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Mental fortitude is the missing link in the Suns’ draft evaluations

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As we think about new ways to view draft prospects, the mental side should be considered more important than ever. The success rates speak for themselves.

NBA: Minnesota Timberwolves at Phoenix Suns Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Over the past several seasons, the Suns have been burned by pure talent grabs in the NBA Draft.

It’s a problem that hurts much of the league. Far too often, teams ignore some of the simplest aspects of draft prospects as people. Sure, we see what they do well within the confines of a basketball court. Player A could exhibit eye-popping athleticism and his shot makes you believe he could be a consistent, two-way threat. Player B has a nose for the ball and getting buckets, a pure sharpshooter as well.

However, we don’t try hard enough to account for simple stuff like basketball intelligence or work ethic.

Marquese Chriss sometimes looked like a future All-Star when you saw a few 10-second clips of him at Washington. Dragan Bender would make a few plays here and there as an extremely young prospect at Maccabi Tel Aviv that made former general manager Ryan McDonough believe he was the perfect glue guy. Josh Jackson was advertised as the Swiss Army knife the Suns desperately needed to pair alongside Devin Booker.

Well, looking back on those assessments now, they were completely wrong and arguably why McDonough lost his job to James Jones last October.

The way Jones operates in McDonough’s old position isn’t by mistake either. It’s almost the exact opposite. Local media hasn’t been allowed to see one second of draft workouts, and the amount of college talent coming in the building is plentiful, in a shorter amount of time. There also seems to be more of a teaching emphasis during pre-draft workouts than ever before, spearheaded by Jones and new head coach Monty Williams.

The Phoenix Suns need to start prioritizing the little things that easily pop off the screen for some prospects: relentless, nonstop effort and possessing a high basketball IQ. These traits that are not currently present on this team enough.

Two names who immediately stand out from this angle are Devin Booker and Mikal Bridges. When you speak with these two, you can tell how serious they take their craft and improving on a consistent basis. That old mantra of getting 1 percent better each day is personified through the Suns’ star guard and lanky two-way wing.

As a fan, I grew up watching the Indianapolis Colts turn into one of the most consistently stable organizations along with the New England Patriots. Unfortunately, that feeling started to fade when Ryan Grigson took over as general manager, making poor, short-sighted decisions at almost every turn. He seemed to value physical traits over actual production on the field when grading prospects. After Grigson was fired, owner Jim Irsay wanted to get back to developing homegrown talent.

Enter Chris Ballard, who is already getting well-deserved praise as one of the best and savviest GMs in the NFL right now. Why is that? He’s selfless and patient with spending, a rarity nowadays, and also values the traits many don’t look for.

Brian Decker, a former Green Beret, was hired by the Colts for a position many around the NFL don’t even use. As the Director of Player Development with over two decades of military experience at the highest levels, Decker developed a formula for evaluating talent that is batting an insanely high percentage. Case in point the Colts’ last two drafts have been nearly flawless, receiving high grades across the board and drafting two rookie All-Pros (Quenton Nelson and Darius Leonard) for the first time since Chicago did with Gale Sayers and Dick Butkus (!!!).

In Zak Keefer’s great feature story on the Indianapolis Star profiling Decker last month, his role within the organization is as follows:

“Though his title with the Indianapolis Colts is a bit vague – director of player development – his duties are not. He probes draft prospects, digging into their psyche, and tries to uncover what others can’t. He coaches the scouts, counsels the players and meets with the head coach. Perhaps most significantly, he offers the general manager a set of eyes that are indifferent to the on-field talent that so often clouds evaluations in this league.”

Re-read that one more time to fully digest. Decker digs into the mental side of the players, an aspect severely overlooked by many simply evaluating the players through an on-court lens. More so than ever before, the little details are being blown up into a valuable trait needed for players to reach their full potential.

“The objective: assess the character and internal makeup of a prospect so deeply that the team can, perhaps more accurately than ever before, confidently predict whether he will succeed or fail at the next level.”

Learning from Decker’s focus on those smaller details and the Colts’ resulting success, let me suggest to the Suns’ front office that mental fortitude should be one of the most vital factors in pre-draft evaluations.

If the Suns put this much emphasis on the mental side, how different would draft results be? Very much so, because instead of a few dozen 40-minute college games being the deciding factor, it could pivot to what Decker prioritizes: drive, desire, intelligence, flight-or-fight response to adversity hitting, etc.

I’m obviously not in a position to see how scouts go about their everyday process of evaluation, but how much is this side of the game is really valued into the final decisions? I don’t believe it’s enough, considering the flop rate for players within certain organizations compared with others.

There is a simple way to view this: If you are good at basketball right now, you are likely to transfer that to the professional level. If you are more of a projection, with some red flags attached, you’re moving way down my own board compared to others.

For example, USC’s Kevin Porter Jr. is a prospect that is divisive among the draft community. When he was pulling out James Harden moves in November, many moved him to the top 10 or even top five. Over time, though, he has plummeted into the mid-20s for me, even with the sky-high potential. One former league executive who I spoke to about Porter Jr. back in March told me his red flags are the “brightest” he’s seen in a long time.

Looking at how players operate outside the boundaries of a basketball court are so vital to seeing the whole picture.

