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Suns rebirth now depends on in-season player development

After years of high draft picks, the Phoenix Suns now must make the most of their draft picks before yet another round flames out.

Phoenix Suns v New York Knicks Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images

The Suns are back into one of their low periods, so of course we have to talk about the season within the season again, and whether the Suns are showing any progress as a team and/or developing players into better versions of themselves.

First, a quick stroll down memory lane.

Rebuild #1 — Len, Bledsoe, Booker and Warren

The post-Nash rebuild originally began when the youthful Ryan McDonough was hired as General Manager in May 2013. McDonough misfired on several fronts over five years, but was ultimately given three different chances at a rebuild.

The initial-initial rebuild included young players Alex Len (fifth overall, 2013) and Archie Goodwin (29th overall, 2013), and included incumbents Markieff Morris and Marcus Morris and new acquisition Eric Bledsoe (all three at 24 years old that season) as well as Miles Plumlee (25). The idea was that the early-20s guys could help keep the team competitive while the draft picks developed. And it worked, to an extent. The Suns had one surprisingly good year in 2013-14, but then couldn’t build off that and imploded by the middle of the next year.

Surprising in retrospect, McDonough’s best draft picks came next with T.J. Warren (14th, 2014), Bogdan Bogdanovic (27th, 2014) and Devin Booker (13th, 2015). Those three should have helped that young playoff contender stay relevant.

But no, the Suns quickly ruined it all. McDonough and coach Jeff Hornacek soured relationships with Bledsoe and the Morris brothers and Len, Plumlee and Goodwin failed to develop. They never even signed Bogdanovic before trading him away, which happened to signal McDonough’s second rebuild. Unfortunately, Bogdan turned out to be a much better player than the one he was traded for.

Rebuild #2 — Bender, Chriss, Ulis and Jackson

So McDonough tried again.

McDonough’s second rebuild brought Josh Jackson (fourth overall in the 2017 draft), Dragan Bender (fourth, 2016), Tyler Ulis (34th, 2016) and Marquese Chriss (eighth, 2016) into the fold to support Warren and Booker.

The new young players reached modest milestones in Phoenix while Devin Booker became the face of the franchise. Chriss became the youngest ever to join the 3x100 club (steals, blocks, threes), Bender the youngest ever to post a 6/6/4/3 game, and youngest in 18 years to post 11/13/3/2/2 in a game. Ulis won a Rookie of the Month award, as did Chriss for January that year.

But none of them developed the skills to remain relevant cogs on a successful team. Or any team. Six months later, Ulis is out of the league. Chriss is stapled to Houston’s bench. Bender is stapled to the Suns bench. None of the three have a 2019 contract in hand. And Josh Jackson is holding onto 20 minutes per game for dear life, already being duplicated twice over (Mikal Bridges and Kelly Oubre Jr.) in the past six months.

Talk about a lost season. The Suns went super young the last two years, played their kids a ton of minutes, and have seen one guy they released — Derrick Jones Jr. — have enough success in Miami to make Suns fans wonder “what if” between him and Jackson. Heck, even journeyman Danuel House is having success in Houston after being released to make room for other youngsters.

That pretty much makes the whole of 2016 and 2017 irrelevant, nullifying the Suns second rebuild, and that’s the biggest reason GM Ryan McDonough was fired. Players he released or traded before their NBA debut are potentially more helpful in the NBA than the ones he drafted and kept.

Rebuild #3 — Ayton, Bridges, Okobo and Melton

So the Suns are rebuilding a third time and, because they gave McDonough one more offseason before firing him, they are still beholden to his choices. Gone are almost all remnants of the first two rebuilds except for Booker, Warren and Jackson.

This year, it’s four new rookies getting ample playing time: Deandre Ayton, Mikal Bridges, Elie Okobo and De’Anthony Melton.

Of the four rookies, only Ayton of that group appears immune to irrelevancy, and even he has flaws that could give him a “floor” of, say, Al Jefferson. Big Al was a very good NBA player, but never consistently contributed to winning teams because he couldn’t play defense or protect the rim. Ayton is twenty times more athletic than Big Al was, but will need to develop that side of his game to have a better career.

Bridges looks like a keeper already on defense and has the ability to shoot and score enough to quickly become a 40-minute per night “glue” guy that makes a team relevant. In his best form, which he showed at Villanova over three years and two NCAA Championships, Bridges can be a super-rare guy who can guard four positions and be a significant threat on offense too.

