We may not have any firm start dates for free agency season, but that hasn’t stopped media outlets from beginning to analyze all available options.
In typical fashion, former NBA front office member John Hollinger chose to shine the spotlight on some lesser-known talent headed into the summer. Perhaps surprisingly, half of his list of “underrated” players has ties either to the Phoenix Suns organization or to the state of Arizona.
You can read the full list with a subscription to The Athletic by clicking on this link, but for the price of zero dollars and zero cents I’ll break down some of the relevant characters.
Of all the terrible draft decisions made by the Suns in the past decade, is there any one already more universally deplored than the selection of Josh Jackson in 2017? The combination of his poor play, his attitude, and the plethora of solid talent selected immediately after him (Fox, Isaac, Markkanen just to name a few) makes this a hard pill to swallow.
And yet here he is, on a list of potential up-and-comers.
In fairness, even Hollinger admits that this is risky. He writes:
Jackson is an interesting – if risky – project for a rebuilding team. Again … do you feel lucky?
As painful as it may be for Suns fans, it is true that Jackson started to show glimpses of positive play in Memphis. He only played 18 games with the team, but put together a stat line of 10.4 points, 3.2 rebounds, and 1.7 assists per game. That’s equivalent to 19/6/3 per 36 minutes, plus a healthy helping of steals and blocks.
But Jackson has always put up raw numbers. His most important progression this year was upping his efficiency. He went from a putrid 48% TS in Phoenix to 54% with Memphis, which is just below league average.
Personally, I wouldn’t be buying Josh Jackson stock based on a 357-minute sample in Memphis. Nor do I think a reunion with the Suns is likely, so I’m going to move on.
This one, on the other hand, really hurts. And although it’s unlikely (on account of Melton being a leftover from the McDonough era), the Suns should seek a player of Melton’s caliber if they get the chance.
Melton established himself as one of the better backup point guards in the NBA in his 2nd season. The Grizzlies were a ridiculous +10.4 points per 100 possessions better with him on the floor, making the combination of him and Brandon Clarke a particularly potent bench combo.
While Melton still struggles with self-creation and knocking down the long ball, he’s improved his slashing skills enough to force defenses to respect him. He went to the FT line three times as often in year two as in year one, and also improved his FT% for when he got there (from 75% in PHX to 82% in MEM).
Not only that, but his defense remains phenomenal, as he averaged 2.3 steals and 0.6 blocks per 36 minutes. Jevon Carter has done his best to replace Melton’s hustle, but he can’t replace his wingspan.
Because Melton was selected in the 2nd round, he hits free agency after just two years in the league. In his article, Hollinger predicts Melton’s value to be at or just below the mid-level exception. That would be roughly $10 million/year, a nice payday for a player the Suns acquired as a toss-in alongside Ryan Anderson two years ago.
This may be cheating, as Dort doesn’t have any direct ties to the Suns. But as a product of ASU, I’m going to include him.
The 21-year-old SG went undrafted in last year’s draft, but signed a two-way contract with the Thunder in July and slowly clawed his way into the rotation. By the “end” of the season he had a firm grasp on a starting spot, averaging 7.1/2.1/0.7 on 44/36/86 shooting in the team’s final 20 games.
Dort is no doubt a defensive prospect, sporting a chiseled frame and a wingspan measuring well beyond his height. It’s his hustle and defensive IQ that earned him a starting spot over third-year wing Terrance Ferguson.
By contrast, his offense game is hardly defined at this point and could use a lot of development. That means there’s no guarantee he can contribute to playoff-level basketball at a high level as soon as next season, at least not consistently.
Still, the 3-and-D potential is there. He is, on some basic level, a Mikal Bridges clone at the SG position.
And can you ever really have enough of those?
Yup, he’s here too. You have to feel for Dario Saric on some level, as he is clearly a talented player. The Suns simply didn’t find a way to effectively incorporate him into their gameplan this season. For some stretches of games, a healthy Saric was averaging as little as 10-15 minutes.
According to some influential voices in the Phoenix media ring, Saric is already as good as gone. The team will likely cut its losses and save that cap space for other moves.
But that doesn’t mean there won’t be interest. Saric is not so far removed from a dazzling 15 PPG season with the Sixers (during which he shot 39% from deep!). Some team is going to take a chance on that, and maybe they’ll even let Dario touch the ball a bit more than he did in Phoenix.
Or as Hollinger puts it:
Let Dario dribble! Operating as a second-side ballhandler or in a prominent role with the second unit, he can flourish.
Derrick Jones Jr.
When Ryan McDonough cut Derrick Jones Jr. in order to retain Mike James, few batted an eye. He was, after all, just a flashy dunker.
After two-and-a-half years developing in Miami, it would be unfair to slap that same label on Jones now.
Still just 22 years old, he put up 8.9 points, 4.2 rebounds, 1.1 steals and 0.7 blocks per game off Miami’s bench this season. Now not only a transition threat but also a phenomenal off-ball cutter, Jones shot 67 percent on all two-pointers and posted a 61% true shooting clip. His VORP of 0.9 ranked 4th on the Heat, and would have ranked 4th for Phoenix as well (ahead of Kelly Oubre).
Just how much will other teams value Jones heading into free agency? That depends on where they evaluate his ceiling. Still just a career 28% three-point shooter, Jones isn’t likely to be anyone’s long-term starting SF unless he sorts out his shooting mechanics.
But again, he has 4 years of NBA experience and is younger than Cam Johnson. He’s already a positive contributor, statistically. In this case, McDonough was right for initially seeing something in Jones...but the team didn’t retain him long enough to see results.
While only these 5 made Hollinger’s list, there are plenty of other former Suns on the free agent market this summer. Here’s the list:
Bogdan Bogdanovic (this counts, right?)
Any names pop off the page, Suns fans? I don’t smell any sentimental reunions myself, but you never know.