Last summer, after the smoke had cleared from Summer League and the Suns were riding high after snagging Trevor Ariza from the free-agent market, Jonathan Tjarks came on our Locked On Suns podcast and suggested something crazy: What if Phoenix traded for CJ McCollum?
The diminutive off-guard is a knockdown shooter and devastating second side creator, as we saw repeatedly in fourth quarters during Portland’s five-game series win over Oklahoma City last week. He has the size to defend some wings and uses it to manipulate defenses as well, finishing at the rim and shooting over the top of tiny guards.
But there was just one problem, Evan Sidery and I responded to Tjarks — McCollum might be even more of a liability on defense than his teammate Damian Lillard, whose own foibles on that end are talked about constantly.
A year later, the Suns still haven’t found their long-term answer next to Devin Booker in the backcourt and the Trail Blazers don’t look to be interested in trading McCollum any time soon.
Yet the considerations at play in that hypothetical deal ring louder today as decision time sneaks up on the Suns to finally find a guy who can capably play the position and knock the remarkably low ceiling off the team’s growth.
Ja Morant is earning all the praise this year because of his ability to make special plays at full speed, throw teammates open like a Hall of Fame quarterback, and defy gravity around the rim. There are, however, two other point guards who fit even better with the Suns’ stars and might be there should the Suns fall or trade back in the lottery.
The Chapel Hill Cannonball
Coby White started the year quietly at North Carolina before taking over their offense completely by March. His rise in responsibility and production mirrors that of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander last season, and his draft stock could jump up in a similar fashion. Already, ESPN has him as their 10th-ranked prospect.
Since the Eric Bledsoe trade in November 2017, two core qualities have materialized that the Suns will need in their next playmaker: shooting and defense. More specifically, the ability to knock down an open spot-up three when Booker breaks down the defense, and the size and versatility to guard the guy Booker can’t keep up with on the other end.
White brings both at 6’5” and 185 lbs. He posted a 63.3 effective field goal percentage (which accounts for the added value of threes) on spot-up jumpers as a freshman for the Tar Heels, according to Synergy play type data. He also graded out as an above-average defender in isolation and against pick-and-rolls spearheading the 47th-ranked defense in the nation.
One can easily imagine White locking down opposing point guards with his length and IQ while working off the ball as a shooter and slasher on offense. He is probably the most obvious fit among the three point guards in the top ten of the 2019 class.
Making up for missing out on Kyrie Irving in 2017
Behind R.J. Barrett, the most fun pure scorer in this class is Darius Garland, the guy you would have to target if you buy into the McCollum premise. What Tjarks was likely assuming in bringing up McCollum is that as in Portland, unleashing the Lehigh product next to another scoring guard like Booker would offset what they would give up on defense.
With better (and younger) co-stars like Deandre Ayton, Mikal Bridges and Kelly Oubre Jr. in place, starting another score-first guard next to Booker could work even better than a more traditional distributor.
Garland has already earned comparisons to Lillard, but he’s more like Irving in my eyes. It took Lillard a while to make his athleticism and handle functional at the highest level, whereas Irving came into the league able to get past just about every defender in the NBA and finish acrobatically through contact.
As always, expectations must be tempered, and comparing Garland to either of these likely Hall of Famers is setting too high a bar for him. However, it’s rare to see a player as comfortable creating and making difficult shots for himself as college freshman. Garland scored 1.35 points per possession on pull-up jumpers in his five NCAA games, which put him in the 95th percentile among all college players, according to Synergy.
If teams gather positive intel on his meniscus tear and get to see him in private workouts, there’s a slim chance he rises above Morant in the pre-draft process.
Of course, the show Morant put on in the NCAA tournament makes him the favorite right now to be taken by the Suns or whomever has the chance to draft him. Morant’s ceiling is clearly highest — imagine if his jumper is legit and he becomes a passable point-of-attack defender. Teams like the Bulls, Knicks, Pelicans and Grizzlies drafting in the top eight all need point guards and will be competing with the Suns to go get their guy.
But understanding the slim margin separating all three, the Suns can enter draft season comfortable falling in the lottery, trading back, or even missing out on top veteran trade candidates, knowing Garland and White are available and fit their needs nicely.