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How the NBA’s limited pre-draft process will affect the Suns’ preferred evaluation style

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James Jones wants high-IQ players who can read the game at an elite level. This year’s NBA Draft will make it hard for him to find them.

Phoenix Suns v Philadelphia 76ers Photo by Ashley Landis-Pool/Getty Images

The NBA Draft is set for Nov. 18, but it will be unlike anything league executives have ever dealt with. The basketball in the Bubble seems to have served some teams better than others, and pre-draft preparations will probably end up doing the same. For this atypical Suns front office, that means James Jones’ second draft as general manager could pose a significant challenge.

For starters, with going on 15 months since the 2019 draft, this is the longest pre-draft process we’ve seen. But it also has given NBA front offices the least information they’ve ever had.

“We’ve had to rely on what we see,” Jones told reporters after the Suns landed at No. 10 on lottery night. “We’ve had to just go back to the game film, and we’ve watched a lot of it to kind of parse out what these guys can bring to our team.

“There’s a lot that we’ve missed, but I’m confident that as we get closer to the draft, there will be ways for us as an organization to get closer to the players.”

It’s looking like the league will organize interviews with prospects starting next week, then players can begin to journey to local markets at the end of the month for medical exams, official measurements and athletic tests, and on-court work.

This will be key for the Suns. That time will be precious based on what we know about how Jones and his front office like to evaluate players.

The Suns have bolstered the scouting and analytics departments since the limitations of that part of their organization were highlighted by ESPN’s Kevin Arnovitz during the 2018-19 season. Jones acknowledged that watching draft film has been one of the main focuses of the front office since the NBA hiatus began in mid-March. That should be covered.

The much harder part (and the key for Jones and the Suns) will be evaluating the prospects as people.

“Our system’s a dynamic system,” Jones said. “All those things require guys who can think on their feet. … It takes a level of IQ and maturity. But at the end of the day, this offensive system creates open shots, so we need guys who can hit shots and make plays, be efficient players.

“We’re less focused on specialists and more high-level, versatile players.”

Jones is speaking here mostly about what he’s looking for offensively, but we know many of those same qualities extend to the defense. The Suns want to force turnovers and swarm opponents, two things that take patience and smarts. Since he took over for Ryan McDonough in 2018, Jones has prized intelligence in every player he’s tried to acquire.

How do you measure for that over Zoom or during quick solo workouts? Last offseason, the Suns brought dozens of players to Phoenix for extensive team drills and hands-on workouts. Monty Williams even coached those workouts to make them as close to real Suns practices as possible. This year will look much different.

While this setup is better than not meeting in-person with players at all (a real possibility until the league saw the Florida Bubble work), it puts the Suns in a bind. They will try to distinguish personality traits and how a player reads the game during the course of a few-minute long conversation and a pared-down workout.

Instead of being over-reliant on this hastened and socially distant pre-draft process, we could see the Suns rely on film to show IQ. Certainly, older players in the range of the 10th pick, such as Aaron Nesmith, Tyrese Haliburton and Devin Vassell flashed promising instincts on the court in 2020.

The Suns could also dip into their well-connected front office and staff. I’ve talked extensively about the connections that could make Obi Toppin an interesting target for the Suns. Williams and assistant coach Mark Bryant worked alongside Toppin’s head coach at Dayton, Anthony Grant, for several years in Oklahoma City. That connection, plus Toppin’s age and smooth offensive game, are why he is thought to be in play for the Suns. But Jones and Vanderbilt head coach Jerry Stackhouse (who helped develop Nesmith) crossed paths in Miami in 2011, too. Villanova’s Saddiq Bey could be of intrigue for a Suns franchise that has long appreciated Jay Wright’s program in Philadelphia.

This is some pretty aggressive tea-leaf reading, but there just isn’t much for NBA teams to base decisions off of in 2020. Not only is this process limited, they missed the highly competitive atmosphere of the NCAA tournament for college prospects as well. The smartest and most well-prepared franchises will come away with the best talent on Nov. 18, but for the Suns to overcome the obstacles and grab their next Cameron Johnson, they will have to get creative.