail is too hard to pass up. Also, odds are he would make one or both of Bender and Chriss into at least consistent contributors.
The potential problems on defense are a little overhyped in my opinion because we have seen case studies like Lonzo Ball do just fine as a plus team defender who's basketball IQ helped make everyone better around him.
Having three players all within the same height of each other is perfect in terms of surveying mismatches and exploiting them. Doncic would pull this off magnificently, but it might be even better due to his shooting capabilities on the other end.
Having a unique, versatile roster is something that is being targeted by all teams nowadays. It’s not something that should be glossed over, because versatility has quickly become the main buzzword in Phoenix and around the NBA.
No, Deandre Ayton is not the surefire No. 1 pick. There will be some intense debating in Phoenix’s war room over the next five weeks, because as McDonough mentioned last night during his post-lottery conference call nobody will know more about Luka Doncic than the Suns will.
It’s time to cap off the modern-day roster Phoenix has been constructing the past few years with the missing puzzle piece to create a hopeful contender for the next decade.
Ample versatility is the name of the game and Phoenix is now in the perfect perch to capitalize its long term thought process into a reality set around the most dynamic young wing trio of Booker, Doncic, and Jackson.
Hand Doncic over the keys to the Ferrari because it’s time to create a roster built around terrifying offensive potential and two-way versatility with three players all age 21 and under.
Doncic vs. Ayton Tale of the Tape (per 36 minute + advanced stats):
Doncic (EuroLeague) - 21.0 points, 7.6 rebounds, 6.7 assists (2.09 AST/TO ratio), 1.6 steals, 0.5 blocks, 61.6 TS%, 54.0 eFG%, 23.4 PER, 29.0 USG% on 45.7/33.1/82.0 shooting splits
Ayton - 21.6 points, 12.4 rebounds, 1.8 assists, 0.6 steals, 2.0 blocks, 65.0 TS%, 62.5 eFG%, 32.6 PER, 26.6 USG% on 61.2/34.3/73.3 shooting splits
Note: Stay tuned for more in-depth breakdowns on both prospects throughout draft season!