Point guards today don’t need to look like Chris Paul to be successful. In fact, they come in all sorts of sizes and styles, meaning the guy running your offense doesn’t even need to play like a traditional point guard to put your team in position to win.
The Suns should keep this in mind come June 21, when they have the opportunity to draft Slovenian wunderkind Luka Doncic with the first overall pick in the draft. Doncic averaged 16 points, 4.3 assists and 4.9 rebounds during EuroLeague this season, giving him the appearance of a player we used to call a “point forward” or “playmaking wing.”
Designations like that no longer matter, as we’ve realized by watching big guys like Ben Simmons, Blake Griffin and even Nikola Jokic succeed in primary playmaker roles for good teams. Looking at Doncic’s positional advantages from a different angle, combining an ability to put the ball in the hoop with a proclivity and instinct for passing leads you to some of the most productive guards in the NBA, from Damian Lillard to Donovan Mitchell.
As the NBA has given into small ball and allowed positional versatility to reign, nontraditional ball-handlers have become extremely valuable, in large part due to their undeniable positional advantages.
Doncic is listed at 6-7 and 195 lbs., but looks and plays bigger. He may well struggle on defense against quicker guards, and while that’s not a problem you’d choose, it’s no longer as simple as matching players up against the guy on the court whose size is closest to theirs. Considering how important team defense and versatility have become containing pick-and-roll offenses, a player like Doncic handling the ball on offense and containing bigger forwards on defense can a strength rather than a weakness.
Another guy to whom you could compare Doncic in terms of how they are turning the name “point guard” on its head is James Harden. The likely MVP has spent his entire career adjusting, with a preternatural ability to create offense pitted against a defensive handicap that forces his coaches to get creative. Doncic falls into that archetype, someone whose versatility requires creative gameplanning which can be an advantage or a hindrance.
When thinking about how this inventiveness could manifest within the Suns’ versatile roster, one has to be impressed with the foresight of the front office. It’s easy to imagine Josh Jackson sliding up to defend opposing playmakers, and without getting into the sticky game of projecting the future, a switching defense like Houston’s or Boston’s would be made both necessary with Doncic and easier to pull off. Adding him to a roster that already includes maneuverable pieces like Jackson and Dragan Bender introduces schematic possibilities not usually available with a traditional point guard.
This opportunity to continue adding pieces without knowing the long-term shape of a player’s game is a difficult reality for the Suns, and it is no more onerous to deal with than in the case of Devin Booker.
Booker wore many hats in Phoenix this winter, shapeshifting as the Suns’ offense did so around him. The team seemed to perform best when he grabbed the offense in a stranglehold and controlled everything. That’s unsustainable and inefficient, and realizing that will be a stark epiphany regarding the difference between “can” and “should” for the young Suns. They need balance.
Doncic can be Booker’s partner, and the fit between the two is intriguing, especially with new coach Igor Kokoskov designing a system for them. Booker’s understanding of space and his ability to create advantages in an instant means that this Suns team is actually better served installing a more modern playmaker than a typical Paul or John Stockton type. Two-man actions involving the two of them would be a downright puzzle for opposing defenses to stop.
James Jones put it best in Kokoskov’s introductory press conference when he said that everyone in last year’s EuroBasket competition knew the ball was going to end up in Doncic or Goran Dragic’s hands, and still, no one could stop it. Dragic’s versatility has led to a great NBA career, and Booker has some of the same unpredictability that can force defenses into impossible decisions.
The combination of Booker’s playmaking and Doncic’s positional advantages create a unique recipe that could ultimately be more difficult to handle than just adding the point guard this team so desperately needed throughout this season.
And it’s not like Doncic is lacking in the skills we expect out of modern point guards. He constantly forces defenses to respect the triple threat of his jumper, drive and pass coming off a screen.
If an NBA team restricts their search for a playmaker these days to guys who look and play like the point guards we grew up watching (and Suns fans clearly know what great point guard play looks like), they’re limiting their ability to create a versatile and efficient offense, and ignoring the potential of deliciously versatile players like Doncic to contribute to that vision.
Doncic doesn’t simply create matchup problems, he knows how to attack them as well. He was terrific in isolation this season, and can create offense from the post.
When a playmaker has the ability to take slower players off the dribble or post smaller ones, that versatility, though nontraditional, should be seen as an opportunity rather than a concern.
Booker, Bender and Josh Jackson are each above-average ball-handlers for their position, with size and skill advantages as well. Adding Doncic to that mix would unlock another level of adaptability that few teams could match.
The Suns appear comfortable rolling with Brandon Knight next season and trying to reintegrate him into the roster. He brings some of the same advantages as Doncic if he can return to the 3-and-D form he flashed early in his career. The lead guard position will not be a black hole next season.
But putting a player like Doncic in that slot simply raises the ceiling of this team in a way few others can.
Great teams are malleable, with players that accentuate the strengths of one another and activate different parts of their teammates’ skill sets in a way that allows the team to win many different ways. Doncic might not precisely fit a positional need for the Suns or be as athletic as the big men in this class, and fitting him in will require creativity and a willingness to be flexible.
Those considerations are part of the equation, ideas you have to swallow if you’re taking him No. 1 overall, but altogether wholly worth it when you consider the upside of the unpredictable, exciting team Doncic could help help create in Phoenix.