But as a rookie, he’s getting so many minutes this season for a league-worst team you have to worry if Bridges will develop bad habits and stunt his future upside because of it. He already goes through incredibly bad shooting slumps, and his defensive confidence is being tested on a nightly basis getting cooked by the league’s All-Stars. On a team like Philadelphia, Bridges would have a smoother rookie year because his role would be limited to what he can do well, without killing his confidence with too many minutes. But what options does Igor Kokoskov have?

After Bridges and Ayton, you get into a pair of rookies who just aren’t ready for primetime yet. Melton and Okobo are being forced into playing time too early in their careers by a lack of point guard depth on the roster, and there’s a danger that a bludgeoning rookie year could stunt their growth.

And that’s where my biggest worry lies among this latest group of rookies. I can easily see their individual ceilings being lowered from playing too much too soon as rookies.

Player Development

Now it’s about developing the players the Suns have right now and making them the best possible NBA players they can be as they approach their NBA prime — which is realistically 2-4 years away for these rookies.

Prior coaching staffs were unable to shape and chisel the picks of Len, Goodwin, Bender and Chriss into important NBA players. Heck, even while T.J. Warren and Devin Booker have become good, can you give credit to prior coaching staffs for making that development happen?

So the effectiveness of this rebuild is up to the Suns new coaching and player development staff to make happen.

Head coach Kokoskov has a long career in player development, 19 years in fact, so the head of the snake, so to speak, knows exactly how to build up young players. Some of Kokoskov’s pupils include Goran Dragic and Donovan Mitchell.

Top assistant Joe Prunty has the same years of experience as Igor, working for seven different organizations and even finishing last season as the interim coach of the Bucks, who took to the playoffs in the wake of the firing of Jason Kidd.

But the rest of his coaching and player development staff is relatively inexperienced.

Corliss “Big Nasty” Williamson, in his sixth year as a coach, spends the most time with rookie Deandre Ayton. Jamele McMillan is in his third year on NBA coaching staffs.

Everyone else is in their first year on NBA coaching or development staffs. Assistant coach Jason Staudt filled other roles (scout) before becoming a rookie coach for the Suns. The player development team is headed by Cody Toppert, in his first NBA year after coaching successfully in the G-league for three years. Devin Smith played pro basketball overseas for many years before joining the Suns in the NBA this year as a rookie development coach. And then there’s rookie coach Tum Tum Nairn who had his own great spread in recently.

Those are the on-court coaches. There’s a whole cadre of video coordinators, trainers, performance specialists and strength and conditioning coaches.

But somehow, these newbie coaches are going to have to build a strong foundation of player development for these young Suns players, or the dawn may fail to break on this franchise.

This round of rookies

Ayton can already score and rebound, but can he develop into a consistent defender? Ayton will need some major development on that end in order to avoid the Big Al career and instead drive himself toward All-Star games.

Bridges can already defend just about anyone and make some threes, but can he stop fouling so much and hone his three-point shot to the same release every time? He looks to me like a Tayshawn Prince type, who was a major contributor to winning teams for a decade.

Melton can defend in space, but can he develop into a good on-ball defender like Bridges and can he bring anything else at all to the table on the offensive end? Melton will have to be able to finish at the rim (he only make 45% right now), set up teammates or develop more scoring skills in order to stay relevant. His NBA ceiling might be Avery Bradley or Marcus Smart.

And then there’s Elie Okobo. By far, the least ready for NBA minutes this year. He really should be spending most of his time in the G League until he figures it out, but I actually think Okobo has the widest potential deviation between floor and ceiling. At his best, he could be a do-everything offensive point guard who competes on defense. At his worst, he will be back in France in two years. A best case for Okobo might approach Goran Dragic levels, who incidentally also had a really difficult rookie season (Goran Tragic, anyway) before he settled into it in year two. Guess who was Dragic’s position coach? Yeah. Igor Kokoskov.

If this third round of rookies fails, the Suns will have to do yet another one.

Come to think of it, maybe that’s why James Jones isn’t excited about yet another top pick. He knows that taking a top pick requires a ton of losing, and all it gets you is a super-raw rookie with a wide range of possible outcomes — and most of which are bad for the organization that took him.

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