Taking a pause on the Suns season allows us to look back. Here at Bright Side, we’ve made the case for Shawn Marion to be put into the Ring of Honor next season and rethink the Eric Bledsoe era in Phoenix. Yet so much of the team’s recent history has been centered on the draft. It was the whole focus of the franchise for a half-decade, with honestly not much to show for it. The focus on — and failure to nail — the NBA Draft explains a lot about why the Suns are where they are today.
Every draft decision made by the Suns (especially under Ryan McDonough) tends to get lumped together. McDonough clearly failed during his time running the Suns, but that doesn’t mean each thing he did was equally bad or good. Particularly in the draft, it’s important to look at decisions through the lens of what was going on at the time, rather than what we know in hindsight.
For example: you can’t consider the ankle sprains or the suspension as part of the package of drafting Deandre Ayton because that wouldn’t make a lot of sense. Those issues weren’t red flags that any reasonable evaluator could have identified back in 2017 or 2018.
Ayton isn’t going to be included in this exercise, however. We are not litigating that one today.
Instead, let’s look back from 2013-2017 and identify which McDonough first-round pick was the least defensible at the time it was made.
Basically, where did the Suns really go wrong during their rebuild?
2013: Alex Len, 20-year-old Maryland center
The case: Imagine the conversation McDonough would have had with Robert Sarver prior to making this pick. How would McDonough have sold the Len pick at No. 5 overall to his boss?
“We need a big man to protect the paint and run the floor. The game is getting faster and more spread out, but players like Tim Duncan and Roy Hibbert still own the playoffs. This former gymnast with impressive college numbers in two seasons at Maryland can do both.”
The choice: This is where it gets less defensible. Back in 2013, I actually liked Len, and thought he made sense as a fit in Phoenix as an eventual replacement for Marcin Gortat. But as that draft unfolded, several more interesting players were available at No. 5, especially Nerlens Noel. We know now that Noel had a really hard time adapting to the rigors of being a professional, but Len never did much of anything for the Suns, either. In the first year of a rebuild, you’ve gotta shoot high with players like Noel.
The defensibility grade: How defensible was the Len pick? A 7/10.
2014: T.J. Warren, 20-year-old NC State forward
The case: The dude can flat-out score. That was true in college (especially in his sophomore season) and it’s been true ever since. Efficient shot creation is something that will never go out of style in the NBA, and Warren is a lock for 15 a night until he retires.
The choice: The Suns ended up with three picks in this draft (more on the second pick, the third being a Euro player who wouldn’t come over for years), but there weren’t a ton of players who should have gone ahead of Warren at No. 14. You could probably make the case for Gary Harris, who was coming off a great season with the Spartans, but he was undersized and not super athletic. Warren looked like a ready-made pro.
The defensibility grade: Can’t really pick any nits here. 9/10.
2014: Tyler Ennis, 20-year-old Syracuse guard
The case: I love how any time a point guard does anything in Phoenix, the only comparison we all have in our heads is Steve Nash. This time, it was another relatively unathletic Canadian kid who was pretty smart, but with even more Power 5 pedigree than Nash had. After grabbing an interior anchor and a go-to scorer, the Suns wanted a traditional point guard to run the show.
The choice: Again, the 2014 draft didn’t produce a lot of great talent. The one guy everyone over-thought in this class was Clint Capela, but the Suns had just taken Len and Ennis had a strong season at Syracuse. Personally, I would have leaned toward the best player available at No. 18, especially with two firsts in this draft, but Capela was seen as a risk.
The defensibility grade: It seems like the Suns reached for positional fit more than talent. They also still had Goran Dragic, fresh off an All-NBA appearance, under contract. 4/10.
2015: Devin Booker, 18-year-old Kentucky guard
The case: Really good at everything. Dogged competitor. Smart. Completely convinced everyone in the organization of his greatness during the first workout in the Suns’ facility.
