Since officially having his interim tag removed last month, Suns general manager James Jones has already put an emphatic stamp on the organization. Not only did he fire Igor Kokoskov and hire his own choice in Monty Williams — who ended up choosing Phoenix over the Los Angeles Lakers — but smaller moves have laid a foundation for what to expect during the Jones tenure.
Longtime head trainer Aaron Nelson is gone to New Orleans with David Griffin and Zion Williamson, but the man they call ‘Champ’ announced an innovative partnership with EXOS and Steward Health Center for player training services.
However, the main focus I wanted to zoom in on revolves around two smaller hires who were formerly employed at high profile colleges. Riccardo Fois, an assistant coach on Mark Few’s staff at Gonzaga, accepted a prominent player development role in Phoenix. Meanwhile, it was announced earlier this week that Villanova graduate assistant Matt Massimino accepted a role with the Suns’ staff under Williams.
Even those these two moves seem small on the surface, it speaks volumes to the value Jones is placing on structured player development. Both Gonzaga and Villanova are the two most well-known schools who produce the most NBA-ready talent year in and year out. Also, bringing in people who were taught by coaches like Few and Jay Wright, arguably consensus top three or five college coaches right now, is always a smart bet to make.
Under the previous regime, proper development was nonexistent due to the mere lack of focus on it. Right away, Jones has seemed to place an emphasis on it.
Development usually occurs within environments that can be conducive to success, for example Jayson Tatum’s rapid rise his rookie season with the Celtics. The likes of Alex Len, Dragan Bender and Marquese Chriss never stood a chance in a place where winning wasn’t prioritized. Instead, they were key pieces for the tanking efforts by former GM Ryan McDonough from 2016-2018.
It’s right to expect another shakeup to the Suns’ roster this offseason, but to what extent we have no idea. It could be a complete overhaul, or just a few subtle changes here and there. If most of the young talent stays, plus adding in picks at Nos. 6 and 32, nine players on Phoenix could be under 25 years old. Within an atmosphere that is more so college-like at the moment, hiring voices from prominent player development programs could be the foundation laid to finally succeed on refining lottery talent.
Speaking of lottery talent, Gonzaga and Villanova have combined to produce 13 first-round picks since 2000 (Few - 6, Wright - 7). Almost half of those were selections were made by teams in the top 14 (Adam Morrison - Bobcats, Randy Foye - Timberwolves, Kelly Olynyk - Celtics, Domantas Sabonis - Thunder, Zach Collins - Trail Blazers, Mikal Bridges - Suns). All of those names listed, sans Collins, stayed in school for multiple years which makes the accomplishments even more impressive.
And unlike these two consistently successful college basketball schools, the Suns have failed to really progress their own picks. Devin Booker mastered his craft within the chaos that was four different head coaches and an entire front office overhaul during his first four seasons as a pro.
Under the diligent eye of Jones, is a shift in thinking seemingly on the horizon? It sure looks like it, and these two hirings could lead to more growth than ever seen out of Phoenix’s young core.