As Cole Zwicker of The Stepien said on Locked On Suns about valuing the mental side, it’s the most pivotal part of the process:

“I mean, it’s the most important part. That’s what most scouts do in the NBA is they’re intel-gatherers. They get good information and a lot of that background stuff matters. A lot of the work ethic, like how much a guy loves the game. All of that stuff is of paramount importance. It’s as important as we see from out there on the floor. It’s how much a guy improves, how much is a guy going to work on his skill game every year.”

Zwicker also brought up a great point of how it really is the separator between a player being great compared to just good at the next level, where all of those traits that maybe gave them an advantage in college are equaled out in the NBA.

James Harden, for example, incredible work ethic. He’s not really associated with that sometimes, but he makes an improvement on his game basically every year. Phenomenal stuff, and I think that’s what really separates the historically great players from maybe the very good. There’s a lot of talented players that come in the NBA, but it’s the guys who really want it and really apply it consistently both on and off the floor that I think have the highest ceilings.”

One of the 36 initial prospects the Suns brought in for pre-draft workouts last week personifies why he’s such a strong fit. Tennessee power forward Grant Williams, who really checks all of the boxes I’ve outlined, respects how Jones is trying to bring in the right types of players into their locker room. And based off of Williams’ answer, Phoenix might be following the mental side more than ever.

“They’re bringing in high culture guys while also bringing in talent,” Williams said. “And that’s where you respect them because they’re changing the culture here. They drafted Deandre Ayton. They have a talented guard in Devin Booker. They have Mikal Bridges, one of my good friends. They’re just bringing guys in who not only compete at a high level, but also talented players. And they understand because they played and they understand what goes into it. So, that’s part of the reason. You have a GM in James Jones, who was around one of the best basketball minds (LeBron James) for I think eight-plus years. You have Monty Williams who’s been coaching however long, 20-plus, and playing as well. You have a lot of great basketball minds here, and you just have to respect it and learn from it as much as you can.”

Valuing the culture, what happens off the court, seems to finally be more of a priority under Jones’ leadership. A prospect like Williams, either at No. 32 or trading back or up for him, definitely checks those boxes.

Four 2019 prospects stand out using this line of thinking. Let me also note that I haven't done the grunt work scouts do sitting down with these prospects, but, hearing them through interviews in addition to watching them play helped paint a clearer picture. Those names are Williams, Zion Williamson, Jarrett Culver and Brandon Clarke. Out of all the prospects this year, I’m most comfortable banking on them being the most successful within whatever role they fall into.

The Suns need to prioritize these characteristics, not only for the greater good of what happens off the floor within the confines of their locker room, but also on the court, to raise the floor of the team through smarter play.

Honestly, Phoenix doesn’t have to go far to find two who personify these traits with Booker and Bridges. Both of them set the example of how you work in the NBA.

As Bridges told Bright Side Of The Sun in March, that mentality showed itself at Villanova. And when you see what happened to the Suns this past season losing plenty of blowouts, more people with Bridges’ desire to be great within a team setting need to be brought aboard.

“When I was at ‘Nova and we see teams like that being too cool, that’s when we beat them by 30, and that’s what happens (with the Suns) when we lose by 30, because teams go out there and just play hard on us,” Bridges said.

Meanwhile, Booker has always been vocal about the finer nuances of the game average fans parse over. If there’s a perceived hole in his game, he tirelessly works to fix it.

Even though it was in flashes here and there, this was the best defense we’ve seen in Booker’s career. Also, as former Suns player development coach Cody Toppert said on the Dunc’d On Podcast this week, Booker is working diligently on improving his shooting off the dribble. Last season, the 22-year-old guard shot only 29.1 percent on 3.7 pull-up three-point attempts per game. Add that to the list Booker is working on as he tries to leap to an even higher level as he enters into his 5-year max extension.

“Those are high degree of difficulty shots,” Toppert said, “And I know for him this summer he’s going to be working on those a lot because the better he gets at that shot, the more efficient he’s going to be.”

Similar to prospects like Williamson and Culver, who are projected top-five picks who possess incredible work ethic, Bridges combined on-court production with the fire to get better.

“Even teams that are better than us, that’s not going to stop us and we damn sure ain’t scared of nobody,” Bridges told Bright Side last season.

High-IQ players should be more coveted, especially for a Suns team that’s consistently struggled with missing easy reads and failing to notice the correct reads on defensive rotations. How will players respond when things don’t go their way? Will they adjust on the fly, or will they succumb to the negative pressure? The Suns know these scenarios far too well over the past five or so years, and it’s time to change how the foundational principles of success are viewed.

In what could be the Suns’ final draft for a while with a high pick, Phoenix can’t afford to swing and miss. Moving forward, the tools we’ve seen used to perfection for one NFL team recently, plus examples of players setting the true example within their building, can help set a precedent for the changes that need to be made.

I’ve fallen victim to groupthink before, but, if you dive deeper into every possible angle you can, the perception you had on someone before can change.

For the Suns, and every other NBA franchise, turning over every rock to find a more clear-cut answer is vital in a tough circumstance like the draft. As player archetypes continue to change, so too should the finer details of finding players who thrive within that volatile environment.