The choice: Booker went right where he was supposed to. He will probably end up being the second or third most valuable player in this whole draft class along with Karl-Anthony Towns and Kristaps Porzingis.
The defensibility grade: Right choice at the time, of course it looks even better now. 10/10.
2016: Dragan Bender, 18-year-old Maccabi Tel Aviv big man
The case: Let’s head back into McDonough’s office where he’s meeting with Sarver again, some time in the late spring of 2016.
“Hey Robert, at No.4, we really like this Croatian kid who’s playing in Israel right now. He’s pretty quiet, doesn’t have that dominant streak in him yet, but we’ve got some blind confidence that we can use our motley crew of coaches and young players to make him great.”
The choice: We’re still not far enough away from draft day 2016 to say definitively what the rankings should have been, but it’s clear Bender was not the fourth best player in this draft. Of the guys taken after him, Buddy Hield, Jamal Murray, Jakob Poeltl and Domantas Sabonis are better — and that’s just the lottery. However, Bender was seen as a top-half-of-the-lottery guy heading into the draft. This one looked bad by the end of Bender’s rookie season, but on draft night, I don’t think it was actually too bad.
The defensibility grade: The Suns trusted themselves too much to develop a project like Bender. It failed. 6/10.
2016: Marquese Chriss, 19-year-old Washington center
The case: Armed with a couple extra draft picks by this time after trading away veteran players, the Suns decided to go all-in on 2016. The strength of the class probably means that was the right choice, but after drafting Bender, many would have expected the Suns to go toward a perimeter player to balance the roster.
The choice: By the time the Suns found a trade partner at No. 8, the draft’s top guards were all gone. They lasered in on Chriss, giving up a different and impressive perimeter talent in Bogdan Bogdanovic as well as a late-first round pick from Washington.
The defensibility grade: The Suns seemed to into the night determined to trade up. Maybe they liked Chriss this much all along, but it seems like they could have done better to find a perimeter target, then move on if the opportunity passed. This move was criticized the moment it happened. Imagine the Suns with Bogdanovic. Woof. 3/10.
2017: Josh Jackson, 20-year-old Kansas wing
The case: A perfect partner for Devin Booker, who by that time had materialized into a franchise player. Able to defend the wings Booker could not, handle the ball to unleash Booker more efficiently, and turbo-charge the transition game with his defense and play-making.
The choice: It was seen as a steal that McDonough seemingly out-maneuvered his old boss, Danny Ainge, to land Jackson. Revisionist history has been written since the Celtics traded down from No. 1 overall that they wanted Jayson Tatum more than anyone else all along, but I’m not sure I believe it. Jackson was seen as a sure thing, and a perfect fit with Booker. The Suns even declined trade offers from other teams who wanted Jackson, including (reportedly) San Antonio, New York and eventually Cleveland (for Kyrie Irving later in the summer).
The defensibility grade: This is another one where you can’t fault the Suns too badly for what happened afterward, except that with as many times as Jackson has gotten into trouble lately, perhaps their psychological diagnostics should have been better. Then again, everyone missed on this one. 8/10.
Which pick is the hardest to defend?
Looking back on this list, screwing up with Jackson was probably the nail in the coffin for McDonough in Phoenix. But at the time, no one saw it as a mistake. No, a much bigger mistake in real time was trading two great assets for Chriss, who was seen as a massive risk.
The Ennis pick doesn’t get talked about much, maybe because it was outside the lottery, but those are the types of situations where you try to get creative. The Suns managed to land the pick by trading away Luis Scola, a huge boon for McDonough. In that position, with two first-round picks, you can afford to get a little risky. Instead, the Suns took the low-ceiling Ennis.
Comparing the overzealous move to grab Chriss with the super safe move to get Ennis, we see how the edges of McDonough’s draft philosophy were never concrete. Each year brought a different process, a different set of priorities, a different scouting backbone.
There it is: Ennis and Chriss are the two Suns draft picks from 2013-2017 that were hardest to defend.